History of British Graveyard in Tehran
By: Khosrow Motazed, September 2004
A century-old graveyard is located at the beginning of Qolhak Street, which is one of Tehran's most beautiful, modern and expensive districts.
The graveyard, which is known to be a burial place for the British citizens, is questionable to a lot of Tehran citizens. The question raised by many people is, "Given that many ancient graveyards in Tehran have been destroyed except those housing shrines, why has Mesgarabad graveyard been replaced by a park, but this one which is no more in use has survived?"
It is difficult to answer to such question. However, studying the history of the graveyard can clarify many ambiguities about it and will help us to find out about the dead bodies buried there.
The graveyard is located at the southern flank of the large semi-park courtyard of the British embassy's summerhouse in Qolhak. The crosses standing on the tombs and the dates recorded on the gravestones show that only the bodies of Britons killed in Iran during the World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) were buried there. Nonetheless, the graveyard was constructed opposite to the chapel of the embassy church several years before 1914 and the corpses of many Britons had been buried there.
The main reason the bodies of some Britons were buried in the graveyard in those days was that due to the long distance between the two countries carrying them back to Britain was quite difficult.
Iran-Britain ties officially started in the beginning of the 19th century and concurrent to the rule of Fathali Shah Qajar. In that time, Iran had close contacts with two British organizations including its Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London and a British government company based in India known as Eastern India Co. Given the growing trend of the British influence in the subcontinent and its becoming a British property, since 1857 Iranian government mostly established contact with the Ministry of British Colonies and its other domains in India and the commander of the subcontinent. Meanwhile, its contacts with the British Foreign Ministry started to diminish. Given the limited progress in medical sciences at the time, the Europeans arriving in Iran could hardly adjust themselves to the local climatic conditions and were therefore infected with malaria, infectious fevers such as typhoid, diarrhea and dysentery and lost their lives. The European visitors were also infected with such ailments as being bitten by local insects called "Gharibgez" or "Meleh" on the way from Mianeh to Shahroud. During the Safavid era, all members of Germany's diplomatic mission in Tehran were infected with dysentery and diarrhea and died. In the beginning of Fathali Shah Qajar's rule, Napoleone's military adjutant, Romio, who appointed as the emperor's representative in Tehran passed away after being infected with indigenous diseases and was buried in Tehran.
Armenians had a graveyard in Tehran, where besides the dead bodies of themselves the corpses of the Europeans were buried, given that carrying them from Tehran to Europe was a cumbersome task. In those days, mummification of the dead bodies was not so common in Iran as compared to the era following the World War II. During the 50s, the Head of Iran's Coronary Office used to mummify the bodies of the Europeans who were either dead or killed in Iran in the course of various events. In order to dispatch the dead bodies of Europeans to their countries they had to be sent to Boushehr to be shipped to Europe by the British ocean-liners or those of other countries.
Besides it was quite costly and there was no regular shipping line between the Persian Gulf and Europe in the early years of the 19th century.
Dead bodies could also be dispatched from Anzali port in northern Iran to the Azeri capital of Baku and Russia. However, the cost was equally high. Besides the corpses were subject to decay and stinking along the way. In the meantime, sending them from Bushehr port as well as Bandar Lengeh and Bandar Abbas in southern Iran created problems most of the year due to the extreme heat.
As a custom, in those days, the dead bodies of those dying on the ship due to various reasons including being drowned in waterways, getting infected with diseases or killed during the wars were thrown into the sea. They remained at the depth of the water for a while and were either eaten up by carnivorous fish such as sharks or decayed throughout time and fell apart. According to the illustrated reports prepared by those diving into the depth of the global waterways, particularly researchers from the US National Geographical Institute, the remains of such corpses have been discovered as skeletons. This proves that they fall apart through time. For instance more than thousands of dead bodies and even remains of their skeletons of those who were lost when the Titanic ocean-liner was sunk in 1912 were never discovered.
The cumbersome process of dispatch of foreigners' dead bodies to their homeland mainly accounts for a corner of the summer residence of the British embassy in Tehran to their burial. It should be noticed that after the Russians managed to defeat the Iranian Armed Forces in 1243 AH and they forced Iran to sign the Turkmenchai contract, they called for a summer residence in northern Tehran for their minister of plenipotentiary and the family as well as the senior embassy members. Thus the Qajar government gave them Zargandeh village between Tehran and Tajrish.
