Bushehr, Iran

Bushehr, Iran

Semra Aydinli and Avsar Karababa

The City of History
The City of Passion
The Old Friend of the Sun
The Land of Industry, Fishing and Commerce

Bushehr, with its architectural and urbanistic themes dating from the Elamite era of c.2,000 BC, through to the civilization of the Sassanid dynasty and then to its cosmopolitan image of today, is a port that plays an important role in the commercial relations of Iran.1 As the capital of Bushehr province, it is located on the Persian Gulf on a vast plain along the coastal region of western Iran. The city lies directly across the Gulf from Kuwait. Bushehr is represented both by historical continuity, with its old city reflecting Iranian Islamic identity, and by the image of change, due to the presence of international commercial facilities, trading ports, military bases, nuclear power plants and various contemporary buildings. Continuity and change are opposing yet complementary concepts in a world where global issues and local values have been put on the agenda.2 Bushehr, because of its geographic location with easy access to international high seas, plus its rich resources of oil/gas/minerals, and its extensive plantations of palm trees – as well as its various tourist attractions – takes full advantage of its valuable economic potential.3 These geographical and cultural advantages define its idiosyncratic identity, defining thus the configuration of the city.

This urban identity can be readily experienced in the Old Quarter of Bushehr, where there are many examples of traditional Persian Gulf architecture from the period from 1870 to 1920, including ecologically satisfying housing settlements with unique spatial configurations rooted in Iranian Islamic identity. The Old Quarter represents the spirit of time and space, creating an ‘aura’ that can be experienced as having certain physical factors (narrow streets, rhythmic arrangements of openings, displacement of solids and voids at different scales) as well as the psychological, social and mental forces which are an integral part of lived space. In this context, we will aim in this chapter to interpret the environmental potentials of Bushehr as a narrative with its visible and invisible dimensions emerging from a continuous unfolding of overlapping spaces, materials, technologies and details. Beyond the city’s physicality, we have tried to read the environment as a place of events and activities that represents a tension between reality and possibility. For our research, a structure of meaning was composed by unfolding the mutual relationship of interdependent elements such as urban identity, economics, ecology, neighbourhood, public space, and the act of belonging both to Iranian Islamic identity and being a Persian Gulf city in a global world. Although this interwoven whole is like a patchwork of traces constituting a series of spatial images, all our investigatory photographs were deciphered through documents, maps, aerial images, urban master-plans, and statistical data provided by the municipality and regional government. These superimposed images and written documents, including our own notes and urban traces grasped during this journey of discovery, provide access to deeper underlying questions about Bushehr. From this, a broad picture of the city emerged which allowed us to discover these new relations: we have sought to articulate how the network relations of the city are perceived as ‘legible’, how Bushehr is read in political, social and economic terms, and how the city’s image might be represented and promoted in marketing terms.

Our on-site period of personal observation and discovery, carried out without any prior hypothesis or prejudice, helped also to establish the research methods for our visit to Bushehr. The aim was to read the city as a narrative in all its dimensions, hence allowing us to understand its complexities. For example, Michael Axworthy has drawn attention to the apparent paradox that Iran and Persia are the same country.4 The image conjured up by ‘Persia’ is one of romance: roses and nightingales in elegant gardens, fast horses, mysterious, flirtatious women, sharp sabres, carpets with colours glowing like jewels, poetry and melodious music. However, in the clichés of western media representation, the term ‘Iran’ has a rather different image: frowning mullahs, black oil, women’s blanched faces peering, not to their best advantage, from underneath black chadors, grim crowds burning flags and chanting ‘Death to …’! It is possible to understand such a paradox when experiencing Bushehr, since it takes its roots from the religious thought of ancient Iranians known as Zoroastrianism (from Zarathustra, or, in Pahlavi, Zardusht or Zardukhsht). This religion was based on the opposition between order and chaos, good and bad, truth and falsehood, as manifested in the thought, speech, and activity of gods and men. This dualism was also reflected in the configuration of the typology of the houses and the urban pattern, thereby creating its ‘aura’. The aim of this chapter is, therefore, to discover the architecture-of-city/city-of-architecture with this specific ‘aura’ of Bushehr, exhibiting some traces that still today reflect its cultural, social, ecological, spatial and temporal relations.

