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55 - Southwards towards Qom - "the King is in between books!"

IRAN | Wednesday, 14 November 2012 | Views [396]

Iran - Qom - Fatima Shrine

Iran - Qom - Fatima Shrine

Driving southwards from Tehran, one passes the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini at the outskirts of the capital.   There are hundreds if not thousands of parking spaces surrounding the mausoleum along with colourful covered park tables and seats.  The whole concept seems to be that of a “trailer park” for family outings.  In fact, there were dozens of tents pitched around the mausoleum – apparently families had driven from elsewhere, parked their cars, pitched their tents on the green lawns intersecting the parking lots, unpacked their picnics and staked out a table for their “mausoleum holiday”.  It all seemed rather jolly – and odd.  Odd not just because they are holidaying at a mausoleum, but also because the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum is in the middle of nowhere and is not otherwise particularly green or picturesque.   I guess the lack of distractions focuses the faithful and discourages kids from running off.  

The mausoleum originally had a gold-coloured dome and four gold minarets (I suspect it’s actually brass and not gold leaf).  Apparently, in an attempt to distinguish the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum from that of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the domes and minarets are now being re-gilded in silver.  I guess this is the politically correct thing to do but one wonders why no one thought of that earlier….  

A two hours’ drive south from Tehran is the city of Qom, now regarded as the second holiest city in Iran after Mashhad as this is where the shrine of Fatima (sister to the Imam Reza – the one who is buried in Mashhad) is located, and also where the Ayatollah Khomeini had studied and started to promoted revolution.   Other than the Shrine of Fatima (and excepting the wonderful dessert “sohan”), Qom is otherwise a rather run-down and depressing city.   As with the Holy Shrine in Mashhad, the area surrounding the Fatima Shrine is a lively and burgeoning bazaar selling everything from clothes to pilgrim souvenirs to fruit and snacks.  In front of the main entrance to the Fatima Shrine is a large square (the city planners knew their job well as the square helps create an impressive effect as one approaches the Shrine as well as serving as a waiting area to accommodate overflow visitors). 

The mausoleum of the Shrine sits under a golden dome flanked by two shorter gold-topped minarets on one side and two taller minarets on another side.   The courtyards of the Shrine complex are also liberally decorated with tilework and there is mirror work inside the mausoleum.   The entire Shrine complex also contains libraries and schools but the area of the complex is much smaller than that of the Holy Shrine at Mashhad and perhaps a little less intimidating as a result; the feeling is more that of a “neighbourhood” Shrine than a “destination” Shrine.

Interestingly for me, the Fatima Shrine appears to be fully open to non-Muslim visitors and I even managed to enter the inner sanctum where the actual tomb of Fatima is located (housed inside a zarih).  Again, the mausoleum is separated into male and female areas of worship.  There is less crying and wailing but there are hundreds of ladies and girls sitting and the outer areas of the mausoleum hall reading their Korans, having tea and chatting occasionally with fellow pilgrims.

Although the Fatima Shrine has a more liberal policy towards non-Muslims, it seems to be stricter in terms of policing women’s appearances.  There appeared to have been dozens of Shrine “police” stalking the complex, and using blue or green feather dusters (yes, the same type we use to clean high unreachable corners at home…) to swat, with a word of warning or a gesture, at women with hair escaping from their hejabs or non-compliant chadors.   On the other hand, the atmosphere at the Holy Shrine at Mashhad was more one of assisting the pilgrims than policing them.

The Fatima Shrine complex also contains the tombs of some Saffavid (17thC) and Qajar (19thC) kings.  My guide and I return to the Shrine in the late afternoon for a second visit to search for the tombs as they weren’t evident during our first morning visit.  We managed to find one of them but it is well-hidden away inside a newly-built pillar in a ladies’ shoe storage area.  It seems that none of the royal tombs are highlighted in any way as they aren’t considered to be important, being just secular tombs in a holy environment.  We then ask about the tomb of the famous Qajar king Fatih Ali Shah, the one reputed to have more than 200 wives in his harem.  The officer tells us (very much with a  straight face) that “Fatih Ali Shah is in between books!”  It seems that this lofty king’s tomb is now forgotten and a religious library has been built over it.  Divine justice perhaps!

On the subject of chadors, the Fatima Shrine usefully lends, free-of-charge lends, to ladies at the entrance.  However, I decided to buy my own chador; it will always come in useful on another visit to a strict Muslim country.  I decided on an all-black chador (there are patterned ones but a black one seems more functional), with sleeves as well as a very nifty internal elastic band at the head area which helps secure the chador to the head.  Chadors seem to come in various styles and not all of them are “round black tablecloths”.  The chador cost me 40,000 tomans (around US$20).



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