The Pilgrim's Desert Road
13.05.2007 35 °C
After frolicking with camels in the oasis of Garmeh, at about midnight we jumped on a bus packed full of old Chadored women going to Mashhad, Shi'a Islam's holiest site.
The bus was very hot and sweaty (which is expected), and full of angry women who had shouting matches with the conductors about where we should sit. You see, unrelated men and women aren't allowed to sit together. But we weren't placed together anyway, so I have no idea what it was on about (It might have been because we were placed at the back of the bus, which is usually only for women). Anyway, after some seat juggling after the bus had left, we we're on our way along a small and dark desert road (which was actually good, all the roads in Iran are good quality, even ones in random places. Much better than Turkish roads).
After 12 or so hours on a cramped bus, we arrived in Mashhad and were picked up by the usual taxi hawks, who this time drove us around expensive hotels hoping that we'll stay in them so he can get his commission. He didn't understand that we wanted something cheap, but after wasting some time, we got a fairly good deal on a dirty room.
There's not much for us too see in Mashhad, since the Shrine to Imam Reza (the biggest religious building in the world, and also the biggest business conglomerate in Iran: they own lots other factories and businesses) is mostly closed off to non-muslims. The main shrine itself was built by Timur's daughter-in-law, and is prelly large, and still being expanded on now.
The Shi'a Imam Reza was betrayed and killed by the Sunni Caliph Ma'mun in 7-hundreds AD, and since he is a (Shi'a) Islamic Superman (direct decendant of Mohammed), he became a super-martyr, so 12 million people a year visit the shrine. But I have yet to see any tourists that aren't Iranian or Arab.
Anyway, we tried to sneak in. We had already been turned away before by the muslim-checkers at a shrine in Shiraz, so we decided to be more discreet. No cameras (they weren't allowed anyway), no bags (not them either, there was a bomb here a few years ago), and dour faces (a devout Shi'a is never happy. Their main religious holiday is called Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and they whip themselves with chains to draw blood).
The muslim-checkers must have been too busy praying though, because no one looked at us twice. The shrine was a very surreal experience, to say the least. The buildings were very nice, the usual giant intricately tiled archways, and inside were mirrored tiles, brightly illuminated with white and the occasional green neon light.
It was the people there that really shocked me. They were kissing and running their hands over every bit of the shrine, pushing to get to a large silver cage in the middle of the room. Many were crying and some shouting in grief (We were, of course, in the men's section, but I could hear some women wailing as well). It was more serious and sombre than dramatic, but very surreal. I mean, it was just a guy who died 1300 years ago. Sure he was martyred, but I really cannot empathise at all with anything they are feeling.
The people were arranged in concentric circles: outside you had people praying on the carpets, a bit closer you had people chanting the Qu'ran, and at the closest level to the tomb you had those reaching for the tomb, wanting to kiss and cry over the the cage containing a fallen martyr.
After witnessing the grief, we walked around the complex for a while, trying to avoid the muslim-checkers (I have no idea what would have been done to us if we were found. They take their religion very seriously). But to be honest, the pilgrims were pretty multicultural. Lots of Arabs (probably Iraqis, lots of Azari Turks (they have distinctive funny hats), and a few Turkmen (who look slightly similar to me, so thats probably why no-one asked me). All the women were in black chadors. Most people were either too busy praying or trying to reach the shrine to look at us anyway.
I have never seen such religious devotion or a show of religious feeling such as this before. It was very disturbing and I felt quite out of place, I didn't really see what they saw in the shrine.
Very wierd. There's not much else to do in Mashhad, and we're heading off to Turkmenistan in two days, back to the godless lands. Finally.