This area has intentionally been left blank. To view Figure 12.1 as a double-page spread, please refer to the printed version of this book


Bushehr covers an area of 1,442 km2, which means it occupies approximately 6 per cent of the entire province, and possessed a population of 205,297 people at the time of the 2006 census (estimates are that the figure has since risen to around 225,000). Bushehr is one of the most important ports and transport hubs in the Persian Gulf region. It has a large international airport, and highways connecting it to Ahvaz to the north-west and to Shiraz inland to the east. A secondary coastal road links Bushehr to Bandar Abbas in the south-east of Iran.5 Furthermore, the Shiraz-Bushehr railroad joins this province into the Iranian railroad network, facilitating land-based distribution to and from the province. The city itself is now brutally divided into two by a large military base and by Bushehr’s airport. The centre is located to the north, embracing the Old Quarter, while the industrial part – considered as a developing area in Bushehr Municipality’s current master-plan – sits slightly to the south.


12.1 Geographical location of Bushehr at different scales


12.2 Current municipal master-plan for Bushehr

This master-plan was prepared by the local authority in 2008, and explains how the city intends to grow towards the east and south-west. Individual housing settlements will be spread amongst the palm groves and other green areas, and small industry is to be kept segregated from facilities such as schools, health centres and coastline recreational areas. Extensive maritime facilities, industrial buildings and nuclear power plants have influenced the development of Bushehr over time, providing opportunities as well as threats. While these more global facilities provide wealth and power for the city, they may also become a threat whenever the balance is not so well defined between global and local issues. Bushehr doesn’t appear to be affected by the current international economic downturn, since the Islamic economy, being effectively ‘closed’, is not integrated with the global economy.6 This degree of separation that prevents global developments from affecting Bushehr’s economic growth can also be considered as an opportunity in terms of its independence.

Bushehr is of course one of the chief ports of Iran, lying at a distance of 1,218 km from the capital in Tehran. It is often called Bandar-e Bushehr because it has both a fishing port and a commercial port. The main reason for establishing these port facilities was the strategic location of Bushehr; in that it is built out into the sea on a peninsula in the shape of an anchor, providing natural protection for ships and boats in its harbour. Bushehr, which acts as an export point for farm produce from the neighbouring fertile Fars province, has long played an important role in the commercial affairs of Iran. Moreover, due to its special geographic location and notable wealth, representatives of foreign companies and foreign consulates – including Britain, Germany, Russia and the Ottoman Empire – were located in the city, and some of whom erected fine buildings which have been preserved to the present time. Because of its key geo-political role, European colonialists were interested in taking control of the region and the city of Bushehr – not least the British Empire.7 It is possible still to see this British influence on the architecture in the Old Quarter, again making its spatial ‘aura’ unique within the Persian Gulf region. Furthermore, as noted, the antiquity of the historical region dates back to the Elamite era, two millennia before Christ, when Bushehr was known as Lian.8

Bushehr, however, remained economically depressed until the 1960s, when the Iranian government initiated a major redevelopment program. In 1975 the government, in cooperation with a German company, began building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr some 12 km from the centre. This facility was only partially completed when it was bombed by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). In 1995 Russia signed an agreement to finish the plant and to supply a light-water nuclear reactor. Although the agreement called for the spent fuel rods to be sent back to Russia for reprocessing, the USA has expressed concern that Iran is reprocessing the rods itself to obtain plutonium to make nuclear bombs. The previous President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, backed by most of the Muslim clergy, followed a somewhat lonely path of resistance to the global influence of western values, and in particular to that of America. This resistance might have been praiseworthy in itself, had it not been for the suffering and oppression, the dishonesty and disappointment that also followed.9 However, there is a misguided belief by many in Iran that this direct opposition to western values is the way to stop the inevitability of development on a westernised model in the Middle East, but this fails to see that these tensions offer both opportunities and threats. As long as there is no balance between local values and global issues, then by simply closing all doors to the global community in accordance with rigid rules of Islamic doctrine, all the opportunities created by this resistance are transformed into threats. It also fails to see that Bushehr has local power precisely because of its geo-political position – its nuclear power plant is capable of generate over 1000MW of electricity, plus there are plentiful gas supplies – and this in itself creates a dynamic balance between the so-called tension of the local and global. In other words, the very ‘locality’ of Bushehr can be used as a powerful tool within the globalised world.

