Archaeologists believe people have lived in this area since Neolithic times, but apart from 11th-century AD records suggesting the village produced high-quality pomegranates, little was written about Tehran until the 13th century. In his book Mo’jamol Boldan, writer Yaqoot Hamavi described Tehran as a village of Rey, then the major urban centre in the region, where ‘rebellious inhabitants’ lived in underground dwellings. He went on: ‘They not only disregard their governors, but are in constant clashes among themselves, to the extent that the inhabitants of its 12 quarters cannot visit each other’.
In 1220 the Mongols sacked Rey as they swept across Persia, executing thousands in the process. Most of those who escaped wound up in Tehran and the future capital’s first ever population explosion turned the village into a small, moderately prosperous trading centre.
In the mid-16th century Tehran’s natural setting, many trees, clear rivers and good hunting brought it to the attention of the early Safavid king, Tahmasb I. Under his patronage, gardens were laid out, brick houses and caravanserais built and a wall with 114 towers erected to protect the town and its merchants. As it continued to grow under later Safavid kings, European visitors wrote of Tehran’s many enchanting vineyards and gardens.
Threatened by the encroaching Qajars, Regent Karim Khan Zand moved his army to Tehran in 1758. At the same time he refortified the city and began constructing a royal residence. Perhaps he had intended to move his capital here, but when Qajar chieftain Mohammed Hasan Khan was killed and his young son Agha Mohammed Khan taken hostage, Karim Khan decided the threat was over and abandoned the unfinished palace to return to Shiraz.
But things didn’t work out quite as Karim Khan would have liked. By 1795 he was long dead and his one-time prisoner, Agha Mohammed Khan, declared this dusty town of around 15, 000 souls his capital.
As the centre of Qajar Persia, Tehran steadily expanded. By 1900 it had grown to 250, 000 people, and in the 20th century into one of the most-populous cities on earth. With this growth has come an influence far greater than most people realise. The capital has fomented and hosted two revolutions, two coups d’etat and much intrigue. As the setting for the CIA’s first coup in 1953, it had a profound impact on post-WWII world politics; and as pronouncements from Tehran have been the driving force behind the growth of radical Islam since 1979, that influence has not waned.
Today it is fascinating to walk in the footsteps of that modern history: you can see the White Palace at Sa’d Abad, where the last shah hosted the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt as they plotted the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh; visit the former US embassy now called the US Den of Espionage; gaze up at the Azadi Tower, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered to mark the 1979 revolution; or visit the haunting Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where the faces of soldiers who died in the Iran–Iraq War stare out from endless fields of glass boxes.