Mashhad is the holiest city in Iran, home to the jewel-encrusted, gold-plated Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. In the year 799, the then-king invited the imam for dinner one night. Little did the Imam know that the king had spiked his drink with a deadly poison, and Reza was quietly buried later that night to avoid public mourning of his death.
Things have changed. Mashhad is now a pilgrimage site for many Muslims, and pilgrims are encouraged to pour out their emotions at the Shrine. This is to compensate for what was a cold-hearted, grief-less murder 1200 years ago. The crying and wailing of hundreds of ‘mourners’ is what separates Mashhad from many other important Muslim cities. Indeed, the name ‘Mashhad‘ means “the place of martyrdom”. The religious sentiment in the city is as deep as it is hard for foreigners to relate to. People pray on the pavement. Mullahs on motorbikes.
They see few westerners out this way (like, very few!) and when they do they are so excited to know what would take you there. Like Hamid, the 22 year old who I met on the bus from Gorgan who is training for the Islamic clergy. He told me about his concern that Muslims were getting a bad name in countries like Australia, and said he wanted to change that. Despite my protesting, he insisted on paying for my taxi ride, lunch and tea. He took me inside Imam Reza’s shrine and at the end of the day presented me with a beautiful bound copy of the holy Qur’an. When I asked if I could repay him, he said all he wanted was my email address so we could keep in touch. His (and other Mashhadis’) generosity left a lasting impression on me.
The city plan and it’s history is built entirely around Reza’s shrine; this is possible because when Reza was buried there was nothing else there. The shrine itself is immense. It is one of the largest buildings in the world including 7 mosques, 2 universities and 10 courtyards that each can hold several thousand worshippers. To give you some idea of the size of the complex, it took me two hours to walk around the perimeter. Inside, amongst the maze of buildings is the harem, or forbidden precinct. Imam Reza’s tomb is made entirely from gold and in a room with walls covered entirely in diamonds set in platinum. To see, and to touch the tomb is an essential part of the pilgrimage, and was indeed a profound moment for myself. It was an experience almost beyond belief, and one that I know I will have trouble matching.
I had spent much of this week getting excited about going to Mashhad, but while the shrine is dazzling, unfortunately today Mashhad is yet another Middle Eastern city, choked by pollution and traffic. The cityscape is, well, Central Asian. It’s as though someone has taken one million religious Iranians, one million Afghan refugees, a melee of other nationalities, put them all into a musty nylon bag, farted into it, then emptied it out on to the desert. Then, dead centre, they stuck a diamond (the shrine). Remarkable.