The Holiest City in Iran

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Middle East » Iran
October 5th 2014
Published: June 21st 2017
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Geo: 34.7946, 60.5005

My crossing into Iran was easier than expected except it's a way complicated border. My driver took me to the first Turkmenistan checkpoint, where there was a queue - so he spoke to the guards and I jumped the queue (grumbly rumblings from the natives - quite right too - and if I had stood in the queue it might have prevented later problems). All they do at that checkpoint is write down, in a ledger - the IT revolution hasn't reached Turkmenistan yet - your passport number and your name. You then wait around for a minibus that takes you the 30kms through the mountains to the frontier proper Easy enough getting past Turkmenistan immigration (except for all the ladies who go back and forth trading stuff who are expert queue jumpers). Then you walk 50 metres to the Iran immigration where a guard takes your passport off you and says he will take it in, you go ahead and wait. 10 minutes watching Iran TV - mostly about the number of sheep who are going to be slaughtered for the Eid al-Hadha festival - when the guard appeared with a pile of passpots and mine on top. This was just about the same time I realised the time difference Turkmenistan/Iran was not 30 minutes - but an hour and a half. It was only 9 am, I was an hour early. I changed some money - 3 million Iran rials for US$100 - and followed what I thought were the right instructions to take a taxi the final couple of kilometres into the first town. Nice piece of miscommunication meant the taxi driver took off for the first large town 100 kms away but I soon discovered the error and got the taxi driver to phone the guide (whose number I had) and it all got sorted.
So - 2 and a half hours to Mashad.
Mashad is Iran's second largest city, and for one reason. It is the home of the shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th Imam who lived from 765 to 818. Iranians are predominantly Shia, there are subgroups of Shia but the largest group is the Twelvers who believe that following the death of Mohammed the spiritual leadership of the Islamic faith passed to 12 successive descendants of the prophet. These were known as Imams and apart from the first, Ali, they were not recognised
by the Caliphate - the fuundamental schism between Shia and Sunni. Reza is the only one not buried in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Furthermore he was assassinated by the Caliphate who feared his popularity - poisoned grape and pomeranate juice.
You can only imagine how holy that makes this place. The come in their thousands from all over the Muslim world to touch the cage inside which is his tomb and to partake in payers in the huge courtyard mtosques that surround it. It is all run by a charitable body that accepts donations which they use to constantly enlarge the complex and do other good works. And as this was a three day Eid holiday the place was even more crowded than usual.
First time in I had to hand in my bag - no bags/cameras allowed inside. But I soon realised everyone was taking pics with their phones - so when I went back that evening and next morning I joined them.
Interesting things. I got to join the line of pilgrims filing past the room inside which is the cage that surrounds his tomb. I'm not sure I was supposed to have got that far and was certainly not allowed
into the room itself. But anyone in the line who paused or tried to take a photo received a tap on the head from a green feather duster weilded by one of the attendants. I later saw them with yellow dusters which they used to tap ladies on the head which I took to be because they thought they were not sufficiently modest in their dress.
At one point my guide pointed out a muslim cleric making his way through the crowd with a gang of minders and told me he was head of the judiciary (that makes him about the second most powerful man in Iran, more powerful than the President). One of the minders hesrd this and turned and asked my guide who I was and where from. He shook my hand and told me something along the lines of Imam Reza looking for the good in everyone's heart. He then presented us with vouchers which allowed us to join 12, 498 other people in having a free lunch courtesy of Imm Reza (lamb/rice.pickled veg then cake and water). Honoured! I returned on my own that evening and spent some time listening without understanding to two of the preachers
who were preaching to the crowd (like a rock concert - the preacher a speck in the distance with huge TV screens all over the place showing him). Quite moving. The cowd didn't seem to be paying too much attention - chatting among themselves etc but every now and then the preacher would say something and this swelling murmur, even groan, would come from the crowd so the were clearly tuned in.
And retuned next morning with my guide to visit the museums - stunning carpets in the carpet museum, before embarking on our 24 hour train ride to Shiraz!
Sorry - they aren't gret photos. Camera in this phone I have with me not great! But you get the idea.

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