Mashhad is Iran’s holiest and second-largest city. Its raison d’être and main sight is the beautiful, massive and ever-growing Haram (shrine complex) commemorating the AD 818 martyrdom of Shiite Islam’s eighth Imam, Imam Reza. The pain of Imam Reza’s death is still felt very personally well over a millennium later and more than 20 million pilgrims converge here each year to pay their respects. Witnessing their tears is a moving experience, even if you’re not Muslim yourself.
Mashhad is also a good place to buy car-pets, and it’s a staging post for travel to Turk-menistan, Afghanistan and the little-touristed Khorasan region.
Be aware that during No Ruz and major Muslim holidays, almost all accommodation and transport will be booked out months in advance. (By contrast, at other times visiting Mashhad can prove quite a bargain.)
Following Imam Reza’s burial here, the small village of Sanabad began to attract Shiite pilgrims and soon became known as Mashhad (‘place of martyrdom’). Nearby Tabaran (today’s Tus) remained a more significant town until 1389, when Tamerlane sacked the whole area – thereafter it was Mashhad that eventually limped back to life as the new capital of Khorasan.
The shrine was enlarged in the early 15th century by Tamerlane’s son, Shah Rokh, and his extraordinary wife, Gohar Shad, for whom the Haram’s main mosque is named. Once the Safavids had established Shiism as the state creed, Mashhad became Iran’s pre-eminent pilgrimage site and Shah Abbas I rebuilt the Holy Shrine’s new core around 1612.
Politically, Mashhad reached its zenith under Nader Shah, whose empire was focused on Khorasan. Even though Nader was a Sun-ni of missionary zeal, he continued to spon-sor the Haram, which was vastly expanded again in 1928, in the 1970s and almost non-stop since 1979. The Haram’s charitable foundation, Astan-e Qods e Razavi, is now a powerful business conglomerate managing enterprises from baking to carpets and minerals to transport. But most of the Haram’s money comes from donations, bequests and the selling of grave sites: to be buried near the Imam is a great honour (and suitably expensive). And if you notice a lot of young couples, that’s because honeymooning here is believed to help bless a marriage.
Points of Interest
- Haram-e Razavi
- Haftado Tan Mosque
Just outside the Haram complex’s official limits sits this splendid 15th-century mosque, originally built as a Timurid-era tomb. It is famous for its mo-ar-raq tile-work and beautiful tracery lamps. The two tiled minarets appear to have been pre-maturely decapitated; the taller one is inscribed with square, deep-blue cryptograms reading ‘Mohammad’ in four directions.
- Boq’eh-ye Khajeh Rabi
This beauti-fully proportioned, blue-domed mausoleum commemorates an apostle of the prophet Mohammad who later exiled himself to Khorasan to avoid tensions between the prophet’s then-feuding followers. Paying respects at the grave was said to have been Imam Reza’s ‘main consolation’ in coming to Mashhad. The mausoleum took its present domed form after a 1612 rebuild, though much of the decorative tilework came later. Look for the two little dragon heads in green on the west iwan.
A large arcade surrounds the mausoleum, containing a cemetery paved with thousands of tombstones. Burial here costs a lot of money – but that’s still only half what you’d pay to inter a body beneath the Haram.
- Nader Shah Mausoleum
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Nader Shah is considered something of a historical tyrant. But here he’s a local hero for briefly returning Khorasan to the center of a vast Central Asian empire. Nader’s equestrian statue crowns his otherwise dour grey-granite mausoleum, built in 1956 to emulate the lines of a tent (Nader was reputedly born and died under canvas).
A small museum displays guns, a rhino-hide shield and a carpet portrait of Nader on horseback. ‘Guarding’ the monument is a Portuguese cannon made in the 1590s and seized 30 years later at Hormuz.
- Anthropology Museum
The main delight of this spacious museum in a former bathhouse is the central dome’s 1922 naive murals featuring anthropomorphic figures gallivanting between giant bicycles, a Russian vintage car, an early biplane and a curiously unconcerned-looking victim facing a firing squad.
- Gonbad-e Sabz
The small, 17th-century blue-domed tomb of scholar and mystic Momen Mashhadi forms a pretty sight in the middle of a traffic circle. The last remaining Safavid monument in what was once a large wakuf (bequest) garden, it retains pretty multi-coloured mo-ar-raq (piece-by-piece) floral tiling on the four small iwans of its square-plan exterior.
The charming guardian often offers tea to visitors outside the mausoleum’s discordantly new electronic sliding doors.
- Caravanserai Azizolaof
Behind heavy wooden doors, this 90-year-old caravanserai is full of underwear stalls run by Afghan merchants. It’s fascinating for its cameo scenes of real local life as much as for its uncelebrated architecture.
Accessed by either a short, rickety funicular or chairlift, Chalidareh is a boating lake ringed by a series of minor attractions, of which the most iconic will be the 38m bungee jumping tower (at time of research scheduled to open in spring 2017).