How Iran Threw the World’s Greatest Party In a Desert
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How Iran Threw the World’s Greatest Party In a Desert

In 1971, Iran threw an extravagant and exclusive
party to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian empire. The party had a grandeur never seen before
in the world’s recorded history. It had delicious food from the world’s best
restaurant, exquisite drinks, luxurious accommodations, medieval European style decorations, and more
importantly – the party had the most decorated guestlist – heads of states from 65 different
countries, emperors, kings and queens, princes and princesses, sheiks, sultans, and business
figures of all kinds from 5 different continents. The venue of the event was not some ancient
castle or a seven-star hotel, instead, everything was organized from scratch, in the middle
of a desert, by building plastic tents. The cost of all of this? Not a million dollars; Not a billion dollars;
this party almost cost a dynasty. It proved to be a stepping stone for the rise
of the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Iranian Monarchy that changed the country
forever. This is the story of the most expensive party
the world has ever seen. This is Shah of Iran’s Billion Dollar party. ——————————————————— This video is sponsored by Dashlane. Secure your passwords with Dashlane for free
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the code ‘sidenote’ ——————————————— 1960s Iran was a complicated mess. To give you a simplified picture because it’s
essential in order to grasp the bigger story; Iran in the 60s was a constitutional monarchy,
ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also called the ‘King of the Kings’. The Shah was one of the richest men in the
world; he had the absolute power in the government – he could appoint prime minister, he could
dissolve the parliament, raise an army, declare war, conclude a peace – his words meant law
and he was not willing to share his powers with ANYONE. 17 years ago, the Shah toppled a democratic
popular Prime Minister in a coup orchestrated by American and British forces, because the
Shah believed that the Prime Minister was getting too powerful. Being the son of a former king, The Shah had
only seen luxury in his life. He had studied in Switzerland and was very
fond of wesetern culture and modern lifestyle. He claimed that he wanted to make Iran a more
modern and free society by empowering women and poor; this was largely refuted as propaganda
because, on the other side, the Shah had been sacking free speech and punishing every voice
of dissent against his rule. There were no civil liberties in the country. The Shah’s regime had the highest number
of political prisoners and the highest rate of death penalties in the world. His secret police kidnapped and murdered people
at their will. Despite being an oil-rich state, the socio-economic
condition of the country was bad. Almost half of the population lived below
poverty – cities lacked basic infrastructure, rural areas had an acute shortage of water,
medical facilities, and educational institutions. Iran needed some basic reforms to elevate
the standards of living BUT the Shah has something else on his mind. ––—————- One day, the Shah had this idea that he should
invite the world’s most elite people – Emperors, Kings, Presidents, and Sheiks to Iran and
throw a super extravagant, exclusive party for them. He believed that this multi-day event would
boost Iran’s global image. It would show the world what a magnificent
country it had been and how it’s reviving its lost glory, its lost position as a superpower
– like a phoenix rising from the flames, heralding a Great Civilisation. The occasion couldn’t have been better;
it was the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the glorious Persian empire, by Cyrus the
Great. The Shah saw this as a golden opportunity
to portray himself as Iran’s new Cyrus – someone who would help Iran join the list of top nations
with a bang. An organizing committee was quickly set up,
invitations were sent to people around the world and preparations for the event kicked
off more than a year in advance. The biggest hurdle was that Iran lacked the
infrastructure that was required to host such a marvelous event. They didn’t have grand hotels or luxurious
castles to keep their elite guests, so, after much consideration and going through different
options, they chose….. A DESERT – the dry dusty, desolate patch of
lands of the ancient city of Persepolis – as the venue of the event. It was decided that a royal village would
be set up in these deserts using tents but first, they would turn these deserts into…. A FOREST…so… they imported trees – an
incredible number of trees. Around 15000 trees and an equal number of
flowering plants were flown-in to be planted on the site. Iran was already suffering from an acute shortage
of water so planting trees in deserts for a 3 days event was an insane idea, but the
shah wanted to give his guests a surreal experience. They also dug-out 4 hectares of earth and
delivered it to the site so that George Truffaut, the famous florist from Versailles, could
