The unarmed city crowd first emerged as a force in Iranian politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in protests against the growing influence of European commerce and, later, in the struggle for constitutional government in Iran. Cruelly suppressed under the two Pahlavi shahs, the crowd returned to the political stage during the revolution of 1979 in the cycle of demonstrations and public mourning that forced Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile. By encouraging hundreds of thousands of rural people to migrate to Tehran and the other major cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Pahlavis had created the weapons of their own destruction.
Yet the protests in 1979 were as nothing to the extraordinary scenes of mourning at the funeral of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a decade later. The chaotic display of grief during those June days of 1989 revealed to an astonished international public rather more of the Persian soul than it wanted to see.
Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini died aged 86, after repeated heart failure, just before midnight on Saturday 3 June 1989, at a clinic near his house in the village of Jamaran, just north of Tehran. President Ali Khamenei and the speaker of parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were at his bedside. They resolved to delay announcement of the death in order to allow time for the body to be prepared and for a state of emergency to be imposed. The borders were put on alert against Iraqi attack and plans were laid for an orderly succession.
Although Tehran radio would not announce Khomeini’s death until 7am on the Sunday morning, rumours immediately started to fly around the city and crowds began to make their way to Jamaran. People dressed in mourning black, the women wearing the all-over black georgette wrap called the “prayer chador”, poured into the streets and mosques.
At 9am in the parliament building, Khamenei, who was known for his beautiful Persian diction, read out Khomeini’s last will and testament to the Assembly of Experts, a body of leading clerics. In a fevered atmosphere, with all the members in tears, the reading of the will took three hours. The assembly then convened again in the afternoon to elect Khamenei as leader, even though he was only 50 years old and a relatively junior member of the hierarchy. He remains supreme leader, or rahbar, today.
Early on Monday 5 June, the body was transferred to a vast and dusty vacant lot in north Tehran, known as the Musalla, that was used for public prayers and sacrifices on religious holidays. On a high podium made out of steel shipping containers, Khomeini’s body lay, wrapped in a white shroud, in an air-conditioned glass case, feet facing Mecca, the indigo turban of a descendant of the Prophet on his chest.
By mid-morning, hundreds of thousands of mourners had come to bid farewell, beating their chests, drawing blood from their cheeks and chanting the slogan: “We are orphaned!” Eight people were killed in the crush to approach the body and hundreds more were injured.
In blinding heat and choking dust, the Tehran fire brigade sprayed the mourners with jets of water in order to calm their excitement at participating in this latest act of the passion play of Iranian history. This is a recitation of the founding tragedy of Shia Islam, in which the Prophet’s family, tormented by heat and thirst, was encircled by murderous enemies at Karbala in Iraq in October 680AD. Many in the crowd were mourning not a revolutionary leader, nor even a canon jurist, but an “imam”, a title then applied in Iran only to the perfect Shia saints of the Middle Ages.
It was decided that Khomeini should be buried not in Qom, where he had spent years as a seminary professor until his exile by Mohammad Reza in 1964, but in Behesht-e Zahra, graveyard of the dead of war and revolution, located in the southern suburbs and named after the Prophet’s daughter. This was an essentially political ritual: it re-enacted in mourning Khomeini’s triumphant visit by helicopter to the cemetery on 1 February 1979, the day he returned to Iran from exile in France.
Early in the morning of 6 June, the body was brought down from its makeshift pyramid and the coffin opened for the aged Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani to lead the prayers. Those 20 minutes were the only funerary solemnity a northern European might have recognised.
The plan was to travel 25 miles south through town in an orderly procession, but the crowds had swelled overnight to several million. “From the north of Tehran to Behesht-e Zahra,” wrote Khomeini’s biographer Baqer Moin, “nothing could be seen but a black sea of mourners dotted only by the white turbans of some mollahs.”
The air-conditioned truck acting as a hearse could make no headway through the crowd, and neither water cannon nor warning shots from the Revolutionary Guard could clear a path. In the end, the body was transferred to a helicopter –
another echo of 1979 – and brought by air to the grave that had been hacked with mattocks out of the stony desert.
Yet even here, the crowd surged past the makeshift barriers. John Kifner wrote in the New York Times that the “body of the ayatollah, wrapped in a white burial shroud, fell out of the flimsy wooden coffin, and in a mad scene people in the crowd reached to touch the shroud”. A frail white leg was uncovered. The shroud was torn to pieces for relics and Khomeini’s son Ahmad was knocked from his feet. Men jumped into the grave. At one point, the guards lost hold of the body. Firing in the air, the soldiers drove the crowd back, retrieved the body and brought it to the helicopter, but mourners clung on to the landing gear before they could be shaken off. The body was taken back to north Tehran to go through the ritual of preparation a second time.
To thin the crowd, it was announced on television and radio that the funeral had been postponed. Five hours later, the sound of rotors could be heard over Behesht-e Zahra and this time the guards were better prepared. Three of the shah’s old Huey helicopters landed and the body was brought out, sealed in what Kifner described as a “metal box resembling an airline shipping container”. Once again, the crowd broke through the cordon, but by weight of numbers the guards managed to push their way through to the grave.
There, according to reporters for Time magazine, “the metal lid of the casket was ripped off, and the body was rolled into the grave. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container.” In later years, the republic would erect on the site a monumental mosque and shrine to Khomeini, fit to match, if not outdo, the great Shia monuments at Karbala, Najaf, Mashhad, Qom and Lucknow.
For the outside world, especially for non-Shia Muslims and Iranian émigrés, the funeral was, as Time put it, “bizarre, frightening – and ultimately incomprehensible”. Here was not tragedy but gruesome farce – idolatrous, makeshift, deadly and utterly lacking in self-control. According to Radio Tehran, 10,800 people were treated that day for self-inflicted wounds, heat exhaustion or crush injuries.
For the Iranians, by contrast, these astonishing events were evidence of what they prized above all things: unaffected sympathy, or what is known as del – “heart”.
After the funeral, Iranian society resumed its habitual good order, held together by piety, pride, a certain amount of government repression, opium, cheap bread and petrol, a ban on alcohol and segregation of the sexes. And it still holds together today. The revolutionary constitution, with its novel mixture of clerical dictatorship and liberal democracy, has proved more resilient than anyone could have imagined in 1979.
What remains in the memory of those June days 20 years ago is that same power of men and women en masse that haunted Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of the French Revolution of 1789 – something “violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful and effective”, which will certainly return to Iran one day, either to renew the Islamic Republic or to demolish it.
James Buchan was a Financial Times correspondent in the Middle East and is the author most recently of “The Gate of Air: a Ghost Story” (Quercus, £14.99)
Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: email@example.com. A selection will appear on our website