Day 76 - Friday 16th June - Mashhad

Today is a public holiday in Iran (to commemorate the death of Imam Ali, the second Imam of Islam after Mohamed) and consequently everything is shut, other than the Imam Reza Haram (shrine complex), which is the reason for Mashhad’s (place of martyrdom) existence and importance in the Islamic world. So we visited it. A taxi from the hotel drove us there. As the complex came into view around the last corner, the car was drive by divine guidance as the driver closed his eyes and raised his hands in prayer and muttered a few words.

Mashhad is Iran’s holiest and second largest city. The shrine complex commemorates the martyrdom of Shia Islam’s 8th Imam in 817 AD. Today an estimated 20 million pilgrims converge on Mashhad each year to pay their respects. To accommodate the pilgrims, the complex has grown by a factor of 10 since the Revolution. The charitable foundation that manages the shrine has become a business conglomerate with businesses and investments ranging from baking to carpets, and minerals to transport. It gets most of its money from donations, bequests and selling of expensive grave sites.

The women in the group were required to wear a chador, in their case a light coloured bed sheet, over their head and shoulders. The locals nearly all wore black, given the significance of the day. Cameras and bags are forbidden, but we could take in phones and snap away on them. Women and men entered through separate entrances and are all frisked.

The complex consists of 7 huge courtyards that can accommodate half a million worshippers, 4 sanctuaries, a university, a number of museums and grand libraries and a hospital all built around the central gold domed Mausoleum of Imam Reza. The complex currently has a diameter of around 320m, covers nearly 1m sqm and construction of new areas continues apace. Roadways and car parks are all located underneath. The courtyards are all covered in carpets, every wall in majolica and mosaics.

Our guide gave us a grand architectural tour explaining all the design elements in the buildings from the grand archways built to resemble a man, the domed chambers borrowed from the Zoroastrian fire worship and the minarets taken from the desert towers of communication and guidance.

The place was buzzing with people coming to secure a spot for the service tonight. Men with brightly coloured feather dusters wandered about keeping control and in the middle of it a steady stream of coffins with accompanying funeral processions entered the Islamic Revolution Courtyard to be bid farewell to a better place.

The guides were knowledgeable and the management of the complex keen for us to have a very positive experience. Which we did. We left far better informed. We were dazzled by the enormity and splendour of the place. It was an enterprise of major significance to the Iranian economy and a place of spiritual significance to Shia Moslems. It personifies the Islamic Republic.

We returned to our hotel to attend to more mundane matters. Tony’s daughter Tashi rejoined the group in Mashhad after leaving us in Laos. Not only has she brought her infectious smile back to the group, but was the courier of a load of spare parts. We spent the afternoon getting greasy and installing these.

For us it was new fuel pump to replace the one that failed in southern China. Although we have managed with a couple of substitutes over the intervening 50 odd days, their specification was not correct and could have been a contributing factor to the problems we were experiencing on rough roads. On smooth roads the car performed faultlessly, and given that we now hope that most of the rough surface is behind us, we may not know whether there has been an improvement.

A number of the group have come down with a gastric bug over the past 48 hours and I am not feeling great as well. The Nurse from Hell has reshrouded her mantle and prescribed a diet of bread and water just in case, determined to kill something. I hope it’s the bug.