Tehran is not an ‘interesting’ city. It is not like its regional counterparts Istanbul or Cairo, with their long imperial or colonial histories, pivotal geo-political locations, memorable architecture and natural charm. Tehran remains a provincial metropolis of some 12 million people, with streets choked by four million vehicles and air pollution that kills 3,600 inhabitants per month; factors contributing to a ‘liveability’ ranking that places it among the ten worst cities in the world, between Dakar and Karachi.footnote1 But it is a city with extraordinary politics, rooted in a distinctive tension between what looks like a deep-seated ‘tradition’ and a wild modernity.

In the West’s imagination, Tehran has principally been seen as a city of lofty minarets, piercing calls to prayer, bearded clerics and women veiled head-to-toe; a city of mud-bricks and narrow alleyways populated by extended families. This is the Tehran of Not without My Daughter. The aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections presented the world with a very different view: for weeks during and after the massive street demonstrations, thousands of images of the city and its young protestors circulated in the international media, showing a secular citizenry with all the markers of a contemporary sensibility: satellite dishes, Twitter, blogs and so on. The Green movement also disclosed the more complex reality of Tehran—a city with a tumultuous history that is traversed by glaring contradictions and marked by a persistent social and spatial defiance. This city’s population has tripled since the Islamic revolution of 1979, while its architecture and spatial pattern have been steadily modernized. Through all this, it has remained a divided, plural urban realm. For Tehran has resisted being ‘Islamized’. Secular resilience, ongoing socio-economic inequalities and political exclusion have turned the city’s main squares and backstreets into political battlefields. Three decades on from the Islamic Revolution, Tehran remains a dramatic space of contention over the legacy of 1979 and the claims of citizenship.

No one knows exactly why, at the end of the 18th century, Shah Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, named a backwater enclave in the shadow of the Alborz Mountains as the capital of a country which had not long before had Esfahan as its shining imperial metropole. There are probably better explanations for the choice of Ankara, another ‘un-interesting’ city in the region, as Turkey’s capital. Yet once Tehran was chosen, the interests of multiple forces—elites and bureaucrats; the poor; foreign influences and international capital—combined to create and shape a remarkable, contested urban blend. From a walled city of 19 square kilometres with an estimated 230,000 inhabitants in 1900, marked by the salience of three national institutions—bazaar, mosque and royal court—Tehran had by 2010 evolved into a metropolis housing almost a sixth of the country’s population.

The city’s traditional social fabric was defined by the mahalleh or quarter system, which organized urban space not along class lines, but according to ethno-religious divisions, clustering citizens of the same ethnic or religious affiliation, whether rich or poor, within particular quarters.footnote2 This pattern remained unchanged, and the city itself quite stagnant, until the second half of the 19th century, when Naser Eddin Shah extended the city walls and ditches. The main motivations for this were the need to integrate the growing numbers of ‘outsiders’—not only migrant poor but also elite Persians and foreigners—and to control riots, which would frequently erupt in protest at bread shortages. But the works were also partly inspired by a vision of a ‘modern city’ derived from Baron Haussmann, whose ideas spread at this time from Paris to the Middle East, and were adopted by Khedive Ismail in Cairo and the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul. However, expansion did little to alter the underlying mahalleh system. Social inequality within the various quarters persisted, and was reinforced by a speculative land market in the early 20th century.

From the early 1920s, Reza Shah’s modernization project engendered new social and spatial divisions. An officer of the Cossack Brigade, Reza Shah rose to power in conditions of remarkable political instability and social insecurity caused by years of civil war, foreign occupation and nomadic uprisings. After a British-engineered coup in 1921, he became war minister, using his position to assert control over a splintering polity. In 1923 he seized the premiership, and set out to establish a strong autocratic state—initially on the model of Atatürk’s Turkish Republic, though by 1925 he had reconsidered, opting instead to crown himself Shah and found his own Pahlavi dynasty. Still, the new Persia was to be a modern, unified, secular nation-state; Tehran was to reflect this desired image. The city walls were demolished once and for all in the 1930s, and attempts were made in the following decade to end the mahalleh system, through the adoption of a zoning pattern based largely on class segregation. A new urban model took shape, with modern buildings and boulevards designed by European and European-trained architects. Nevertheless, many aspects of the older urban structure and social organization persisted, now juxtaposed with the emerging realities of the city of petro-dollars.