April 5, 2000
You cover your head with your chador(a cloak covering most of a woman's body), and wait patiently, while the women to your right and left adjust their chadors, too. The space in front of your eyes transforms into a sea of chadors, with floral- and pastel-colored head coverings dotting the landscape of black. You are a drop in the ocean of Muslims here. You have heard that up to 12 million pilgrims, like yourself, come here to Mashhad each year, and you give praise for this opportunity to see the holiest of all holy Shi'ite places in Iran. Standing humbly before your God, you give thanks for participating in midday prayer at the Astan Quds Razavi, this Holy Shrine Complex.
Your bare feet dig into the thick Persian rug beneath you, and out of the corners of your eyes you see ornately designed rugs stretching across the entire Imam Khomeini courtyard. The sun shines high in the sky but doesn't feel hot. You stand side by side with your relatives in the rectangular courtyard. There are fifty women in your row. Your father stands with fifty men in the same row, but on the other side. More than a hundred rows stretch out behind you and a few more in front. Alhumdilallah! There must be at least 100,000 of you and your fellow Muslims gathering to worship together.
You also see a group of four foreigners, standing in the doorway of the museum, watching you. One tries to catch your eye but you look down. These foreign women wear chadors but they do not prepare themselves as you do for the prayer. Unlike Mecca or Medina, the Astan Quds Razavi is open for non-Muslims to visit. Soon the bells start to ring, and you put the strangers and everything else out of your mind.
As the bells quiet down, the muzzein continues with the prayer. You kneel, then bow low to the ground twice, touching your forehead to a small stone that you carried from a stand near the fountain. These stones are special: they are clay, made from the earth where the Imam Reza, peace be upon him, met his death. All the first twelve imams were martyred, either by poison or the sword, and when Imam Reza died, he was buried by Caliph Ma'mun near the tomb of the Caliph's father, Haroun al-Raschid. His burial place was called Mashhad, which means "place of martyrdom," and it continues to be a pilgrimage site. Today the Astan Quds Razavi is one of the most developed religious and historical places in Iran.
As you continue with the noontime prayer, your mind drifts and you look around at the beautiful architecture around you: the Astan Quds Razavi has the most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture in Iran. The art inscribed on the walls makes your heart soar. The 15 alcoves in the walls to your right and left give the courtyard depth and a feeling of openness. When you look close at the designs on the intricate tilework, inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, you can see the names Allah (God), Mohammed (the Muslim prophet), Fatima (Mohammed's daughter), Ali (Mohammed's son-in-law), and Hussein and Hassan (the children of Fatima and Ali). There are also pictures of flowers, geometric designs, and bits of mirror. When you look at the tilework as a whole, you see that all the small pieces are arranged into a huge, beautifully designed masterpiece.
The whole complex is filled with courtyards like this, as well as endless corridors and doorways, six madrassas (Muslim religious schools) and two mosques, and twelve eivans (rectangular halls), two of which are covered with gold. There's also a library (with volumes in 57 languages about Islam), fountains, and three museums, which are all filled with donations and gifts from the faithful. You had no idea it was so huge! When you and your sister came down the crowded Eman Reza Avenue with all the other pilgrims (it took an hour to get here), she pointed out both a blue dome and a gold-covered dome, which you could see from miles away.
When you entered the complex, there were tents where you were searched, but you were carrying no money or valuables, so they let you through. The foreigners, who entered right behind you, were carrying cameras but had to leave them at the gate due to security reasons; 27 people were killed by a bomb here in 1994. When you wandered through the courtyards and corridors to get here, you got lost in the tilework, mirrorwork, designs, and calligraphy that cover every available surface in all different colors: white, blue, gold, and green. You kissed all the doorways you passed, as a remembrance.
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