(By Iahsan at the English-language Wikipedia)
In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks in Iran - first in Mashhad, then Tehran. I was trying to write a book (I never finished it) about the Paralympic movement, which has a very particular expression in Iran, both positive and exploitative. It was hard to get a visa (I had to fly to Dublin and plead my case as there were no UK-Iranian avenues open). But it was a wonderful experience; one I will never forget. I made some notes, which will almost certainly never be published, but perhaps they're of interest anyway.
Here's what happened when I somehow managed to get inside the Shrine of Imam Reza, the holiest of sites for Shia Iranians. My local guide, Hamid, seeing both my curiosity and trepidation, took matters into his own hands. I'll never forget the couple of hours we spent in that astonishing mosque.
Somehow Hamid had blagged me past various checks and into the exterior courtyard of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th Imam. At the last checkpoint, and quite without warning, as we approached a security team standing around an X-Ray, he said suddenly, ‘Turn your phone off. ‘ And then, ‘Don’t speak English.’
I obeyed his instructions to the letter.
While I was frisked, the guard asked me a number of questions in Farsi at which I simply beamed back at him, with a simpleton’s gaze. But not a word of English passed my lips. And then we were in. A blaze of heat rose to greet us, from the square acre of smooth, light marble that confronted us. This was one of four monumental squares that surround the Shrine itself, the Holy of Holies, and point of pilgrimage for Shi’ite Moslems around the world. Away to the left, and through another series of huge decorative arches winked the roof of a Golden Dome, catching the late morning sun. Somewhere under there, Reza was laid to rest, his poisoning by his half-brother Al Ma’mun an act of heresy which still, a millennium or so later picks at the heart of devout Shias, and drives them to visit Mashhad, touch his grave, and weep for him.
I had read that the interior of this extraordinary building was strictly out of bounds for non-believers. I had no reason to doubt this harsh sounding edict, and though I gazed with fascination at the twinkling of light which seemed to come from deep within the dark comfort of the inner Shrine, I did not for one moment expect Hamid to frogmarch me up to the threshold of its sanctity, and cast off his shoes, and whisper, ‘Do as I do.’
This entrance was guarded by an elderly, uniformed man. There are many such men dotted around the Holy Shrine site. They are worthy gentlemen, devout and respected, whose function it is to be of assistance to pilgrims, as well as snuff out any inappropriate activity, such as non-believers cluttering the place up. Their reward for this service is a retirement spent standing guard at the doors of heaven.
Their gravity though is somewhat undermined by the accessory they are all made to carry. It is a bright green dusting feather, a Ken Dodd tickle stick. There is no other way to describe it, because, remarkably, that is exactly what it is. With this less than solemn weapon in their armoury, it is in their compass to severally point the way, or bar entrance. A simple gesture from the tickle stick is usually enough.
But to my amazement, as I entered, my toes luxuriating in the plush carpet, the tickle stick stayed lowered to the floor, and after a cursory if not totally comfortable ‘Salaam’, I was in.
Every room in this labyrinthine building has high vaulted ceilings, which allow for no natural daylight. Instead of the sun’s rays, once inside, clouds of chandeliers illuminate the halls, sometimes scattered across the ceilings like cirrus, sometimes concentrated into one low-lying inferno centre-stage like a cumulo-nimbus. And every room is decorated in an astonishing three dimensional mirrored-mosaic. Tiny slices of mirrored glass, in their hundreds of thousands, if not millions fill the gaze whichever way you look. It’s like stepping into the heart of an exploding Champagne Supernova. It took my breath away.
(By Amin Dehdarian)
So too did the smell: Sweaty socks. The Barefoot Few, who had religiously (literally) washed their feet clean before entering, were outnumbered ten to one by the stockinged masses. Mashhad in the spring heat was a place to elicit a change of sockwear every few hours, and here was the concentrated proof. It turned the stomach, and made any appreciation of the metaphysical temporarily that bit harder.
Following Hamid, I pushed on deeper and deeper into the inner core of the Shrine, closer to Reza himself. From time to time we’d pass prayer rooms where recitations were in full flow, or women-only halls, or another huge mirrored room where rows of the devout sat on Persian carpets and listened to the Imam address them about something or other. The crowds grew thicker. Each doorway we passed was assiduously kissed and stroked by the faithful, proceeding at only shuffling pace, such was the crush. Every bit of space was by now taken up with pilgrims praying and singing and lifting their hands to God.
And then, we caught sight of Reza’s Tomb, behind a doorway of solid gold. It was being laid siege to by innumerable hands, all outstretched to touch its gold and silver splendour, to feel some of its power. We could get no closer to it than where we were standing, the five metres separating us from the Tomb was solid fleshy pilgrim. This was a site of majesty, and miracle. The mere thought that one could be so close to the divine was driving people to extremes of religious ardour. People even slung personal belongings onto the roof of the shrine, if they couldn’t get any closer. That way at least the cardigan that had been so close their skin now lay on the Tomb of Reza, until the cleaning ladies turned up in the night.
It was a bewildering sight. As we moved back out through the concentric layers of ante-rooms, we found a spot to sit down on the carpet and talk. All around us people were reading from the Quran, or praying, or simply being quiet. An Imam sang through a loud speaker, and I asked Hamid to translate for me. ‘I am a poor man. I am poor.’
In front of us, a girl, no more than six years old, her head scarf obscuring her features, sat patiently next to her praying father. She was absorbed in a computer game on her mobile phone.
‘How often do you go to the Mosque, Hamid? Every day?’
‘Me? No.’ He smiled at me. And lowering his voice, ‘Every decade.’
We talked about the nature of faith. He whispered to me again, ‘You know there are people in India who worship a mouse.’ He wheezed with barely suppressed laughter. ‘A mouse!’ I agreed with him that, if that actually were true, then there was indeed something quite funny about worshipping a mouse.
Then he asked me about religion in England. I told him that, despite the variety of different faiths represented back home, I imagined that huge numbers of people simply had no faith at all, and that for many, the very notion of God had ceased to have meaning. It felt strange to be saying that, there. But I felt as if the last thing to be in such a serious place was disingenuous, or dishonest. A mistake, perhaps.
‘But where do people look for help when they have problems, internally?’ he asked. Then he pointed at his heart. ‘In here.’
And I didn’t know what to say. I had no answer for him, at least no one single answer, nothing that could, with a perfect word, replicate the unity of purpose I saw all around me. So I said that I thought that was a good question and I didn’t think people knew where to look.
Then he answered another question, which I had only subconsciously been aware that I had been asking. He explained the burns to his hands and arms that I had only peripherally noticed before. ‘I was trying to light a gas stove, and it exploded. It burnt me to eighty percent.’
For four months his life had been in the balance, as he lay in hospital. Some of his wounds were first degree, and healed well, but much of his torso and upper arms, his neck and hands had been burned through the skin to the flesh. He described the pain as the worst thing there could ever be in the world.
‘So I asked my God for help. God put this all here.’ His arm waved around the shrine. ‘His is the endless sky. Who am I? I do not ask for a miracle. Already I am a miracle, this is a miracle.’
I looked around me, suddenly astonished to find myself seated, somewhat illicitly, in the inner sanctum of the holiest city of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I saw only people.
‘So, I got better. I lived. I am still alive.’ Moved by this, and uncharacteristically for a stuck up Brit like me, I reached out to hold him by the hand. He returned the clasp.
‘A mouse would not have been able to help me!’ And again we chuckled at those poor, ignorant and probably entirely fictitious Indians.