Holy Defense Museum in Tehran – Iran’s war memorial for the digital age

Tehran, Iran CNN  — 

The Holy Defense Museum may not be the first place travelers would seek out when visiting Iran.

In a country with more than 3,000 years of history they’re more likely to see the ancient ruins at Persepolis or take a walk through the vast Naqsh-e Jahan square in the city of Isfahan.

Nevertheless, and despite its less-than-glamorous name, the Holy Defense Museum in Tehran does offer something different: It’s like a war memorial for the digital age.

As an Iranian raised abroad, I visit the country regularly.

The dual perspective of knowing the country from within and without has given me a unique perspective on a place often misunderstood by the West.

Russian-designed rocket launchers on display.

I admit I wasn’t expecting much from the Iranian capital’s newest museum – Iran isn’t known for its contemporary exhibitions.

I was also slightly apprehensive about the tone the exhibits would take.


It’s only in recent years that decades-long international sanctions against Iran have started to ease. So the portrayal of Iran as a peace-loving underdog in the face of – mainly Western – antipathy is a popular image the government likes to amplify.

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Iran puts on a show of massive military might
02:10 - Source: CNN

Yet Iranians themselves are probably among the most pro-Western people in the Middle East.

American or European tourists who travel to Iran (and those numbers are on the increase, according to the country’s tourism affairs department) are treated well.

This is usually because Iranians know their country is painted in a negative light abroad, so do their best to rectify that image.

The museum itself is billed as an homage to Iran’s fight against imperialist tyranny, Western aggression and other proclaimed injustices.

However, it focuses heavily on the war with Iraq in 1980 – the conflict known in Iran as the “Holy Defense” – which lasted for eight years at the cost of an estimated one million lives.

Portraits of those killed in the conflict.

The sheer size of the museum is staggering – 21 hectares to be exact.

It’s more than just one building. It’s an entire complex complete with a vast garden area, water features, a children’s play area and tanks – lots of tanks. Iran-made artillery pieces are also on display across the grounds.

The Iranian government is no stranger to flexing its military might.

But this museum turned out to be so much more than a spotlight on Iran’s military history – more creative, more artistic and more immersive.

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Morbid but compelling

The “Hall of Butterflies” is the incongruous name given to a memorial to soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war that greets visitors on arrival.

It’s filled with display boxes that look like caskets, showcasing the personal effects and intimate objects found on the fallen.

As morbid as it was compelling, I felt like I was looking through a keyhole into lives that were not meant to be shared.

Chains and bracelets found on the battlefield.

From there visitors enter the museum proper, and so into a timeline of Iranian history – or rather the history of the Islamic Republic since its formation in 1979.

This relatively recent period is broken down into different periods: starting with the revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy into the theocracy that it is today, then moving on to the Iran-Iraq war, before reaching the current chapter and Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

A state-of-the-art visual system that includes projections, video walls and holograms help guide you through these different events.

Audio recordings relevant to each period are played out over speakers.

For example, when we’re told about the build-up to the revolution, the distinct hissing of spray paint cans can be heard. This refers to the subversive graffiti that adorned the streets at that time.

Even the temperature is adjusted to represent the time of year a certain event took place.

Each different section is captivating in its own way, transporting visitors back to a difficult and tough time in Iranian history, but it’s done with tact and taste.

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‘Ghost city’

One of the standout exhibits is the re-creation of Khorramshahr.

This strategic port city in western Iran was the location of the first major battle in the war with Iraq.

After falling into Iraqi hands in October 1980, it was extensively ravaged by Saddam Hussein’s forces as a result of his “scorched earth” policy.

Khorramshahr went from being a densely populated city with sprawling neighborhoods to a virtual ghost town.

Iraqi soldiers near Khorramshahr in October 1980.

The city was eventually liberated two years later.

A virtual experience allows visitors to walk through parts of this city, creating a particularly visceral experience as they wander past abandoned homes and schools all bearing the scars of war. Video projections and sound effects add to the realism.

Many exhibits have a serious artistic flair.

For example, the walls of one corridor are lined with land mines. They’re all painted white to represent the indiscriminate nature of such a weapon.

This newly opened museum (parts are still under construction) was a surprise package – much like Iran would be to many in the West.

I had expected a propaganda overload, but there was no finger-pointing. Instead, I found a place that was imaginative, innovative and sensitive, especially as it retold a period of Iranian history that’s so tragic to so many.

The Holy Defense Museum may not have the historic resonance of some of Iran’s other tourist hot spots but to me, it revealed a lot about modern Iranian culture and the way it is coming to terms with its not so distant past.

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