create a perfumed garden with a variety of roses and tall cypresses. The deserted site was infested with poisonous
snakes and scorpions whose sting could kill the distinguished guests, so they sprayed
chemicals over 30 km area and removed a truckload of creepy- crawlies. They even found some unknown species of reptiles
which were then sent to universities for research purposes. To populate this newly made forest, the Shah
imported 50,000 songbirds from Europe and released them on the site. 20,000 sparrows were brought in from Spain,
most of which died within a few days because of the lack of water and the adverse climate. At noon, the temperatures on the site topped
to 40, and at night they dropped below zero. The Shah also built a golf course in the desert
with bunkers, greens, and fairways. Normally in events like this, you would expect
to see local artists and craftsmen do most of the work; after all, the whole point of
the party was to showcase Iran’s glory BUT the Shah was a sophisticated man who only
trusted world-class professionals. So, he outsourced most of the work to renowned
European companies. To build the royal ‘tent city’, the Shah hired
the famous Jansen company from Paris. Jansen came with a plan to build air-conditioned
luxury suits and drape them in traditional Persian cloth to make them look like tents. Each one of these lavishly furnished ‘tents’
had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen with a cook and servers
available 24 hours a day. Each tent could easily accommodate 5 people. Hundreds of French architects, interior designers,
and craftsmen worked for over a year to build these tents on an airfield outside Paris. They were then transported to Perspolis in
hundreds of airplanes to be assembled on site. On the site, 50 tents were arranged along
five avenues, radiating out from a central fountain, representing five continents of
the world. In total, the tent city covered a total of
160 acres of land area and had two more bigger tents – ‘The Tent of Honor’ for reception
of the dignitaries AND The Banqueting Hall. We’ll come to that later. ——- For food, the Shah signed a deal with the
famous “Maxim’s de Paris”. Based in Paris, Maxim’s was considered the
best restaurant in the world at the time. The party got even more attention after this
deal was made. Maxim’s closed their restaurants for almost
two weeks and sent all their equipment, chefs, waiters, and other staff to Persepolis ten
days in advance. 18 tons of food was flown-in, all again, from
Paris – a quarter million eggs, 2700 kg of beef, and 1280 kg of Fowl among other things. The legendary Hotelier, Max Blouet, came out
of retirement to supervise the banquet. The menu was initially kept a closely guarded
secret but then it got leaked to the press and created a scandal. With hundreds of tons of goods being imported
from around the world to this desolate desert site, logistics was a big challenge. To facilitate transportation of goods, the
Shah built an airfield in Shiraz, some 50 kilometers away from the venue site in Persepolis
AND a highway connecting these two places. The Iranian air force was put to the task
of hauling stuff. For almost six months, the Imperial Iranians
Air Force made repeated sorties between Shiraz and Paris flying goods which were then trucked
carefully in army lorries to Persepolis. Each month, supplies were driven down the
desert highway to deliver building materials for the Jansen Designed air-conditioned tents,
Italian drapes and curtains, Baccarat crystals, Limoges china with the Pahlavi coat of arms,
Porthault linens, an exclusive Robert Havilland cup-and-saucer service and thousands of bottles
of expensive wines. They brought 30 tons of kitchen equipment
from Paris just for Maxim’s for food preparation. During the course of the event, their airplanes
brought ice cubes the size of a garaze. ———- Now comes the most important part of preparation
– Security. The event would be the biggest gathering of
world leaders and monarchs in one place and the Shah was already facing people’s anger
and resentment for many reasons. There were many serious acts of violence during
the time, so ensuring security was a big challenge. There were suspicions of Guerrillas trying
to sabotage the party So, the Shah deployed his secret police and
troops – 65,000 of them, to protect a few hundred guests. There were security checkpoints every few
meters. There was a danger that someone might poison
the food, so they made the banqueting hall the most guarded place on the site – only
a few people had access to it. Chefs and servers were thoroughly vetted. Additional servers were brought from Switzerland. Apparently, this wasn’t enough, so, the
Shah went a step further. He locked down Iran’s borders for the entire
duration of the event, no one could enter or leave the country except for the guests. All universities and schools were closed. The Shah’s secret police raided houses and
captured thousands of young men on suspicion. All student’s bodies were dismantled and
student leaders were locked behind bars. Some of them were captured even months in
advance. Because the event was so dear to the Shah,
a big chunk of money was spent on publicizing the event. The Shah signed deals with tv channels in
