Tehran is the capital of Iran and Tehran Province. Tehran is the most populous city in Iran and Western Asia.
In the Classical era, part of the territory of present-day Tehran was occupied by Rhages, a prominent Median city. It was subject to destruction through the medieval Arab, Turkic, and Mongol invasions. Its modern-day inheritor remains as an urban area absorbed into the metropolitan area of Greater Tehran.
Tehran was first chosen as the capital of Iran by Agha Mohammad Khan of the Qajar dynasty in 1786, in order to remain within close reach of Iran’s territories in the Caucasus, before being separated from Iran as a result of the Russo-Iranian Wars, and to avoid the vying factions of the previously ruling Iranian dynasties. The capital has been moved several times throughout history, and Tehran is the 32nd national capital of Persia. Large-scale demolition and rebuilding began in the 1920s, and Tehran has been a destination for mass migrations from all over Iran since the 20th century.
Tehran is home to many historical collections, including the royal complexes of Golestan, Sa’dabad, and Niavaran, where the two last dynasties of the former Imperial State of Iran were seated. Tehran’s most famous landmarks include the Azadi Tower, a memorial built under the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1971 to mark the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State of Iran, and the Milad Tower, the world’s sixth-tallest self-supporting tower which was completed in 2007.
There are various theories pertaining to the origin of the name Tehran. One plausible theory is that the word “Tehran” is derived from Tiran/Tirgan, “The Abode of Tir” (Tir being the Zoroastrian deity equivalent to the Greek deity Mercury). The ancient Parthian town of Tiran was a neighbour to the town of Mehran (“The Abode of Mehr/Mithra”, the Zoroastrian sun god). Both of these were mere villages in the suburbs of the great city of Ray/Rhages. Mehran is still extant and forms a residential district inside Greater Tehran, as is also Ray—which forms the southern suburbs of Tehran. Another theory is that Tehran means “a warm place”, as opposed to “a cool place” (i.e. Shemiran)—a cooler district in northern Tehran. Some texts in this regard claim that the word Tehran in Persian means “warm mountain slope”.
Tehran is situated within the historical region of Media in northwestern Iran. By the time of the Median Empire, a part of the territory of present-day Tehran was a suburb of the prominent Median city of Rhages .
During the reign of the Sassanian Empire, in 641, Yazdgerd III issued his last appeal to the nation from Rhages, before fleeing to Khorasan. Rhages was dominated by the Parthian Mehran family, and Siyavakhsh—the son of Mehran the son of Bahram Chobin—who resisted the 7th-century Muslim invasion of Iran. Because of this resistance, when the Arabs captured Rhages, they ordered the town to be destroyed and rebuilt anew by traitor aristocrat Farrukhzad.
In the 9th century, Tehran was a well-known village, but less known than the city of Rhages, which was flourishing nearby. Rhages was described in detail by 10th-century Muslim geographers. Despite the interest that Arabian Baghdad displayed in Rhages, the number of Arabs in the city remained insignificant and the population mainly consisted of Iranians of all classes.
The Oghuz Turks invaded Rhages discretely in 1035 and 1042, but the city was recovered under the reigns of the Seljuks and the Khwarezmians. Medieval writer Najm od Din Razi declared the population of Rhages about 500,000 before the Mongol invasion. In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded Rhages, laid the city in ruins, and massacred many of its inhabitants. Following the invasion, many of the city’s inhabitants escaped to Tehran.
In July 1404, Castilian ambassador Ruy González de Clavijo visited Tehran while on a journey to Samarkand, the capital of Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, who ruled Iran at the time. In his diary, Tehran was described as an unwalled region.
Italian traveller Pietro della Valle passed through Tehran overnight in 1618, and in his memoirs, he mentioned the city as Taheran. English traveller Thomas Herbert entered Tehran in 1627 and mentioned it as Tyroan. Herbert stated that the city had about 3,000 houses.
In the early 18th century, Karim Khan of the Zand dynasty ordered a palace and a government office to be built in Tehran, possibly to declare the city his capital; but he later moved his government to Shiraz. Eventually, Qajar king Agha Mohammad Khan chose Tehran as the capital of Iran in 1786.
Agha Mohammad Khan’s choice of his capital was based on a similar concern for the control of both northern and southern Iran. He was aware of the loyalties of the inhabitants of former capitals Isfahan and Shiraz to the Safavid and Zand dynasties respectively and was wary of the power of the local notables in these cities. Thus, he probably viewed Tehran’s lack of a substantial urban structure as a blessing, because it minimized the chances of resistance to his rule by the notables and by the general public. Moreover, he had to remain within close reach of Azerbaijan and Iran’s integral northern and southern Caucasian territories—at that time not yet irrevocably lost per the treaties of Golestan and Turkmenchay to the neighbouring Russian Empire—which would follow in the course of the 19th century.
After 50 years of Qajar rule, the city still barely had more than 80,000 inhabitants. Up until the 1870s, Tehran consisted of a walled citadel, a roofed bazaar, and the three main neighbourhoods of Udlajan, Chale-Meydan, and Sangelaj, where the majority resided.
The first development plan of Tehran in 1855 emphasized the traditional spatial structure. Architecture, however, found an eclectic expression to reflect the new lifestyle. The second major planning exercise in Tehran took place under the supervision of Dar ol Fonun. The 1878 plan of Tehran included new city walls, in the form of a perfect octagon with an area of 19 square kilometres, which mimicked the Renaissance cities of Europe.
The growing social awareness of civil rights resulted in the Constitutional Revolution and the first constitution of Iran in 1906. On June 2, 1907, the parliament passed a law on local governance known as the Baladie (municipal law), providing a detailed outline on issues such as the role of councils within the city, the members’ qualifications, the election process, and the requirements to be entitled to vote. The then Qajar monarch Mohammad Ali Shah abolished the constitution and bombarded the parliament with the help of the Russian-controlled Cossack Brigade on June 23, 1908. That followed the capture of the city by the revolutionary forces of Ali-Qoli Khan (Sardar Asad II) and Mohammad Vali Khan (Sepahsalar e Tonekaboni) on July 13, 1909. As a result, the monarch was exiled and replaced with his son Ahmad, and the parliament was re-established.
After World War I, the constituent assembly elected Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty as the new monarch, who immediately suspended the Baladie law of 1907, replacing the decentralized and autonomous city councils with centralist approaches of governance and planning.
From the 1920s to the 1930s, under the rule of Reza Shah, the city was essentially rebuilt from scratch. That followed a systematic demolition of several old buildings, including parts of the Golestan Palace, Tekye Dowlat, and Tupkhane Square, which were replaced with modern buildings influenced by classical Iranian architecture, particularly the building of the National Bank, the Police Headquarters, the Telegraph Office, and the Military Academy.
The changes in urban fabric started with the street-widening act of 1933, which served as a framework for changes in all other cities. The Grand Bazaar was divided in half and many historic buildings were demolished to be replaced with wide straight avenues. As a result, the traditional texture of the city was replaced with intersecting cruciform streets that created large roundabouts, located on major public spaces such as the bazaar.
As an attempt to create a network for easy transportation within the city, the old citadel and city walls were demolished in 1937, replaced by wide streets cutting through the urban fabric. The new city map of Tehran in 1937 was heavily influenced by modernist planning patterns of zoning and gridiron networks.
During World War II, Soviet and British troops entered the city. In 1943, Tehran was the site of the Tehran Conference, attended by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.