Jan 04

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Iran’s historic baazar (In pictures)











The azure that dominates Shia architecture, the Persian calligraphy and the Zoroastrian symbols adorning walls all testify to the beauty lying just below the surface of old Tehran, where the Grand Baazar provides more than just solace from the capital’s frenetic pace.

The monuments, mosques and mausoleums, jutting out onto traffic-engulfed streets, also attest to Iran’s rich history.

The Grand Bazaar is the biggest attraction of the old city, and has witnessed the cultural, social and economic changes of the Persian nation over the course of a thousand years – though many of its buildings are considerably more youthful than that.

The convergence of crowds and the quickened pace of shoppers easily gives away the location of the baazar, deemed the largest in the world, with 10km of winding corridors enticing bargain hunters, traders and merchants alike.

“This particular baazar is more than just a market of essentials for locals and souvenirs for tourists … it holds an important history as the former economic powerhouse of the country.


The word “baazar” originated in Farsi, making its way to several nations that experienced Persian rule. When some of these became British colonies, the term was absorbed the word into the English vocabulary.

While modern shops selling mobile phones and flourescent lighting have replaced some of the traditional wares, this particular baazar is more than just a market of essentials for locals and souvenirs for tourists.

It holds an important history as the former economic powerhouse of the country. The traditional merchants of the Grand Baazar, dubbed “Baazaris”, contributed to the series of events which shaped the 1979 revolution and well before that, the constitional reforms of 1905-1907.

Although they have since refrained from active participation in politics, the consent and backing of Baazaris continues to be of utmost importance to the current administration – which is understood to have close ties with these influential constituents, who often are thought to identify with the conservative stronghold of Iranian politics.

But the blanket economic embargo imposed by the US in August added to the woes of an already ailing economy. These woes were exacerbated by subsequent round of economic sanctions by the European Union in early October. The value of the Iranian Rial has since depreciated by at least 40 per cent.

The latest round of EU sanctions, in which the Central Bank of Iran has been targeted – making most international transactions impossible for Iranians – led to immediate protests by foreign currency traders on the Bazaar’s Ferdowsi Avenue.

As merchants shut up shop, protesters chanted: “Dignified merchants, support us, support us.”

The overnight inflation caused by a sudden fall in the purchasing value of the rial has left alleyways empty at the baazar.

“Investors and people with savings here were alarmed by the sudden fall in currency value [and] have started to change to dollars, which further depreciated the value of the rial,” explained one Ferdowski Avenue black market currency trader.

Economic downturn

But it is not just middle-class, white-collar Iranians who have borne the brunt of sanctions. The bazaaris themselves remain exasperated with the continuing economic downturn. Many feel the situation has worsened due to the stalemate between Washington, Brussels and Iran over the nuclear issue.

“The nuclear efforts have not yielded us anything positive yet. We have been the constant victims of this tug-of-war between the west and our government,” said one carpet seller, sat in his empty shop in the heart of the baazar.

“The nuclear efforts have not yielded us anything positive yet. We have been the constant victims of this tug-of-war between the west and our government.- Grand Bazaar trader

But life has been slowing returning to the corridors of the marketplace.

The Iranian government imposed austerity measures in late October, indicative of the dearth of foreign exhange in the country due to the sanctions. The sudden plummet in the currency value and the following government cuts sent shockwaves through the middle class.

“Imagine a middle class, the economic backbone of the country, that suddenly finds itself at the poverty line because the currency falls as much as 75 per cent within a day because of panicked investors – and we can’t have access to basic supplies in some cases,” said one woman, shopping while on her work break.

Underlying this concern is the case of Manouchehr Esmaili-Liousi, a 15-year-old from a nomadic tribe based near the city of Dezful. He was suffering with haemophilia, and died in November due to a lack of medication. Medics in Iran blamed disruption in the supply of medicines following the EU sanctions for Manouchehr’s death.

The sanctions do not directly target Iran’s pharmaceutical sector, but measures against banks and international trade make it difficult to access some medicines made outside the country.

Manouchehr’s death made headlines around the world and offered a glimpse of the potential horror that sudden supply cuts to essential items could pose for ordinary Iranians. Although such extreme cases have not been reported on a large scale, that some 80 per cent of Iran’s haemophilia medication alone comes from the US and EU is illustrative of the humanitarian consequences of blanket embargoes.