different countries to live broadcast the event to the foreign audiences. Iran’s National Film Board commissioned a
prominent filmmaker to gather a crew to make a film of the event. The English version of the film would be called
‘Flames of Persia’. Hollywood actor-director Orson Welles agreed
to narrate the English Text, written by MacDonald Hastings, in return for the Shah’s brother-in-law
funding Welles’ own film, ‘The Other Side of the Wind.’ Like I said, everything was being handled
by world-class professionals only. The Shah had planned to send copies of the
film to theatres around the world for public display. Throughout the year prior to the event, Iranian
Embassies in different countries were asked to organize parties, conferences, symposiums,
and other cultural activities to draw attention to the main event. Several books were published on Iran and their
translated copies were distributed around the world. The promotion of the event was largely successful. Media around the world picked up the story,
every other day there were news stories about the party, new leaks about the menu and guest
lists – who’s wearing what and who’s taking whom to the party. Thirteen months of painstaking preparation
was nearing its end. Agricultural Department planted acres of small
pine trees along the newly asphalted road leading to the stone ruins. In order to light up the dark, 30 miles road
from Shiraz to Persepolis, the National Iranian Oil Company set up torches fuelled by oil
barrels set 100 meters apart from each other. The Ministry of Tourism constructed two brand
new hotels in Shiraz, named Koroush and Daryoush, each with a 150-room capacity. Lesser prominent guests and media persons
would be kept here. Every element of the tent city was meticulously
designed to within a quarter of an inch to feel royal, majestic and fantastically well-ordered,
something straight out of an Arabian night story. ‘When the Shah throws a party, sky’s no
limit’ – wrote an american newspaper. The Iranian dresses for the party were all
designed and made by French tailors using golden threads, precious gems and diamonds,
costing tens of thousands of dollars for each dress. In the crowd of monarchs and world-leaders,
no one was willing to look lesser than the rest, so arriving guests went out of their
way to arrange sumptuous dresses to wear to the party. The wife of the Vice President of the United
States got into a scandal after she was seen wearing an expensive dress at the party. As everything comes to an end, preparations
did too. The day arrived. The last roses of Truffault laid and the fountains
switched on. Iranian officials were on their toes. Shah’s reputation was at stake. October 14, 1971 On the morning of the first day, news media
from around the world flocked to the ancient city of Persepolis to see the unfolding of
this grand promise. In the beginning, people weren’t very optimistic,
it wasn’t easy to believe that Iran could throw the kind of party it had promised. With each passing airplane, the list of VIPs
attending the program went on increasing, and the dream started to take the shape of
reality. Both the western democracies and the countries
of the Soviet Bloc did their best to be present at the event. President Nixon had initially planned to attend
but secret service didn’t give him security clearance, so he sent Vice-president Spiro
Agnew instead. From the Soviet side, Chairman of the Presidium,
Nikolai Podgorny joined the party. Austria, Finland, Switzerland were represented
by their heads of State, France, Italy, South Korea, and Swaziland
by their Prime Ministers, Western Germany sent the President of the
Bundestag and Portugal sent its Foreign Minister. Pope Paul VI sent his special representative. Presidents of Bulgaria, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary,
Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, and India were of the Party. There were also five African Presidents – South
Africa, Senegal, Mauritania, Dahomey and Zaire. President of Yugoslavia and Romania had arrived
with their first ladies. Canada and Australia were represented by their
Governors-General, China sent their Ambassador and Poland had Deputy Chairman. However, the focus and attention were understandably
on royalty. Never could anyone see so many kings, queens,
princes and princesses gathered in one place. The Emperor of Ethiopia,
The Royal couple of Denmark, Belgium, Nepal, and Greece
King of Jordan, Norway, and Lesotho Emir of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi
Sultan of Oman Musahiban and Princess of Afghanistan
Prince and Princess of Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Monaco, France, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Japan,
and Morocco all came to the event together with Prince
of Thailand, Princess of Jordan and Royal Members from Malaysia. Queen Elizabeth did not attend the party because
the Royal House did not want to be in a position where their monarch was seen as paying homage
to the king of the kings. Instead, they sent her husband Philip of Edinburgh
and daughter Anne to Persepolis. A couple of other guests also did not attend
