Recently, the BBC ran a documentary on the the famous (or infamous) party held in the desert plains of southern Iran near Persepolis in 1971. It was one of the last royal spectacles of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty. It was slated as the greatest party ever thrown, a modern-day Congress of Vienna where heads of state could discuss the problems of the world in an atmosphere of pomp and circumstance. This was Iran’s chance to show the world that it was no longer backward Persia dominated by the old Imperial Powers but rather modern Iran, the Great Civilization, who was ready to take its place among the leading nations of the world. 

The party had the largest fireworks display the world had ever seen. It attracted leaders from sixty-nine countries. An emperor, two sultans, thirteen presidents, ten sheiks, nine kings, five princes, and an array of vice-presidents, ambassadors and lesser princesses and princes attended. The Today show on NBC extended its regular programming to report live from the festivities. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote numerous articles in the months leading up to the event. In the United States, First Lady Patricia Nixon was honorary chair of a committee dedicated to advertising the festivities. The estimates of the celebrations ran in the millions. In the end, however, the party was the most glaring example of the Shah’s extravagance and complete disregard for Iran’s Islamic past (during the week-long festivities no mention of the 7th century Arab conquest was made). Few Iranians were invited. What's more  the party took place while power shortages still plagued many major cities.

Inside the main tent via parismatch.com

The idea for a big Iranian extravaganza was first floated around in the early 1960s. The Shah strongly opposed the idea because he felt it was not the right time. For whatever reason (probably because he had imprisoned, silenced, or tortured enough dissidents), by 1971 the Shah felt the time was right to celebrate the achievements of both the Persian Empire and himself (naturally). Although both the Shah and his Empress were aware of the discontent among their people, it was not the majority of their people, right? Besides it was time the world knew Iran was now a force to be reckoned with. The Empress was chosen by her husband to preside over the organizing committee. According to her memoir, she was concerned that most of the people hired to take care of the event were predominantly French and not Iranian. She didn't DO anything about these concerns... but she DID voice her concerns. 

The event certainly brought worldwide attention to Iran. Any concern about the cost of the event was largely dismissed in the West because of the large amounts of money Iran was receiving from oil. This was partly true. The Shah had recently been instrumental in raising the price of oil, much to the chagrin of the rest of the world. Still, the Western media did not hold back and called Iran both backward and largely impoverished. The Shah defended his party. This was all part of a grander development plan he railed.  One has to wonder how a tent city decorated by the Parisian house of Jansen in the middle of desert was development. If the goal was to make Iran look ‘western’ and ‘modern’ to the rest of the world in that too it was successful. Cynthia Helms, wife of the American ambassador to the Peacock Throne, writes, “[I]f the celebration represented only the Pahlavi vision for Iran… it was at least a vision which made Iran a participant in the modern world.” 

HSH Princess Grace of Monaco greets the Shah via theroyalforums.com 

Many Iranians saw it as just that: a vain attempt to make Iran a mirror image of the West. After all, Maxim’s of Paris provided all the food. Except for the caviar (Iranian caviar is the best in the world), every morsel of food was flown in directly from France. No matter that the province it was held in was going through a severe doubt, a party is a party. The tent city was built by a French company and was equipped with the latest technology. No matter that the the capital did not have a working sewer system and still suffered from power shortages, again a party was a party. Each tent (which resembled a hotel room) was decorated by the House of Jansen in the most sumptuous of fabrics. In a Muslim country where modesty was praised, Elizabeth Arden created a special line of cosmetics named Farah in honor of the occasion. Lanvin, also a Paris-based institution, created the uniforms of the court. Even the hairstylists were flown in from Paris. Surely there must have been women in Iran who were experienced in the art of styling hair. Although the majority of Iranians were Muslim, which forbids alcohol, Persepolis was flooded with the best French wines. Oh and the uniforms actors wore representing the various eras of the Persian Empire? A team of French experts were flown in to consult. Obviously no Iranian scholar could know as much about Iranian history than French scholars.  

The Shah constantly pointed to the all the new schools, roads, and public works that were built as part of the celebration. It is true. Schools were built. There just wasn't enough teachers to staff them. Roads were built, yes. But few in the countryside could afford the cars to drive on said roads. And those were just the superficial shortcomings of the event. Iran was not a full democracy and the peasants were as poor as ever. Although women were given the right to vote and given increasing legal rights under the Shah, they still needed permission from their husbands to travel abroad. Many fathers, fearful of the Shah’s Western non-Muslim ways, refused to send their daughters to public school for fear of being tainted. 

The ruins of Persepolis 

The party at Persepolis was supposed to be a modern-day Congress of Vienna. It was far from that—it was just a party. Most visiting representatives were heads of state, not heads of government. Arguably the two most powerful men in the world at the time, the Presidents of the Soviet Union and the United States were not present. The French president, reportedly angry that he was not put ahead of Emperor Halie Selassie, sent the prime minister instead. Queen Elizabeth sent her husband and daughter. Another guest, the King of Greece, did not even rule his country any more. The American delegation was represented by Vice President Spiro Agnew. The only person he outranked was the Chinese Ambassador to Iran. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines only sent his wife and daughter. One has to wonder how important matters were discussed about world events when the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Spain (Generalismo Francisco Franco sent his heir Prince Juan Carlos and his wife), Great Britain (the head of government, the Prime Minster, was also absent), and China were absent. In the end, the celebration was more of a party to celebrate the man that coined himself Aryemehr Shahanshah (Light of the Aryans and King of Kings).  

The festivities of Persepolis were lambasted by Ayatollah Khomeini. He took the opportunity to highlight the Shah's excesses and his obsession with the West. The Shah intended his party to be one of many. It was meant to show the world that Iran was ready to take its place among the community of nations. Instead, it was the beginning of the end. Seven short years later, widespread strikes and street protests paralyzed the country. Finally, in January of 1979, with a small bag of Iranian soil, the Shah left Iran ending 2,507 years of monarchy.