An infidel in the holy places

As I said in Cover up your sexy bits, Mashad’s Imam Reza shrine is the second biggest in the world (Mecca is somewhat more important) and it’s a battleground where worshippers of Imam Reza (the third Imam of 12) physically fight it out to come near the holy man’s casket.

It’s an amazing place.

The buildings are covered in bright blue and green, while golden domes and their equally luminescent minarets float above the acres of squares, mosques, medressas (that’s plural), museums, the university and underground cemetery that costs your life savings for a 30-year tenure of after-death proximity to the Imam.

Neon clocks and mood lighting of green, pink and orange highlight alcoves and corridors.

The shoe-lockers outside the mosques and tombs are scarily efficient, as is the Shia public relations outfit that is more digitally aware than a hipster tech entrepreneur (would you like your Koran as a hard copy or ebook?).

I visited the 24-hour shrine twice: once at night with some Iranian friends of friends, and the second time under the close supervision of a guide for international non-Muslims, which is how infidels are supposed to visit.

The first time was electric. It was late at night, about 10pm, on the most special day of the Muslim week – a Friday. The place was packed and there was still a remnant of the holiday atmosphere left over from Ramadan, which finished a week or two before.

Alexandra, the other western woman in our group, and I struggled with the chadors and looked on in fascination at how Sadab managed her drapery. Soon enough, though, the membership we gained to the sacred inner circle of the shrine made us temporarily forget the frustrations of maintaining mosque-level modesty inside our chadors.

We maintained an attitude of demure silence and kept eye contact to a minimum in order to enter the belly: Imam Reza’s tomb.

Imam Reza was assassinated with poisoned grapes and pomegranate juice in 818AD by Ma’mun, son of the caliph Haroun ar-Rashid who was immortalised in Tales of Arabian Nights, because the Imam refused to anoint Ma’mun as the spiritually preferable side in the bloody war with the warlord’s brother over the caliphate.

The tomb, and entrance to, are tiled in small mirrors all tilted at different angles, and bright lighting makes the rooms glow as beams are reflected back and forth around the sanctum.

It’s the the sort of décor casinos aspire to.

Alexandra and I tried not to gape as we entered the women’s side of the tomb (men are fenced off to the right, women to the left), partly to pretend we weren’t tourists and partly to protect ourselves.

The women here are renowned before being more physical in their worship than men. Hands thrust us forward as exiting pilgrims barrelled into us, left and right, and the stewards, armed with their brightly coloured feather dusters, were barely able to maintain the ebbs and flows of the sea of chadors.

We did not make an attempt on the tomb itself. I’ve been in mosh pits less violent than the heaving mass of women in that room.

The next day I went back to play the infidel tourist role: with an officially sanctioned guide who subtly steered me away from the forbidden areas and into just enough of the slightly off-limits ones to keep her charge happy.

Shahida (meaning ‘famous lady’ in Persian) was a wealth of knowledge and one of thousands of volunteers who man the shrine.

As we passed two old men volunteers leaning haphazardly on their canes, she said some jobs are passed down from father to son and there are families who have been involved with the shrine in the same capacity for over 200 years – not mean feats when prospective volunteers must join a waiting list, before passing several interviews and exams just to be accepted as a junior.

The shrine is about 1200 years old, so there are plenty of stories in its hallowed grounds.

The square of the main mosque is where revolutionaries made a futile last stand when the Shah banned the headscarf (the bullet holes are still in the walls) and Gohar Shad, the daughter-in-law of Central Asian empire-maker Tamerlane, was responsible for some of the biggest and best buildings n the complex. She had a thing for nice architecture and religion, bankrolling many of the better temples this side of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

The crypt was one of the more sanitised areas in the whole place.

For an astronomical sum that Shahida did not know but guessed to be US$17,000 (374 million rials at today’s unofficial rate, and it’s actually more than that by a magnitude of lots), the very pious can be buried near the great Imam for 30 years. If their family stumps up after that, they can stay for another 30, otherwise they get jarred up and given back to the family.

The buried are identified by a metre-square tile, so the bodies are packed in tight. An inscription in black means they’re garden variety pilgrims; red indicates a descendant of Mohammad; and green is a martyr.

There were a few people holding vigils while I was there – some with blanket, chips and fizzy drink (no one, and I mean no one, can out-picnic an Iranian) – and one section of 2 tiles left blank which was where the unidentifiable remains of a group of PHd students and their teacher were killed in a bus accident a year ago.

I even saw two funerals. These Muslims don’t go in for fancy caskets: the emotive processions through the crowded mosques and squares better described their loss than any showy display of money – but then again, being buried near Imam Reza is a showy display of money.

There were less tears and beating of breasts during the day then the night, though not by much, as the pilgrims – man and woman – mourned the death of their beloved Imam.

I lasted five hours on my second visit, battling the heat, the chador, and the crowds of tunnel-visioned pilgrims, and yet I still didn’t see it all nor hear half the stories associated with the place.

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