because of domestic pressure; the Shah was seen as a dictator in many western countries. The Shah went to Shiraz himself to receive
the more important guests. He had ordered 250 bulletproof limousines
just to transport his guests from the airfield in Shiraz to the venue site in Persepolis. The celebration started with a simple ceremony
at the tomb of Cyrus the Great shortly before noon. Accompanied by Empress Farah and Crown Prince
Reza, the Shah, dressed in his emperor’s uniform, delivered an emotion-packed eulogy to his
illustrious predecessor and vowed that Iranians today would continue to prove worthy heirs
of their glorious past. Each head of state was given one tent for
himself and his important companions. Among other luxuries, a tapestry – with a
picture of the head of state who was staying there woven into it – hung on the wall of
each tent. Dozens of craftsmen spent months preparing
these woven portraits. Since most of the European Royal Families
were related to one another, they got the opportunities to meet and hang out with each
other. They would go to each others’ tent and have
drinks in the evening. Many journalists later reported how surreal
the whole experience was. You may find the Vice president of the USA
chilling on a chair outside, in the next tent you may find the king of Denmark and in the
other one, the leader of soviet union. It felt like a tiny town where only the most
elite people lived. In a separate tent near the heliport, the
Shah built a ‘social club’ to entertain guests in case they get bored. The social club had a reception area, a bar,
a restaurant and a gambling casino. A special tent with 16 hairdressing salons,
four makeup salons and one salon for men was set up. Paris’s top hairdressers and makeup experts
with their teams were invited to provide a service to guests and their ladies. They trained for months to improve their speed
to tackle the time constraints, especially learning how to place a tiara properly in
just a few minutes. A team of Paris’s fashion designers were
also called to accommodate last minute adjustments. A bunker was specially made to keep ladies’
precious jewellery. On the evening of the first day, The Shah
threw an exquisite dinner party to his guests in the banqueting tent which dominated the
canvas tent city. The roll call of majestic sounding titles,
the aides de camp hovering in attendance, the chandelier hanging high above the tables,
the gold plated cutlery used by heads of state all seemed to hark back to a European court
of a century or more ago. Food was served on a 70 meter long continuous
serpentine table with guests sitting on one side. 125 women had spent six months embroidering
the tablecloth. The other guests, who included ambassadors
and the companions of the heads of state, sat in groups of 12 at smaller tables. This was arguably the first time in recorded
history when rulers from such diverse countries and ideologies had gathered at a culture event
– people from east, people from the west, developed countries, under-developed countries,
communists, monarchs, former colonies – all equal at one stage, sitting side by side,
enjoying their meal. Some of the guests later dubbed the atmosphere
as a setting from a James Bond movie. Needless to say, the table had the most delicious
food possible at the time. The menu came in a thick booklet in two languages
– Persian and French. Without going into details, it must leave
you with the fact that they even had roasted peacock meat on the menu, that too with restored
tail feathers. Six hundred guests feasted on a menu never
to be repeated or forgotten for almost six hours thus making for the longest and the
most lavish official banquets in modern history as recorded in successive editions of the
Guinness Book of World Records. Iran, being a religious Islamic country, wasn’t
fond of alcohol but the Shah’s party was drowning in expensive alcohol: 2500 bottles
of champagne, 1000 bottles of Bordeaux, 1000 bottles of Burgundy, to name the specials. The champagne was from 1911 and the vintage
cognac was from 1860. A celler was built specially for keeping wine
in Persepolis four weeks before the celebration began. Everyone and everything was there, if there
was something missing in the party then it was Iranians themselves. To maintain the exclusivity of the party,
the Shah hadn’t invited his own ministers. Only a handful of those who were looking after
the preparation were present. October 15, 1971 The second day started with the main event. Guests gathered in a large patch of desert
to witness the magnificent re-enactment of the 2500 years of the great Persia empire. 1724 soldiers with hundreds of Iran’s finest
horses and camels marched in the greatest parade of history representing the armies
of the successive dynasties that had ruled Iran. The Shah had gone to great lengths to re-create
the historically correct atmosphere. Costumes, fake beards, and wigs, flamboyant
uniforms, golden chariots, weapons, warships, and regalia were made after detailed research
by teams of multinational military historians. Military workshops in Tehran had come up with
various costumes. Ancient trumpets and other forgotten musical
