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Frank Harold

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A narrow belt of rugged mountains runs across northern Iran, dividing the arid plateau from the lush provinces along the Caspian shore. Afghanistan, likewise, is bisected by bands of mountains (including the towering Hindu Kush) that wall off the southern deserts from the steppes of Turkestan. The two uplifts are separated by a gap some 50 miles wide, a natural passage between Iran and Central Asia, that has hosted merchants and invaders for centuries. Mashad, situated on a tributary of the Hari Rud river and facing Turkestan, commands the gap. By Iranian standards, Mashad is not an ancient city. But it is Iran’s second-largest (pop. over two million in 1992), the capital of the important province of Khorassan, and a center of industry, commerce and learning. More significantly, Mashad holds the most sacred religious shrine in all of Iran, and by far the most sumptuous.

In the early Middle Ages, prior to the 13th century C.E., Mashad was but a small town clustered around the tomb of a martyred saint. A much more considerable place was Tus, some 15 miles away (known then by another name). Tus was not only an important trading center but also the home of poets and scholars; Ferdowsi, whose place in Iranian letters is comparable to Shakespeare’s in ours, wrote his epic Book of Kings here in about 1000 C.E. But Tus, like so many other flourishing cities in that part of the world, was devastated by the Mongols (1221 C.E.). The town recovered somewhat, but then fell afoul of one of Timur’s sons (1389 C.E.); it was never rebuilt. What one sees there today is the somber ruins of the mud-brick citadel (see image), and the modern cenotaph of Ferdowsi. A very similar fate befell Nishapur, the capital city of Khorassan. This, too, was laid waste by the Mongols, who left only ruins behind (image). The survivors gravitated to Mashad, which was destined for much greater things.

Mashad refers to a place of martyrdom, specifically that of Ali ar-Riza, (Reza in Farsi), eighth in the line of Shia Imams, spiritual leaders descended from the Prophet Muhammad. The circumstances are murky. The Caliph al-Ma’mun (813 - 833 C.E.) appointed the Imam Reza his successor, which pleased the Caliph’s restive Shia subjects but infuriated Sunnis. Two years later, while travelling through Khorassan in the Caliph’s retinue, the Imam suddenly died: of a surfeit of grapes according to Sunnis, of poison according to Shias. Reza was buried in a garden that already housed the tomb of al-Ma’mun’s father, the Caliph Harun-al- Rashid (he of the Arabian Nights). Reza’s tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage; the story goes that worshippers would pray at the tomb of the Imam, while kicking that of the Caliph (which has since disappeared). Over time the Shrine increased in size and wealth, and the surrounding village grew into a town. Both shrine and town were destroyed by the Mongols, but were quickly rebuilt with the help of generous donations from wealthy pilgrims. In the 15th century, the formidable Gowhar Shad, wife of Timur’s son and successor, erected here the splendid mosque that bears her name; it is regarded by authorities as one of the pinnacles of Iranian architecture.



Mashad’s fortunes improved further in the 16th century C.E., when the Safavid dynasty rose to power and imposed the Shia brand of Islam on the entire country. Shah Tahmasp, and later Shah Abbas the Great, lavished grand buildings upon the shrine, glittering with silver and gold. Pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Imam Reza was promoted as a substitute for Mecca in Arabia, ruled by the rival and Sunni Ottoman sultans. The city of Mashad grew apace under royal patronage; Shah Abbas endowed it with the broad thoroughfare that still bisects the city and gives access to the Shrine at its center. Nadir Shah made Mashad his capital, and added to the Shrine’s splendor. William Lee, a factor of the East India Company, visited Mashad in 1696 and was clearly impressed. “ Here’s all sorts of fruit and provisions extraordinary good and cheap, the air as farre as I have seen of itt is much like Europe; ye trade of this place most relies upon India, from whence comes all sorts of Cloth, Chints, Shawls, Indigo etc., as ye Mogull’s dominion is but a month’s travell from ys. place.” (Cited in Lockhart, 1960). Because of its location the city suffered often from raids by Afghans, Uzbeks and Turkish nomads, and from the instability that beset all of Iran at various times in the 18th and 19th centuries; but pilgrims and caravans continued to come.


