First Balloon Flight over Tehran

After the invention of the balloon and its first recorded flight on November 21, 1783, this early flight technology was to appear in Iran 108 years later in 1891 (Babaie, Gh. [1385/2006], “History of the Iranian Air Force”, page 18), towards the end of the reign of Qajar monarch, Nasser-e-din Shah (1848-1896). Other popular sources place the date of this balloon flight a number of years earlier at 1877.

A photo of Nasser-e-din Shah (r. 1848-1896) taken in c.1895 (Photo: Tarikhirani). He was to be the longest reigning Qajar king.

As noted by Babaie, a French aviation enthusiast arrived in Iran to demonstrate the balloon in flight. Local citizens in Tehran and Tabriz and a number of other cities in Iran were indeed to witness the balloon in flight for the first time. Interestingly, a short poem was soon composed by local citizens in Tehran and Tabriz in reference to the balloon’s appearance over the skies of Iran:

شاپو بر سر فرنگی به هوا رفت    توی بالن نشست نزد خدا رفت

(A westerner/European [translation of “Faranagi”] with a chapeau [French/European hat] went to the air – [He] sat in the balloon and went to God)

Local citizens gather around a French balloon about to lift off in Tehran. This is the earliest known photograph of the first balloon flight in Iran which according to Iranian historiography occurred in 1891 with other sources claiming the year of 1877 (Photo: Pinterest).

While aloft, the balloon was to often appear to ground observers as an elephant in flight! Apparently the shape and color of the balloon in combination with the reflection of sun rays upon its surface made this appear as if there was an elephant being suspended in mid-air! The memory of this balloon flight has thus become embedded in the collective memory of the Iranian populace to this day with the following expression:

فیل هوا کرده
([he/she] has put an elephant in the air)

Many modern-day Iranians however remain unaware of the origins of this expression. Instead, citizens often use this expression in reference to one who intends to (or is attempting to) achieve incredible (or impossible) feats.

The first aerial photo of Tehran was taken by another balloon approximately in (c.)1909 during the reign of the last Qajar monarch, Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-1925):

The first aerial photo taken of Tehran by a balloon approximately 90 years ago (Photo: Bartarinha). Note the contrast with modern-day Tehran – the skies are clear, and there are also no pollutants or skyscrapers.