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56 - Martyrs, mausoleums and mourning

IRAN | Friday, 16 November 2012 | Views [330]

Iran - Qom - ladies visiting a mausoleum and having their photo taken in front of the zarih

Iran - Qom - ladies visiting a mausoleum and having their photo taken in front of the zarih

The country seems to be obsessed with death and martyrdom. 

It may seem laughingly improbable, but one cannot drive for more than an hour in Iran, I think, without passing by a mausoleum; many of these are modest monuments, now on an inconspicuous side-road and kept by an ageing caretaker, but nonetheless revered if it is believed to contain a holy tomb.  The two most sacred monuments in Iran are also shrines to the dead – and in the case of the Imam Reza Holy Shrine, the Imam is also regarded as a martyr as it is widely believed that he was murdered.  

I decided to visit a few secular 14thC mausoleums in Qom as they have been described in the Bradt guide as having interesting architecture, eg coned domes and round double domes.  The gates to these mausoleums were however locked and we couldn’t find the usual tourist office guard to open them.  But it was not a wasted visit to the area as nearby were a couple of old holy mausoleums, well-visited by pilgrims.  One of them is the Ali ibn Jafar mausoleum which dates back to Safavid times (has the signature turquoise patterned coned dome) and contains a zarih which in turn houses the tomb.  As is typical, the space inside is divided into male and female worship areas and in the female area, the lady pilgrims were enthusiastically taking photos of themselves in front of the zarih.  There certainly isn’t the same feeling of fear or morbidness as exists with visiting cemeteries in other countries.

Also nearby is a cemetery for the dead from the Iran-Iraq war.  In Iran, they are widely referred to as martyrs.  Almost every family would have someone who went to the war and probably someone who died.  The youngest volunteers in the war were only teenagers.  It is quite common to see posters and banners throughout Iran of the faces of those who died during this war.  I was told that many of these posters and banners are put up privately.  The war cemetery has photographs of some of the deceased in glass encased frames that overarch the tombs.  The tombstones are carved with the characteristic red tulips – a symbol of the war dead.  Because the Iran-Iraq war dead are regarded to be martyrs, many ordinary citizens apparently also want to be buried nearby and the cemetery has now been expanded such that every inch of empty space is covered with tomb stones.  My guide found the tombstone of her university friend who died in a car accident when she was only 20.

As a contrast, the tomb of Shah Abbas I, arguably one of the most important kings in Iranian history responsible for much of the beautiful historical architecture in, is a modest black cenotaph housed inside the mausoleum of another less well-known holy man, in the relatively small town of Kashan and not in Mashhad or Isfahan, where the Shah had his capital.

The start of Moharram is coming up on 15 November.  It is a significant festival in Iran for commemorating the death of Hosseyn, the son of Ali and Fatima (Ali being the son-in-law and first Imam in the Shi’a faith).  Hosseyn and his 72 supporters had been killed by the Umayyad army in the 7thC in Kerbela (now in Iraq) after, by many accounts, a gruesome battle.   The whole country goes into collective mourning during the month of Moharram.   Cities in Iran hang up black flags and banners in the streets and mosques, sometimes with green and white writing of the name of Hosseyn and television stations are required to “tone down” their programming.  The more religious cities in Iran also carry out performances to re-enact the Kerbela battle and Hosseyn’s death, with young men carrying a large paisley shaped wooden frame (a “nakhla”).  Sometimes, the re-enactment also involves beating oneself with metal chains, presumably, to mimic the pain of Hosseyn – I have seen a shop in the bazaar in Kashan (one of the more religious cities in Iran) which sells Moharram “products”, including such chains (it is a metal loops attached to a wooden handle), metal shields and spears.  All of them look as if they could do some harm and aren’t just acting props.


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