Even from the outside, the complex of buildings that make up the Shrine of the Imam Reza is one of the glories of Iran. The sacred precincts are defined by a circular road built in the ‘thirties by Reza Shah. Short alleys of the covered bazaar penetrate a little way into the circle, lined with small shops selling religious articles and crowded with the manifold peoples of eastern Iran. Foreigners can wander about freely, but all too soon each alley ends at an entrance into the “Harram”, the forbidden core. There stands a guard holding a silver-headed cane, who waves the infidel back if shopkeepers have not done so already.


My family and I had the privilege of visiting the Shrine semi-officially in 1969, when it was relatively open to non-Muslims. Past the entrance we found ourselves in the Old Court, a broad paved expanse surrounded by arcades faced with colored tiles. But the overriding sensation is of gold: the golden ivans, huge open-fronted halls characteristic of Iranian buildings; gold-covered minarets; and the great golden dome with its deep-blue inscription that dominates the Court. Conspicuous though we must have been, with our entourage of officials from the Shrine and the Iranian Tourist Organization, the crowds of worshippers were too intent on their devotions to pay us much heed. Some were performing the required ablutions at the fountain in the middle of the Court. Old men sat quietly, absorbed in large Qurans propped open on carved wooden bookrests. And a mass of pilgrims, chanting and praying and weeping, were gathered by a barred window that looks upon the tomb itself.


We passed from there into the courtyard of Gowhar Shad’s mosque (15th century C.E.), and into the full glory of Persian architecture. Nowhere in Iran, not even in Isfahan or Yazd, does glazed tile attain greater perfection of color and design. Every foot of the walls, ivans, dome and minarets is faced with mosaic tiles: arabesques, fields of flowers, geometric patterns. A great inscription proclaiming the unity of God frames the arch that leads into the sanctuary, the work of the master- calligrapher Baisangor, himself of royal descent. Glazed tiles demand constant maintenance and repair, and a workshop dedicated to this craft has been constructed on the roof of the mosque. The sanctuary seems plain by comparison with the exterior, a great white-washed hall whose walls and ceiling bear designs imitating tile; but the floor and the mihrab (a prayer niche oriented towards Mecca) gleam with marble. Beside the mihrab stands a delicately carved pulpit; tradition holds that on the Day of Judgement a saint will ascend this pulpit to proclaim the end of the world.


The heart of the Shrine is the tomb-chamber itself, to which there was no official admittance; but on another occasion an opportunity arose for me to enter it incognito. It was one of the days of Muharram, the week of deep mourning that marks the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein at the battle of Kerbala, with gloomy weather to match. The Old Court, so peaceful on our earlier visit, was jammed with worshippers. Some were holding up embroidered banners, but many had chosen to taste of martyrdom for themselves, whipping their own backs with flails to the measure of a slow, rhythmic chant. It was not the time or the place to attract attention, and I was careful to copy my guide’s every action. Kissing the door, bowing to the Shrine and mumbling what I hoped would be taken for a prayer, we pased into the sanctuary.


The Mausoleum consists of a series of chambers faced with tiles or with dazzling fragments of mirror glass, a fashion long popular in Iran. Impressions of detail stand out still: an enormous chandelier, the magnificent doors studded with chased silver plates, and in the center the tomb itself. Encrusted with inscribed plaques of silver and gold, it rears high above the mass of worshippers. For many, this is the supreme moment of their lives. Praying and chanting, eyes shut in ecstasy, they press in upon the tomb to touch and kiss its sides, lifting up their children that they too may touch and share in the Saint’s grace.


We made our way out as the Muezzin began the call to prayer, for a festive lunch at the nearby, spanking modern Hotel Iran. I had got away with it, crashing a gate that I was not entitled to enter, and still young enough to be proud of the exploit. Thirtyfive years later, this clandestine pilgrimage remains in my mind as one of the most moving experiences in a year filled with marvels.


The history of Mashad, Nishapur and Tus (including the complexities of the names) is covered in detail in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, Leiden 2002). The most readable account is in Persian Cities by L. Lockhart (Luzac & Co, London 1960). The Travel Guide to Iran, by M. T. Faramarzi (Yassavoli Publications, Tehran 2000), gives a contemporary description of Mashad and its monuments. Robert Byron’s description of his abortive attempt to crash the gates is priceless (The Road to Oxiana, Jonathan Cape, London, 1937). My own account draws on notes taken after the visits in 1969.

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© 2006 Frank Harold.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Additional funding has been provided by the Silkroad Foundation (Saratoga, California).