Iranian cyberspace is currently abuzz with the news of the discovery of the mummy of Reza Shah (1925-1941) the penultimate king of Iran and the father of Mohammad Reza Shah who was deposed in the 1979 Revolution. The body was discovered during a project expanding the premises of Shah Abdol Azeem, a popular religious site south of Tehran. The project was taking place in the former Mausoleum of Reza Shah, where his mummified body was reburied after his death in exile in Johannesburg in 1944.
Part of the reason why this story has gotten so much attention is because it involves Sadeq Khalkhali, the firebrand judge of the early Revolutionary Courts who was widely known as the “hanging judge” because he so often ordered the execution of those tried in his courts. In 1979, he led the destruction of Reza Shah’s mausoleum and tried to dig out his body as well. He demolished the building, but was unable to find the body.
Khalkhali said that his failure was probably because Mohammad Reza Shah, before leaving the country in January 1979, had exhumed his father’s body and taken it with himself – though this is strenuously denied by the late Shah’s family. Despite the lack of official confirmation so far, the mummy seems to be the body of the dead Reza Shah – and this has resurrected the Khalkhali story as well. The judge who sentenced Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, the powerful Pahlavi prime minister, to death and reportedly fired the shots himself, seems to have been proven a liar.
The discovery of the mummy has trigged a wave of attention and speculation that all point to one fact: Reza Shah is a divisive figure. For giddy nationalists and those longing for the “prestige” of the Pahlavi-era Iran, he is the father of Iranian modernization, the man who ordered the building of modern roads, trains, cities, and changed even the dress code – he banned traditional Iranian clothes and replaced them with a strictly European dress code that removed the equivalent of the Indian kurta or Arabic dishdasha.
For the 1979 Revolutionaries, he is the evil founder of Iranian Westernization and the destroyer of traditionalism and religious society, the man who pulled hijab from the heads of women (through a law banning the veil in the 1930s) and forced Iranians to lose their namoos (sense of honour, propriety and social norms). For many intellectuals, he is the person who caused a break, a cesura, in Iranian history by importing Western industrialization and its related mores and brutally suppressed any voice of dissent. Another view is that Reza Shah, through his complete dismissal of what was considered the “tradition”, and his authoritarian importation of Western modernity, also destroyed a well established sense of communal-national identity, replacing it with an ill-conceived and incomplete, ancient-oriented nation-state.
But the memory of many of these feelings are becoming pale, mostly as a reaction to the current political realities. Formany Iranians today the emphasis on modern Iran’s ancient Persian identity that Reza Shah promoted is by now second nature – for better or worse. Reza Shah’s act of forcefully removing the hijab from the heads of the women of his time, put in the context of the unforgiving policies of the Islamic Republic forcing the hijab on the descendants of the same women, is now seen as a progressive act by some (comparable, for example, to Peter the Great cutting the beards of his boyar nobles).
In a land obsessed with engineers and engineering, Reza Shah’s authoritarian industrialization is now viewed by some as the only sensible way of progressing Iran’s economy. Even more, with the growing dissatisfaction with the current government of Iran, the Pahlavis and their founder Reza Shah are now enjoying a new-found support and nostalgia. The Pahlavi dynasty’s use of an ancient-oriented program to create a modern identity has found much support as an antithesis to the Islamic Republic and “Islamism” in the current climate of Islamophobia that has become prevalent in many societies.
Carparks and Rubble
But what does all this have to do with the bodies of dead kings? Much like finding the body of British monarch Richard III in a carpark in 2012, one expects that the discovery of the mummy of a king in the rubble of his mausoleum would be a matter of historical curiosity. But in a society filled to the brim with political opinion and feeling very much part of history, the body of the Father of Modern Iran is not just a body. Reza Shah is seen by many as a modern-day saviour, much like the chosen ancestor himself, the Pahlavi designated “founder” of the 2500 year old Empire of Iran, Cyrus the Great. Like Cyrus, he carries the epithet of Kabeer or Bozorg, “the Great” – in the title “Reza Shah Kabeer”. In the minds of some of his supporters, the comparison goes even further, like Israeli-Iranian commentator Meir Javedanfar who even credited him with saving Iran’s Jews – much like Cyrus the Great. He is seen as the unifier of the country who gave rights to the minorities, perceived to be without any rights before.
But despite all the praise, the surprising fact – after ignoring all the noise – is that there has been no clear official reaction to this event yet. The discovery has prompted people to praise Reza Shah and recount his contributions – but this is already a mainstay of Iranian national debate.
Some recount the Khalkhali story and are happy that the executioner-judge has received another blow, even after his death (and from another dead man). A few are using the occasion to again point out the age-old adage of how bad the Qajar Dynasty (1796-1925) was and how Reza Shah saved Iran from their incompetent grip. This is yet another seemingly unchanging narrative, itself a Pahlavi one, which is repeated whether a mummified body is present or not. But no one yet knows how to react to the news itself and what it means.