During our meetings with the Governor of Bushehr and other government authorities, they confirmed that the current global economic crisis isn’t affecting the economy of Bushehr, nor are Iran’s political difficulties, since the Iranian Islamic economy is kept independent from the Islamic judiciary.10 Although foreign investment in Bushehr is still increasing, according to the Governor, the city is being preserved as a recognition of its idiosyncratic Iranian Islamic identity, something which is based neither on capitalism nor on communism. Iranian Islamic identity, which draws its roots from ancient Persian and more recent Iranian cultures, has been hugely influential on the city’s architecture. Today’s urban designers in Bushehr Municipality seem to be well aware of their social responsibility and environmental sensibility: high-rise buildings are simply not allowed, and all contemporary buildings are required to be designed on a relatively humanistic scale.

Because of Bushehr’s attractive geographical location as a port, and its proximity to target markets, industrial infrastructures and marine products, the city is clearly attracting a good deal of foreign investment. Bushehr’s industries include seafood canneries, food processing and engineering. This is the background for significant opportunities for investment in various other sectors including oil industries, gas and petro-chemicals, mineral processing, and growing dates, among others.11 Yet despite these promising future developments, unemployment in Bushehr today is sizeable, around 24.2 per cent of the workforce; this is partly as a result of a sluggish economic performance, but also because of a dramatic demographic growth over the last two decades. According to 1999 statistics, Bushehr’s investment value in industry was only 0.3 per cent, but since then investment in both the industrial and tourism sectors in the city have increased, mainly due to globalisation. Accordingly, the human development index in Bushehr was 70 per cent, whereas the human poverty index was 21.7 per cent.12 In terms of religious belief, around 90 per cent of Bushehr’s population are Shi’ite, with the remaining 10 per cent being Zoroastrian, Christian or Jewish (while the latter are very few in number, Iran curiously has the largest Jewish population of any Muslim-majority country). Historical documents show that prior to the arrival of Aryans in Iran, Bushehr was the residence for many different tribal groups and ethnic communities.13

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12.3 Saadat High School, Bushehr

Modern Bushehr was the first city in Iran to introduce lithography, and it also developed new industries such as ice-making and electrical production well before many other Iranian cities. The people of Bushehr were amongst the first Iranians to become acquainted with magazines and newspapers, a number of which were printed and published in the city. Education has therefore also been a priority among the people of Bushehr, and the ratio of educated population remains high compared to the rest of the country. There are many buildings consecrated to education in the Old Quarter: one such example is Saadat High School, built in 1899, and the first modern school in all of southern Iran. It was designed by Moin Altujar Bushiri. Many new buildings in a more contemporary architectural style are built as cultural centres, and also provide religious education within their walls. However, with so many of these unauthorized schools now providing religious instruction, we were told by a member of Bushehr Municipality that the education system has fallen even further back than it was at the beginning of the 20th century: a clear criticism of the present education system. Bushehr today has four colleges and universities: the Persian Gulf University, Bushehr University of Medical Sciences, Islamic Azad University of Bushehr, and Iran Nuclear Energy College. All of this points to the potential of contemporary architecture in Bushehr, full of contradictions and complexities. Both concrete and steel construction techniques are now being extensively used for new housing and office buildings, as part of a familiar global context.


12.4 Various cultural centres around Bushehr


12.5 The spatial character of Bushehr’s urban pattern and housing typology


The Old Quarter of Bushehr was built from 1810 next to the port, creating one of the rarest and most superior types of coastal architecture in the Persian Gulf region. Thus besides its archaeological relics and historical monuments, there is a high standard of 19th

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Bushehr, Iran
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