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52 - The holiest place in Iran (Part 2)

IRAN | Sunday, 11 November 2012 | Views [491]

Iran - Mashhad - a glimpse inside the Holy Shrine complex

Iran - Mashhad - a glimpse inside the Holy Shrine complex

Apart from the Imam Reza mausoleum itself, the most beautiful part of the Holy Shrine complex at Mashhad is said to be the Goharshad Mosque which has a distinctive turquoise dome with yellow Kufic calligraphy at its base. Viewed from afar, the sight of the turquoise dome sitting adjacent to the gold dome of the Imam Reza mausoleum which is flanked by two gold minarets, is breathtaking - beautiful certainly, but also calculated to humble and overwhelm.

After visiting the museums, my Shrine guide then pulled me close and asked me to walk very near her as she was to lead me through certain courtyards normally not allowed to non-Muslims and to see the Goharshad Mosque. Goharshad was a queen during the 15thC Timurid era, wife of Shah Rukh (yes, the same name as given to the famous Indian actor). The Timurids considered themselves to be descendants of Genghis Khan. Goharshad was a particularly enterprising and architecturally-minded queen, and commissioned several monuments, the most beautiful of which is regarded to be the mosque at the Holy Shrine complex at Mashhad.

Each of the courtyards is connected by “porticos”, the word used in the Shrine complex to describe the large arched doorways that connect different areas of the complex. The porticos are richly decorated in faience style tilework as in the Imam Square in Isfahan (ie mosaic tiles – the most difficult tilework to assemble as each colour is a separate piece). The tiles are in traditional Saffavid colours of blue, green and yellow laid out in flowery or other symmetrical patterns. Inside each courtyard are carpets laid out for prayers. The courtyard of the Goharshad mosque also has an octagonal marble fountain for ablutions. All along the hallways of the porticos are offices, indoor praying areas and shoe storage areas. Even the shoe storage areas (separated for men and women) are fully decorated from ceiling to mid-wall in elaborate mosaic mirror work reflecting the light from the huge chandeliers hanging in the middle of each room. In many Mughal and Qajar palaces that I have visited, mosaic mirror work have been mounted on all of the ceiling and walls to enhance the sparse candlelight or isolated electrical lights. Inside a religious structure, in addition to the beauty of the mosaic mirror work, the reason there aren’t any proper mirrors is of course because Islam prohibits the worship of images.

Following the Goharshad mosque, we meet up again with my regular guide who had not come with me to the Goharshad mosque (the three of us together would have stood out too much). We then hurry into the Azadi courtyard where one set of entrances to the Imam Reza mausoleum is located. The mausoleum is positioned directly under the golden dome. There are two entrances for men and one for ladies, with each entrance shielded by green hanging curtains. I was told that each entrance leads to a chamber which then in turn leads to another chamber which contains the zarih (the large “box” latticed on all four sides which houses the tomb). The chamber which holds the zarih is partitioned by glass or Lucite into two sections, one for men and the other for women. Standing at the entrance (I wasn’t allowed to enter the mausoleum itself), I also saw intricate mosaic mirror work decorating the entire outer chamber and an unending procession of pilgrims streaming through the entrances, jostling to make their way in. I have read and was also told that there are so many people inside the zarih chamber crushed together and pushing to get close to the zarih to touch it. My regular guide told me that she has never been able to touch the zarih herself. In the account by the New Zealand tourist, she also describes the crowds, the heat and the overwhelming emotions coursing through the zarih chamber. I had read that a specially blended rosewater is regularly sprayed inside the zarih chamber to “offset” the odour of humanity. This rosewater is available for sale (the enterprising Razavi!) and I bought a small bottle of but haven’t yet been able to find out if the rosewater is made in Kashan (famous for rosewater) or France (from which Iran imports a lot of perfumes, judging from the shops in the bazaar).

As I could not enter the mausoleum itself, my Shrine guide suggested I visit the “Steel Window” instead. This is a steel latticed window in an adjacent courtyard and the window looks into the zarih chamber (but not directly as there is another set of windows between the Steel Window and the zarih chamber). Pilgrims who are unable to squeeze their way into the mausoleum go instead to the Steel Window to touch its lattices as a proxy and push money (donations) through the lattices. The approach to the Steel Window is also divided into two paths, separate for men and women. But the Steel Window is also blocked by crowds groping the steel lattice work and unwilling to move. I try to make my way past the black-cloaked women, most of them chanting or crying, and almost succeed touching the lattices but am blocked by an old lady who had trouble freeing herself from the crowd.  After I help the old lady to free herself from the crowds, it is too late and I have been pushed back again.  But the encounter has been sufficient and satisfying, and I felt I had managed to understand, if only just a little, the pilgrim experience.  Much as one might say about the clerics in Iran, I am at least grateful that they have enabled me to visit certain private areas that represent the heart of their faith.


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