DUBAI (Reuters) - Within days of the 2009 election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office, demonstrations engulfed Tehran and other Iranian cities, centred on the capital’s sprawling Azadi Square.
The unrest’s defining moment took place on June 15 around the square’s white marble monument, where photographer Hasan Sarbakhshian found himself in the early evening after walking street by street through western Tehran feeling a heady mix of hope, excitement and worry.
His press card revoked by authorities weeks earlier, Sarbakhshian used a simple digital camera to record the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in silence below the monument, accessory and observer to four decades of tumultuous political history.
“As a photographer I saw Azadi Tower as a character in my pictures,” said Sarbakhshian, who also photographed pro-government rallies there and now lives in the United States. “It’s a witness, a third eye.”
But the tower, having stood through Iran’s explosive revolution in 1979 and an eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s, is now falling victim to neglect and shoddy repairs, and suffers from extensive internal water damage.
“Azadi Tower is exposed to humidity, and still no one has paid any attention,” Seyyed Mohammad Beheshti, an architect and former cultural heritage official, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) recently. “The past disregard of this valuable building must be rectified.”
Completed in 1971, the tower is shaped in the form of an inverted letter Y and features a design influenced by both pre- and post-Islamic architecture.
Iranian news organisations have published pictures of cracked stones, water dripping from ceilings and peeling walls. ISNA quoted an unnamed expert as saying repairs in 2010 to the tower and the museum complex below were to blame.
“Two years ago the municipality rebuilt (Azadi), and drainage systems in different sections of the complex were destroyed,” the expert told ISNA in December. “Now, with the slightest rain, the rainwater has nowhere to go.”
A committee has been formed to determine next steps, but any repairs must be delayed until the weather warms up.
“Azadi Tower’s foundations and ceiling are stricken with serious problems,” municipal official Gholamreza Ahmadi told state news agency IRNA.
“Azadi Tower has not been well cared for.”
News of the damage to a structure that has served as a symbol of Tehran to the outside world concerns many Iranians, not least the monument’s creator, Hossein Amanat.
A member of the persecuted Baha‘i faith, Amanat was one of many prominent Iranians compelled to leave the country during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He is worried that the authorities will not address the problem urgently or competently.
“I feel responsible to talk about how urgent it is for them ... to correct the damage they have done themselves to this building,” he said in a telephone interview. “They should find qualified and informed people to do it.”
Amanat was 24 when he spotted a two-paragraph notice in the Etelaat newspaper in 1966 advertising a contest to design a monument to commemorate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy.
A fresh graduate of the University of Tehran’s architecture school, he had planned to emigrate to the United States to continue his studies but stayed instead to work on his design.
The resulting monument features two prominent arches: one a sweeping parabola reminiscent of ancient Iranian architecture, and the other more representative of Iran’s Islamic identity, evoking its many grand mosques.
”It’s really an allusion to prominent periods in the history of Iran,“ said Amanat, now 70 and living in Canada. ”It reflects my great imaginations about the history of Iran and the fascination it had for me since childhood.
“It is the essence that I understood as a simple young boy in those days.”
The completed tower was named Shahyad Aryamehr, or King Memorial, and coincided with a push by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to encourage tourism and investment by the West. Its shape, suggesting a curtain fluttering open in the wind, was an entrance to the city.
“Shahyad became the perfect metaphor for the many cultural paradoxes that were the rapidly changing Tehran,” wrote Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford University, in his 2011 biography of the Shah. “Shahyad was a gateway to the future and a celebration of the past.”
But by the late 1970s, the monarchy that Shahyad was built to honour was losing its grip on power. Iranians flocked to Shahyad Square during the revolution to demand the return of exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would eventually found the Islamic Republic.
Grainy photos show them bearing banners with Khomeini’s picture and standing atop the gleaming monument’s base.
Those images helped the tower shed its royal associations and ensure its survival under Iran’s new rulers, who removed other icons connected to the Shah but embraced Shahyad, renaming it Azadi, or Freedom.
The square is now often used for pro-government rallies, including to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 10.
“This monument is not owned by me or anybody,” Amanat said. “It is something that people in Iran have some connection to.”
Previous repairs to the tower used cheap substitutes in place of the original high-quality materials, ISNA has reported, raising doubts about whether future repairs, when they occur, could restore the tower to its former glory.
“Not many people know the intricacies in the building,” Amanat said. “It’s a very simple building, but it is very delicate.”
He said he sees the damage to Azadi as symbolic of the country’s struggles. In recent weeks, top officials have traded public accusations of corruption, and Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme have weighed heavily on the economy and eroded the value of its currency.
“It reflects how the country is being managed,” Amanat said. “It’s still standing, but it’s not the way it should be.”
Editing by Marcus George and Sonya Hepinstall