Mashhad, Iran

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.

Imam Reza Shrine, Mashhad

Imam Reza Shrine, Mashhad

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.

Huge: Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran

Huge: Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran

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.

Mosque in downtown Mashhad

Mosque in downtown Mashhad

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.

Downtown Mashhad, Iran

Downtown Mashhad, Iran

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.

Imam Reza Shrine at night (Image: Mohebin14, Wikimedia Commons)

Imam Reza Shrine at night (Image: Mohebin14, Wikimedia Commons)

What is the most sacred place you have ever visited? What was the experience like?

Comments (6)

  • Anna @ shenANNAgans Reply

    The mosque with the aqua/green top is gorgeous. I do enjoy the detail in the architecture. Am i right in thinking the Mashhad shrine is a place for mourning? People go their to mourn something that happened 1200 years ago?

    What is the most sacred place you have ever visited? Hmmm…. I think maybe the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, my first visit was mostly as a tourist, rubber necking the whole time, but when I went back the following day, it was magic, I sat quietly and meditated, it was peaceful and relaxing and fun.

    March 30, 2016 at 10:26 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Yep – that’s right. It’s especially big on the days of the anniversary of the death of the imam, or any of his relatives. It’s sort of a “paying respects and worship through an expression of grief/love” thing – if that makes more sense of it.

      As for Shwedagon Pagoda – that’s one incredible place. I didn’t want to leave it – the feeling of peace was really palpable.

      March 31, 2016 at 10:29 am
  • Agness Reply

    The most sacred place I’ve ever been to it Fatima and its holy sanctuary. It’s absolutely amazing and really spiritual, Tim. I hope you can make it there soon!! 🙂

    March 31, 2016 at 4:46 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Sounds amazing – I remember you writing about this. I hope I can go there one day too 🙂

      March 31, 2016 at 10:27 am
  • Andrew Boland Reply

    it does seem to have a central asian feel. One place I wish I’d visited in Iran! Thanks for a most interesting portrait!

    March 31, 2016 at 8:54 pm
    • Tim Blight Reply

      It’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” kind of place, owing to the fact that there’s not a lot on offer for the non-Muslim tourist, and the rest of the city is quite overbuilt. It’s a long way from anywhere (except the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan borders), so if you weren’t on your way to or from either of those countries, it would be a big detour.

      That said, the importance of the place is difficult to overstate, and the devotion is something to behold, even if a visitor isn’t Muslim.

      April 1, 2016 at 4:01 pm

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