Laleh-Zar, “the tulip fields“, was once known as the Champs-Elysées of Tehran. It was constructed in the 1880s on the order of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar, who was dazzled by European architecture during his first trip to Europe in 1873. The first modern boulevard in Tehran was a luxury shopping street, and later became home to 16 cinemas and 6 theaters.
1860-1940: Tehran’s Champs-Elysées
The name Laleh-Zar comes from an old garden of the same name. Located outside the city walls of Tehran, it served as a resort where noblemen came to relax.
During the mid-1860s, Tehran experienced a rapid growth in population. Nasser al-Din Shah decided to tear down the old city walls, and Laleh-Zar Garden became a semi-public garden inside of the city. Wealthy Persian aristocrats started building their elegant villas here, and many of the most important foreign embassies relocated to this neighbourhood. Iran’s first law school, founded by Prime Minister Mushir Al-Dawla, was located on Laleh-Zar.
Laleh-Zar thus became the first street in Iran where unveiled European and europeanized ladies promenaded down the street in their hats and high heels. Luxury boutiques began to appear, selling perfumes and the latest fashions from Paris. At the beginning of the 20th century, for the best and the most exclusive of everything in Tehran, you had to go to Laleh-Zar.
1940-1979: Cinema Street
Gradually, Laleh-Zar also became the country’s hub for cinema and theatre lovers. Until the 1920s, movie theatres only screened foreign movies with Persian subtitles. The first Iranian silent films were produced in the film studios located on Laleh-Zar and were screened in its cinemas.
With the occupation of Iran by the Allied forces in 1941, Laleh-Zar also became a place for cabaret and burlesque clubs, soldiers being generous patrons. Theatres no longer showed serious plays, but staged light comedies and musicals. A flurry of cheaply produced movies featuring unrealistic heroes and sexy girls started the Film Farsi genre.
The 1979 Revolution padlocked everything was considered religiously immoral: cabarets, bars and dance clubs moved out of Laleh Zar; Film Farsi movies were banned. Today, this dilapidated street is Tehran’s main corridor for electrical appliances.
Post-1979: Graveyard of Theatres
With the Tejarat Bank in front of you on Imam Khomeini Square, look left to see Laleh-Zar street. You would not be able to recognise most of the theatre houses if you aren’t paying extra attention. Now nicknamed „the graveyard of theatres“, visiting Laleh-Zar can be an extraordinary experience: despite their big names, most of the cinemas and theatres are quite small and with no signs. Hidden among the lamp shops, they are very easy to miss. Look carefully, you might find some beautiful surprises just as we did!
Pars Theatre was the last to close down. Now, there is no more Laleh-Zar. Most of the younger Tehranis know nothing about this place nor its glorious past. The Iranian poet Nader Naderpour, whose house in Laleh-Zar was once a meeting place for young artists and political activists, felt nostalgic on an autumn day in Los Angeles, writing:
Every morning, the wet and dry tongue of the leaves
Swollen from the sun’s sudden bee sting,
Tehran like an old worm
Is feeling a hidden pain in her heart.
In her smoky, silky cocoon.
To see the old Laleh Zar in all its glory, head to Ghazali cinematic town, where the late movie director Ali Hatami recreated the whole street as a set (or see a set of old postcards at Shahrefarang). For more views of Laleh-Zar, see a similar photo reportage in the Guardian.
To continue walking in Tehran, check out Si-e Tir street and Mashq Square (National Garden) and Imam Khomeini Street.