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51 - The holiest place in Iran (Part 1)

IRAN | Saturday, 10 November 2012 | Views [358]

Iran - Mashhad - an entrance to the Holy Shrine

Iran - Mashhad - an entrance to the Holy Shrine

The Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad is the holiest place in the world for Shi’ite Muslims and the second holiest place for Muslims generally (Mecca of course being the holiest).   Non-Muslims are not permitted to visit Mecca but parts of the Shrine of Imam Reza (generally known in Iran as the Holy Shrine) are open to non-Muslims.   I had been thinking of visiting the Holy Shrine for many years given what I have read of its splendour (comparable to that of Isfahan’s Imam Square which I consider to be architecturally the most beautiful place in the world) and its importance as a pilgrimage destination for Shi’ites.   While I’m certainly not harbouring thoughts of converting to Islam, I have always wanted to perform the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) or walk the Camino de Santiago (the pilgrimage through France to northern Spain) just for the experience of being with pilgrims and experiencing the emotions and epiphanies (or not) of a pilgrimage.   Before this trip, I had also read a few accounts from non-Muslims of their experiences in the Holy Shrine and all of them spoke of being overwhelmed and filled with unexpected feelings.  I had therefore great expectations for my visit – and was not disappointed.

Imam Reza is regarded by Shi’ite Muslims as the eighth Imam  (the first being Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed).   Mashhad means “Martyr” in Arabic and was the place where the Imam Reza was said to have been murdered by eating the poisoned grapes sent by the Caliph at that time who was apparently fearful of Imam Reza’s influence.

The mausoleum of Imam Reza is the epicenter of the Holy Shrine and sits under a golden dome flanked by two golden minarets which, together with the nearby turquoise-domed Gohad Shar Mosque, can be viewed from afar from all directions, as if calling the faithful.   It is open 24 hours a day and fully lit up at night making for an impressive landmark not unlike the Eiffel Tower or Arc d’Triomphe for example.  But the Holy Shrine is not just the mausoleum and a few mosques but a vast religious, educational – and commercial – complex that is expanding all the time.  It owns lands, schools, libraries, hospitals and such, and makes and sells goods for sale to the faithful and to tourists.  Like the Vatican, it is reputed to have enormous financial holdings.  The business of the Holy Shrine operates under an organization named “Razavi” and there are Razavi sweets, Razavi biscuits, Razavi saffron and other momentoes everywhere.

The Holy Shrine complex sits like an island in the middle of Mashhad and a circuit of roads has been built around and towards it.  Sort of like an “all roads lead to Rome” concept.  Non-muslims must enter via a particular entrance and all women must be wearing a chador when they enter.  Fortunately my guide has a chador of my size that she lent to me and this is an “easy fit - modern” chador which comes with an elastic band that goes around the back of the head and which helps keep the chador secure on the head over the hejab (head scarf).  

Properly clothed, my guide and I walk up to the information desk when I was then connected by phone to an English-speaking voice who asks me for the purpose of my visit.  Soon, a young man dressed in a slim silvery grey European suit comes to pick us up.  We enter through one of the ladies’ entrances and were frisked thoroughly.  As a result of the bomb explosion a few years ago, cameras are now not allowed in the Holy Shrine complex but strangely, phones with cameras are permitted.  The nattily suited young man took us to the International Visitors’ office – a vast high-ceilinged room of pillars and arches and covered with carpets, but with nothing exceot two desks at the far corner.  It is a room designed to intimidate, I suspect.  I was asked to take a seat in front of a young bespectacled black-turbaned cleric (a mullah?) who then proceeds to interview me in a seemingly disarming manner.  He asks about the purpose of my visit and my travels.  I told him it was a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Holy Shrine (true).  He then compliments me on my English fluency and we exchange a few thoughts about Pakistan (he was curious about Lahore and Islamabad).   The cleric then asks a special English-speaking Holy Shrine guide to take me around the Shrine complex (ie, to monitor my guide and I and make sure I don’t go anywhere forbidden to non-Muslims).   I had told my guide about a book I had read of a New Zealand girl who had managed to slip unnoticed inside the Imam Reza’s mausoleum itself and wrote about her very moving experience.  My guide asked the cleric if I might be permitted to enter.  The cleric “regretfully” declines but apparently allowed the Shrine guide to take me through one of the forbidden courtyards right up to the doors of the mausoleum.   He also hands me a “goodies bag” with a map, various brochures about parts of the Shrine complex and guides to Imam Reza and the Shia faith.  The bag also contains a CD which I am told shows the inside of the mausoleum.

The Shrine guide is a young girl in her late twenties with big long-lashed eyes, wrapped in a black chador over a blue hejab and a matching blue and brown checked “manteau” (a typical knee length western style ladies coat in Iran).  She turned out to be quite humorous and charming throughout the time.  Not what I expected.   She told me that thousands of volunteers, including herself, work for free in the complex whether as guides, or information officers, or as drivers of the electric cars for the disabled and elderly.  Her own hours were from 7am to 2pm and then another shift takes over.

The entire Shrine complex is enormous – almost reminding me of Disneyland in the US, with over ten courtyards comprising the mausoleum, various mosques, museums, Madresas (theological schools) and offices.   Each courtyard is at least the size of six or seven football fields.   Only a very small part of the Shrine complex is open to non-Muslims – basically a route from the International Visitors’ office through a courtyard into another courtyard which contains the three museums and then out of the Shrine complex into a bazaar of Razavi-run shops.   I was however fortunate enough to be guided (albeit quickly) through a few other areas.

We start with the shops but there is nothing of interest that wasn’t already in the goodies bag and I didn’t want sweets and biscuits, blessed as they may be by the spirit of the Imam….  We then walk back towards the museums and I decided to visit two of the three museums: the Carpet Museum and the Central Museum.  The Carpet Museum has carpets dating back to more than 140 years old and of incredibly fine quality both in terms of the density of knots and subject matter.  One of the carpets made in Isfahan appeared to be 3-dimensional!  Many of them were endowments to the Holy Shrine.  The Central Museum was more interesting to me as it showcases Shrine relics from the past, including a 900-year old piece of grave stone which is the oldest remains from the original sarcophagus of the Imam Reza.   In addition, the Central Museum displays two of the earlier Zarihs (the burial chamber) and mehrabs (altars) in the Imam Reza’s mausoleum.  The tomb of the Imam is encased in marble and the marble tomb is in turn housed inside the zarih, in effect a large box of around 5m long and 4m high with latticed sides.  The latest zarih was constructed after the 1979 revolution in Iran and is made of wood and steel and covered with gold and silver foil which is in turn intricately carved, and the top of the zarih is a piece of velvet embroidered with flowers and calligraphy.  Every few hundred years, as the zarih decays, a new zarih is constructed with the first zarih dating back to the 10th C.  It is hard to describe the  juxtaposition of imposing majesty and intricate craftwork of each zarih.   But more jaw-dropping and overwhelming moments were still to come.


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