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IRAN | Sunday, 4 April 2010 | Views [607]

Mashhad, like Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, is one of the holy cities of Shi'a Islam. As the resting place of the eighth Imam, Reza, its golden domed shrine and adjacent courtyards spread over several city blocks. There is underground parking, a museum, circular ramps for the considerable traffic, souvenir sellers of every kind, and most of all pilgrims.

The attraction of this place and the impact of the visitors is enormous. I have heard estimates that five million – the population of a largish city – pass through each year. Consequently Mashhad is full of hotels and the sky constantly disturbed by Tupolevs straining upward from the nearby airport.

As a tourist there is very little of the shrine you can see. Docents meet you at any of the many perimeter gates and quickly escort you to the office of external relations. Here they note your nationality and religion – for statistical purposes – and offer to screen a video of the many places it is forbidden non-Muslims to go. This sounds like a poor choice so we ask instead to visit those parts of the shrine it is possible to see.

The guide is a retired school teacher, one of the 20,000 volunteers at the shrine. He is quick to offer uncontroversial religious trivia ['man is made from clay'], much slower to talk about the 30 year building project that has replaced the tight scrum of covered bazaars with these vast and empty plazas. The building work goes on. Most of the facades are rough concrete and steel mesh. The tile work is prefabricated and installed in sheets.

I interrupt a speech on the return of all the prophets [Jesus, Moses, Abraham] at Judgement Day and ask about his family. A wife, also a retired teacher. Two children, the daughter trained as a lawyer, the son an engineer. He loses interest, leaves us at the museum, and departs.

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