instruments were constructed to produce sounds not heard for centuries. There was even a replica of three ancient
ships dating back to the glorious days of Xerxes for the occasion. A company of horsemen who had set out from
Tehran the previous day rode up to the dais where the royal family and their guests were
seated. A captain dressed like an Achaemenid dismounted
to present the Shah a handwritten parchment. After sundown, the guests followed their hosts
into the starlit Persian night for a marvelous performance of sound and light among the great
stones of ancient Persepolis. In the dramatized voices of different Persian
rulers, the glorious days of Iran were remembered. Later that night, a show of firecrackers was
planned which came out as a surprise to guests. When firecrackers went up in the sky, many
guests got scared as they believed that the site was under terrorist attack. October 14, 1971 The following morning, many of the VIPs left
Persepolis and those who stayed were crowded in coaches and driven to the airport in Shiraz
and flown to Tehran. The celebration ended with a few more programmed
in the Iranian capital including a spectacular inauguration of Shahyad Tower in honor of
the king. Keeping other things aside, the celebration
was successful in itself. The Shah had shown the world how to really
throw a party. Public all over the world discussed the sumptuous
dresses and jewels of Farah, the Shah’s wife. Another popular topic was the pet dog of the
Ethiopian Emperor with its diamond-studded collar, which looked more expensive than most
jewels worn by Queens and First Ladies. Time magazine called the party ‘the greatest
gathering of the century’ Stern called it ‘The mother of all parties’
Life magazine – ‘The Party of the century’ A major Swiss magazine named the party ‘Billion-Dollar
Camping’. Some royal houses were impressed, while some
were jealous. For a brief moment, Iran was proud – glued
to their TV screens to see their Shah getting respect from the world’s most powerful nations. That did not last for long. Shah’s effort to promote his country and
its history was not appreciated. Both in Iran and abroad, the Shah was seen
as a money squanderer only wishing to show off. Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian revolutionary
exiled in Iraq, called the party a ‘Devil’s Festival’. Ordinary Iranians were shocked by the amount
of alcohol consumed at the celebration, by scandalous low-cut dresses and by the absence
of Iranian public at the actual ceremonies, which was a sign of imperial arrogance. Speculating the cost, Time magazine put the
figure at a shocking 100 million dollars (adjusted to inflation, that would be $635 million in
2020), France press doubled the numbers. People in Iran estimated that the party must
not have cost anything lesser than $500 million in today’s money. Shah officials refuted these estimates as
“outrageously large” and announced the celebration expenses at $16.8 million. According to Shah, the cost was the party
was only what went into buying food for guests. They also claimed that the celebration helped
raise donations for the construction of 3200 schools in rural areas of Iran, so the party
has a noble cause too. While the general population was struggling
to meet its ends, Shah was throwing a party to his rich friends in an Island he had built
far from prison and poverty – Shah had lost all of the public support by now. Political parties in opposition, despite their
contrasting ideologies, joined hands against Shah. Three years after the event, Shah publicly
apologized to his people and sought forgiveness for decades of bad decisions, corruption,
and cruelty. It was too late. Iran’s popular uprising led to the Islamic
Revolution of 1979 that ended the rule of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the two and a half
millennia of the Persian Empire. The Shah took exile in Egypt where he died
a year later. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. Iran became an Islamic Republic and Khomeini,
its first supreme leader. Thus started the second wave of uprisings
and unrest that continues to this day. The festival of Persepolis brought together
the rulers of two of the three oldest extant monarchies, the Shah and the Emperor of Ethiopia. By the end of the decade, both the Ethiopian
and Iranian monarchies had ceased to exist. The Emperor of Ethiopia was deposed and murdered
by revolutionaries in 1974, three years after the event. In 1973, Greek monarchy was also abolished. The same year, the Afghan monarchy was overthrown
in a coup, ending more than two centuries of royal rule. With monarchies falling like house of cards,
the Shah’s party proved to be one last time the legendary and powerful monarchies from
around the world gathered and cherished their final days. The tent city remained operating until 1979
for private and government rent after it was looted following the departure of the Shah. Only the Iron rods for the tents and roads
built for the festival still remain and are open to the public. The dedicated Shahyad tower, a major landmark
in Tehran, was renamed Azadi tower in 1979. ———— So, this was the story of a Shah who lost
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