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Middle East Monica Dispatch

The Holiest of Shrines: The Astan Quds Razavi of Mashhad
April 5, 2000

"Allah al-Akbah!" cries the muzzein (the prayer leader), and you stand up. It is 12:30pm on the first Thursday after the Persian New Year. You are in the Holy Shrine Complex in Mashhad, which is the resting place of the Imam Ali ibn Musa-ar-Reza, peace be upon him, the Eighth Shi'ite Imam of the Prophet Muhammad's household.

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The most holy Shi'ite pilgrimage site in Iran
Your female cousins, your aunts, your sisters, and your mother all rise to their feet with you. You turn your head to the right to catch a glimpse of your father and his brothers, who are standing with the men on the other side of the courtyard, beneath the marvelous blue dome of the Great Mosque of Gohar Shad.

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They frisk us in these tents: security is tight, no cameras allowed

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.

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Residents and pilgrims all on their way to pray at the 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.

Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the actual shrine where the Prophet is buried, but in the Guidance Office for Foreign Pilgrims there is an instructional video that shows the interior. The trekkers took off their shoes and entered this office during their visit. The guide encouraged them by saying, "This is an important place for every Muslim, so you [non-Muslims] are also welcome here." In the video, they show the interior of the shrine: the ceiling stretches into a dome, and the whole, huge eivan is covered in tilework. The Imam Reza's tomb is inside a large golden cage that pilgrims can touch.

They will send you free information on Islam or a copy of the Quran in language of your choice. Write:

Cultural Affairs of Astan Quds Razavi
International Relations
PO Box 91375-3131
Islamic Republic of IRAN
Phone: (051) 59090

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.

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Within the Falaké-yé Haram-é Motahhar, the ring road around the shrine complex

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.

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Brian at the entrance to the complex

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.

The Trek team is staying in a house in Mashhad with their guide Hadi, his wife Faribo, and their two children. Mashhad bursts with energy during the Persian New Year as Iranians arrive from all over the country. The population is usually around 2.1 million, but as many as 12 million pilgrims come each year to visit the Astan Quds Razavi.

Mashhad grew as a city because it is where the eighth grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Reza, died in 817 CE. According to legend, Imam Reza was poisoned in the village of Sanabad, near the ancient city of Toos.

The shrine around where the Imam Reza was buried grew to be a small town as pilgrims flocked to visit it. The shrine itself was destroyed in 944 CE and rebuilt in 1009 CE, but then destroyed again during the Mongol invasion in 1220 CE. The mausoleum was restored in the 14th century and the first mosque was built by Gohar Shad, the wife of the son of the famous Tamerlane.

Mashhad is the second-largest city in Iran, after Tehran.

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.


alcove - a recessed space next to the opening of a room
Qibla, or Kabba - the shrine at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Muslims pray in that direction
ornately - decorated in a fancy way
masterpiece - an example of skill and excellence
flocked - to go to in large numbers

As the prayers come to a close, you stand again. You bend down at the waist and quietly say thank you to Allah for the opportunity to visit the Astan Quds Razavi. As you stand straight again, you realize that this is the most magnificent place you've ever seen, masallah.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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