Nasser al-Din Shah is considered to be as the most modernist Qajar king as he made many social changes during his fifty years of reign. But that was not without accusations that he was trying to weaken the foundations of Islam in Iran and destroying the Shiite religion. However, the Shah believed otherwise arguing that modernity was not contrary to Islam and that the religion could even be removed from its traditional shell. That, according to him not only paved the way for the realization of modernity rather helped bring Iran closer to European countries and guarantee his grip on power and his foreign legitimacy, a break from the traditional monarchy in Iran, which has always depended on religion.
In this article, we try to examine the cause, nature and consequences of the state theatre during Nasser al-Din Shah. It intends to respond to some of main questions as: What was the concept behind building a Tekyeh Dowlat near the Golestan Palace, the seat of Nasser al-Din Shah? Whether the policy was aimed at reducing the influence of the clergy? And if so, why do we see Western patterns in its architectural style, a shift from Islamic buildings and what ideals did the king pursue in this building?
This article is largely based on library materials whereas the method method is descriptive-analytical. The researchers have tried to review and analyze primary sources from the Qajar era available in different libraries as well as secondary materials.
With the aim of preventing the masses and the clergy from uniting against the monarchy, Nasser al-Din Shah tried to induct the clergy in the government. He, in order to attract the masses to the court ceremonies, also tried to upgrade the status of ulemas (religious scholars) at his court. But that attempts were devoid of the tradition rather he took into account a modernist approach in order to break taboos that were considered a red line among scholars at the time, i.e. the king's attempt to innovate religious rites and practices.
Nasser al-Din Shah considered the Ta’ziyeh performance more efficient in attracting the masses to the court ceremonies. To him, such a move did not focus on the clergy class rather had the charm of a European play and could attract the people and be reminiscent of European theater plays in front of foreign dignitaries. With that purpose, therefore, the Shah decided to bring Ta’ziyeh ceremonies to the court in order to establish a good connection between the religion and the court, and also the king's shadow on these ceremonies was always significant. During his trip to Europe and the first hand experience of European theaters, he thought of holding a more glorious funeral and decided to build a religious building in a modern way, different from the traditional ones. In 1284 AH, he issued a decree to Alikhan Mu'ayyir al-Mamalik to build a large and equipped structure called the seat of the government at the royal citadel. Nasser al-Din Shah tried to show the glory of his court through this building and its plays (Zaka, 1971, 287-293; Moayer al-Mamalik, 2012, 13-15; Etemad-ol-Saltaneh, 88).
Nasser al-Din Shah’s reign can be considered as a period of change and modernity. One such change was the expansion of religious ceremonies at the court, which the Shah needed to attract the masses and some scholars, as well as foreign legitimacy. For that matter, he ordered the construction of a Tekyeh Dowlat, the first with European architectural style in the history of Iran. In addition, he also held many lavish events at the court for the first time, including Ta’zieyh ceremonies. The reliance on state theatre not only opened the door to foreigners who had previously been considered unclean for religious ceremonies, but also gave court women of a more special status than the clergy, and also secured the Shah's independence in religious ceremonies minimizing the role of religious scholars themselves. Relying on the Tekyeh Dowlat and his own generous posture, Nasser al-Din Shah was also able to create a rift among the clergy and make some of them dependent on the court as they gained high positions and received salaries.
The role of government in achieving the Shah's goals and attracting the masses cannot be ignored. The government’s support was immune due to its location next to the royal citadel and under its shadow, Iran experienced many events. A European-style building Shams al-Amara, revealed the spirit of Nasser al-Din Shah, who, while longing for the glory of European monarchs, also looked to attain the position of a sultan in the guise of God.
One of the achievements of this article is its conclusion that the construction of a religious structure (Tekyeh) next to the royal palace was, in fact, Nasser al-Din Shah's goal for religious independence. He tried to take control of the religion to some extent by reducing the power of the clergy. With many lavish ceremonies at the court, he was able to draw the masses in order to provide religious legitimacy for himself. Apart from a change in policy on religious front, it was the period when foreigners as well as female royal and court women were in attendance during religious ceremonies. One of the social consequences of those ceremonies was that they became very popular among the privileged classes and continued to have their effects in future.