The Once Magnificent City of Rey, Iran

Shahr-e-Rey – painting by Eugène Flandin

Though absorbed into the ever-expanding metropolis that is the Iranian capital of Tehran, the city of Rey has ancient roots that go back at least 6000 years. In fact, when Tehran and most of the other settlements in the area were either villages or didn’t even exist, Rey was known throughout antiquity as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. From centuries before the birth of Christ until the early Middle Ages, Rey (also spelled Rayy) played an important role both in the history and culture of Iran. Unfortunately this abruptly ended in the 13th century when the city was sacked by the Mongols.

Brief History of Rey

While archaeologists have uncovered evidence of habitation nearly 8000 years ago, written records from other peoples provide some proof a settlement on what is now Rey existed at least 3500. The city is mentioned in the Zoroastrian Holy Texts written in Avesta (circa 1800 BCE) and also in Median and some Mesopotamian chronicles. One legend even has it that the Prophet Zarathushtra was born here, though there is little historical evidence to support this. In Biblical and Greek times, the city was referred to as Rhages and also Europos by Seleucus I Nicator, the general who ruled the area after the death of Alexander of Macedonia.

Rey was an important center of commerce and religion during the Parthian and Sasanian periods. In 641, the Arabs conquered Rey for Islam. The city prospered under the Abbasid Caliphs with one of them, Harun al-Rashid, being born here. Another city notable was the famous physician and philosopher, al-Razi (known as Rhazes in the West).

Rey’s prosperity continued when the Turkic Seljuk sultans arrived in the 11th century and made it their capital for a time. Back then, the city was known as one of the most beautiful in eastern Islamic world and said to have rivaled both Baghdad and Damascus in grandeur and wealth. However, the city’s good fortune came to an abrupt end in 1220 when it was sacked by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan. After that, Rey more or less lost its commercial and cultural significance, though it remained a special place of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims (the descendants of several Shia Imams and holy men are buried here).

Today, Rey is a shadow of its former self, being more or less a suburb of modern Tehran. Despite the character of the city changing rapidly, there are still a few historical sites that make it worth a visit.

Things to see and do in Rey

Imamzadeh of Shah Abd al-Azim

Shia Shrine in Rey, Iran

The Imamzadeh or Shrine of Shah Abd al-Azim is probably the most visited site in Rey. It is here that the graves of Shia Muslim holy men, specifically descendants of third and fourth Shia Imams, reside. The interior of the shrine has some of the best Persian mirror tile-work of anywhere in Iran. In the northern part of the shrine complex is the Toghal tower containing the tomb of the Seljuk ruler Toghrol Beg.

Cheshmeh Ali, Qajar Rock Carvings and Rey Castle

Qajar rock carvings and Rey Castle at Cheshmeh Ali; photo from

Just walking distance from the Shah al-Azim Shrine is Cheshmeh Ali, a series of ancient natural springs. This used to be a popular place for carpet weavers to wash their newly created rugs, but now it is a place for men and children to cool off (sorry, no women allowed). Just above the springs on the face of a rocky hill are 19th-century rock carvings commissioned by two Qajar kings, Fath Ali Shah and Nasser al-Din Shah. Both reliefs show the monarchs with several of their sons beside them.

Photo by Orijentolog – Wikicommons

At the top of the Cheshmeh Ali hill are the ruins of the old Rey castle. It is believed that the foundations of the fortress were laid over 4000 years ago. The castle was later absorbed into the Median Empire and is said to have been an important outpost. Successive rulers rebuilt and expanded the castle until it fell into disuse after the Mongol invasion of Iran. Today, the ruins of the castle are a fun place to climb and explore.

Shrine of Bibi Shahrbanu

Photo by Reza Mazaheri –

Though steeped in legend, the Shrine of Bibi Shahrbanu is one of the more interesting places around Tehran. The story of Shahrbanu goes something like this: she was the daughter of the last Sasanian King, Yazdegerd III and later became the wife of Imam Hussein. After the battle of Karbala, where Imam Hussein was martyred in battle by agents of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, Shahrbanu was fleeing capture until she reached the outskirts of Rey. There in despair, she called on God to save her from her advancing assassins. The mountain then opened up and swallowed her, taking her directly to Paradise. A piece of cloth from her clothing was supposedly found at the site and used as proof of this miraculous event, thus canonizing her as a local Iranian saint. Whether or not the tale is actually true is irrelevant can probably never be proven. The story though does make Shahrbanu both a Shia religious and Iranian nationalist hero.

Nagareh Khaneh

Nagareh Khaneh
Located atop a small hill known as Tabrak is Nagareh Khaneh, on old octagonal tower most likely from the Suljuk period. In the 1920s and 30s, teams of archaeologists discovered several ancient artifacts including fabrics and ceramic work and around the structure, signifying that this was once an important place. It’s quite a unique site.

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