A few years later a war on Herat broke out between Iran and Britain. After Iran managed to release the city from the grip of Afghan insurgents, the British government sent its gunship from the coast of the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf via Hormoz Strait, which heavily bombarded the Iranian cities of Bushehr, Ahwaz and Mehmareh (the present Khorramshahr). The British troops then landed in southern Fars province. Two British generals managed to defeat the forces of Nassereddin Shah's commander, Khanlar Mirza, and occupy Bushehr and Lengeh port cities as well as Borazjan and Khorramshahr, Khark Islalnd and Ahwaz.
Following the talks held in Paris between Iran's representative, Farrokh Khan Aminoddoleh and the British officials, through the mediation of the French and Austrian governments, the Paris contract was signed between the two sides. According to the document, Iran gave up all rights to the city of Herat and the grounds were prepared for the independence of a country named Afghanistan. Following the Russians' major victory, the British also called for a village in northern Tehran as the summer residence of the minister of plenipotentiary. Iran's government had no choice than giving them the densely populated village of Qolhak in Zargandeh's vicinity.
Against the international laws of the time, both governments put up their national flag in their related territories and thus claimed their proprietorship. Then they imposed the capitulation law and exempted the residents of the two villages from being subject to the national laws. They also charged some of their extremist officials with the local affairs under the protection of their national flags.
Thus Iranian government overlooked its rights to the two specified villages for about 100 years and was even deprived of having police operating there. After Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar entered into fight with the proponents of Constitution Movement from Tabriz in 1908. Meanwhile, the Russian armed forces were based in Qazvin on the pretext of protecting the Russian embassy, consulates as well as private trade centers and enterprises, particularly the branches of Russian borrowing banks in Tehran and provinces. In 1911, around 500 soldats (the Russian word for soldiers) were stationed in Zargandeh to protect the embassy. The majority of the residents of Zargandeh were statesmen affiliated to the despotic rule who had taken refuge in the village.
On the other hand, the Indo-British government had dispatched their troops to Iran on the pretext of the country's insecurity and the likely attacks against their embassy, consulates and branches of Iran's Monarchial Bank as well as the Indo-European telegraph center. These troops guarded Qolhak. A lot of the famous British subjects who passed away in Iran have been buried in Qolhak graveyard.
However, the bodies of the British marine troops and sailors who passed away at the coasts of the Persian Golf and Aman Sea were buried in a special graveyards in Qeshm, Abu Mousa and Khark islands, instead of being taken to Tehran. During the World War I, Britain had its own graveyard and lighthouse.
A great number of British officers and troops were killed at warfronts while fighting with he Ottomans and the bodies of some were taken to Qolhak graveyard and buried there.
Besides the military men, some British diplomats and their family members were also buried in the same graveyard upon their death. The names of several Indians and Iraqis serving in the British Armed Forces have been observed among the corpses buried there. After they were killed, the license for burying them in Qolhak graveyard was issued. The summer residence of British embassy in Qolhak has a splendid garden with an excellent swimming pool, a beautiful building. It was constructed similar to British clubs.
According to the notes left behind by some of the British ministers of plenipotentiary residing in Qolhak, they had a great time in the summer residence of the embassy in the summers preceding the World War II.
Before the famous historical tripartite meeting of the leaders of Russia (Stalin), Britain (Churchill) and US (Roosevelt) in Tehran which was held in Dec 1943, the senior envoy of the British government to Tehran was called as the minister of plenipotentiary. After the meeting, however, the US and British governments promoted the rank of their ministers of plenipotentiary assigned in Iran to ambassadors in order to appreciate Iran's cooperation with them during the war. But the ex-Soviet Union had been assigning ambassadors to Tehran for many years. The two villages of Zargandeh and Qolhak were unfortunately given to the Russians and Britons by Qajar kings as presents and against the international laws of the time mainly because the Tesarian Russian and Britain officially supported the descendent of the Crown Prince Abbas Mirza to become a monarch. They too were responsible for ending the rule of Mohammad-Ali Shah.