Following the US sanctions, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote: “Even companies that have obtained the requisite license to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions.”

A finance student from the University of Tehran told Al Jazeera: “The one thing that sanctions have proven for decades is that they are ineffective in realising the West’s intentions of penalising the government. Their blanket measures only cripple those whose growth is necessary for an equitable economy.”

His classmate added: “The other thing that Iranians have proven to the sanctioning regimes is that they can find means around the barriers in terms of sanctions. There are so many multi-nationals operating here and international transactions happen despite the trade barrier.”

And this has held true for the most part, in terms of how the Iranian economy has evolved in a highly restricted environment, with many private businesses forming ties with the government in order to get around the sanctions. Inevitably, the attempts of the sanctioning countries to disempower the government has led to a dearth of an independent civil society movement disassociated from those in power.

Far from a monolith

After hours of walking through the meandering lanes of the bazaar, one eventually ends up at the Golestan Palace Complex.

The palace and its park stand in stark contrast to the commotion of the baazar. Once home to administrative departments and the royal treasury, they are solemn reminders of Iran’s former economic history.

A guide at the mostly empty palace grounds pointed to the Faravahar symbol and explains: “As a country with a rich heritage, we are far from a monolith, politically, religiously and culturally.

“Iran as a country – and we Iranians as a people – must be experienced both from within and independent of geopolitics.”

Here in the Iranian capital, where the old and the new interact in every facet of life, the Grand Bazaar stands testament to the perserverance of a people whose lifeline to the global marketplace is slowly being severed.

Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Dating back to the Safavid period, the Golestan Palace – which is about five centuries old – was built during the expansion of Tehran as Iran’s commercial capital. The structure underwent modifications and renovation during the Zand, Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Mirrored ceilings of the Shams-al Emarat, an imposing feature of the palace complex, are reminiscent of an extravagant period for architecture that combined European and Persian architectural traditions.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Women in chadors disembark from a traditional carriage outside the Baazar entrance. Once used as a daily means of transport, carriages are now mostly a tourist attraction.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Due to shortage of space, Baazaris keep their wares in storage spaces, transporting them to their shops as needed. Despite the lack of space, the Grand Baazar is considered the world’s largest.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
The Shamsol Emareh, from Naseer al-din Shah’s era, was built in 1867 to house the Shah’s personal harem.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Hand-made carpets are the most expensive commodity here, with a large district in the bazaar dedicated to their trade. Iran is the world’s largest exporter of these artifacts, each piece taking an average of eight months to complete. The art of carpet weaving in Iran dates back thousands of years, to the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the 6th century BC.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
This building on the periphery of the baazar was for centuries used as a haven for travellers. The Zoroastrian symbol of the Faravahar – itself dating back to the pre-Islamic period – is a recurring feature of both old and new architecture in the country. Zoroastrians form the oldest religious community in Iran.
Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera
This ornate inscription inside the Naser Khosro Mosque in the heart of the Grand Bazaar that exalts Allah is a quintissential feature of Shia architecture. The simplicity of the black chadors worn by female worshippers stands in stark contrast to the embellished interiors.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
This wall inscription in the female quarters of the mosque says: “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Given the religiosity of the Bazaaris, mosques such as this are found throughout the bazaar for the convenience of its traders and shoppers alike.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
A female worshipper sits outside the entrance to the shrine of Emamzade Zeid
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
In the 1920s and 30s, Tehran went through a metamorphosis under the rule of the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi. A majority of the architecture seen today was a result of this re-building by the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, a staunch advocate of modernisation.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
The exterior of this building designed under the patronage of Naseer al-Din Shah exemplifies the fusion of Persian and European architectural styles with ornate tiles with resplendent colours that adorn the brick building with wooden doors. Inside one can find furniture, vases and other collections that were presents from European rulers to the Shahs, denoting the close ties between Europe and Persia.
Preethi Nallu /Al Jazeera
Tehran is the country’s 32nd capital and is a fascinating mix of the old and new, with ancient remains interspersed among modern high-rises.


By Preethi Nallu of aljazeera.com

Permanent link to this article: http://www.mfanni.com/irans-historic-baazar-in-pictures/

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