19th-24th of Khordad 1390/June 9th-14th, 2011
The Caliph Ma’mun invited the Eigth Shia Imam Reza to his capital in Merv (Near the present-day Mary, in the Republic of Turkmenistan) with the intention to make Imam Reza his heir. After much consideration, he accepted the invitation from the Caliph and began his journey. As he rested in the village of Sanabad, he died suddenly after eating some pomegranates (or grapes depending on who is telling the story). He was buried next to the Caliph Ma’mun’s father, but word spread quickly that the Caliph had poisoned the Eighth Imam. His tomb became known as Mashhad or ‘place of martyrdom.’ There’s a lot more history before and after, but this was by far the most important event.
The city of Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city and is known throughout the Muslim world, with as many as 14 million pilgrims visiting the shrine of Imam Reza each year. The main street which takes you to the shrine, Hazrat-e Emam Reza, is lined with hotels, religious and souvenir shops for the pilgrims who come. Mashhad is also known for it’s supreme Saffron and quality of Turquoise.
We arrived in Mashhad from Tehran via Mahan Air, Iran’s premiere airline. It is Iran’s best airline as its fleet consists of older Airbuses and has a history of zero accidents. It is also owned by Iran’s richest man Rafsanjani, who I like to mention only because his wealth initially grew through pistachios. Pistachios. Which just goes to show you Iranian priorities always goes back to food and they will pay good money for pistachios. 😉 While standing in “line”….I put line in quotes because there really is no concept of a line in Iran. People cut left and right. I think Iran could benefit from a proper line system. I’m sorry to mention the line issue, but it is my one continual complaint I have about Iran. Like Larry David once said “I’m not an inventor, I’m an improver. I like to improve things.”
Anyway back to what I was saying, While standing in “line” to get our boarding passes I noticed a woman carrying some creature in a little animal carrying case. I assumed it was a hamster, but upon further inspection it was in fact a squirrel. Granted there are squirrels everywhere in Colorado, I still think having a squirrel for a pet is pretty cool. I also think my kitty Jamal would love a pet squirrel to play with. Another thing I love about Iranian airports is the little bus you take to board the plane. Although the airport in Tehran is large enough to warrant such a bus, every other airport we went to the plane was literally a one minute walk from the terminal. However I guess you can’t have passengers wandering around the tarmac. Something tells me there are some security risks there.
Our stay in Mashhad was wonderful in great part thanks to Sadra’s family who live there. Sadra’s cousin Mohammad and his daughter Fatima were at the airport at one in the morning to pick us up and drove us to Homa Hotel.
Fun story: While Sadra and his cousin were trying to figure out a room inside the hotel I was sitting in the backseat with Fatima trying to practice my limited Farsi, with the only verb I know how to use, doostdari, meaning do you like? Which basically left me asking Doostdari cartoons? Doostdari pishes? (do you like kitties?) Until finally after a long pause of awkward silence this four year old girl simply stated in Farsi “I don’t know English and you don’t know Farsi” haha Oh the blunt honesty of small children.
For those wishing to travel in Iran, do not go to a Homa Hotel. They are overpriced and our hotel which claimed to be 5 stars was more like a large room with furniture from the 70s along with signature olive green bathroom. However, to show you how nice Mohammad is, he drove us to three more hotels the next day until we found a hotel we liked. We settled on The Ghasr e Talaee International Hotel, which is brand new and its rooms offer a nice view of the shrine. For those headed to Mashhad looking to place to stay, look no further than the Ghasr e Talaee International.
Once we settled in at the hotel, Mohammad took us to Shandiz with his wife, daughter and newborn son along with Sadra’s aunt and uncle (Mohammad’s parents) and their daughter. Shandiz is known for one thing: kabob. What delicious kabobs they have. Seriously, of all the kabob I’ve eaten in Iran, and trust me it’s an enormous number, the kabobs of Shandiz are by far heads and shoulders above the rest. I’m not sure what the difference is, what makes their kabob so great. Sadra said that knowing Mashhadis, they probably spit on the kabob to make them so juicy. (A little side note, like the U.S., Iranian cities have their own stereotypes all negative. Mashhad has the unfortunate stereotype of having horrible people. In all honesty I didn’t interact much with actual Mashhadis as Sadra’s family aren’t from there, but I know many Mashhadis back in the U.S. who are wonderfully nice people.) Sadra’s family are all lovely people. Mohammad’s wife Mahdiyeh is from Yazd and she and her brothers offered their family house for us to stay at in Yazd after we mentioned we were headed there on our trip. Iranian hospitality knows no bounds. It really doesn’t.
After lunch we had some delicious tea, which although I love makes me super thirsty. Which brings us to the issue of tarof once again. I wanted water, but it would be rude of me to ask for it. So instead I must wait until someone offers it. Thankfully Sadra’s aunt offered some water to me, but what I didn’t notice is that she was just offering water to be polite and actually wanted to drink the water herself. This is where I commit a great social faux pas by accepting the water that she’s “offering.” As soon as I took the water, Sadra immediately started laughing hysterically as he had noticed something I had not: Sadra’s aunt was holding a pill that she needed to take with the water. As soon as the glass reached my hand, I realized why Sadra was laughing and the great wave of embarrassment swept over my face in the form of turning cherry red. I quickly remedied the blunder by returning the water. Tarof will be the death of me in Iran, at least socially.
Once tea was done, Mahdiyeh’s brothers invited us to their family garden, which is close by to Shandiz. Iranians like to buy their own private gardens or homes outside the city where they can spend the weekends. They kind of remind me of small compounds with tall walls. From the outside you would have no idea what lies inside. It is here where I committed my second horrible social faux pas by literally falling asleep in the middle of a group of women all talking and drinking tea. In my defense I tried really hard to stay awake, but little sleep and farsi conversation is a lethal combination. When will I learn?
The next day Sadra and I went to a few sites within Mashhad, Nader Shah’s tomb, the Green Dome and the burial site of one of Imam Ali’s generals. Then we took a cab to Tus, a small village outside of Mashhad, more details on Tus in the next blog post.
Nader Shah and I – It is unfortunate that his tomb is so ugly compared to every other important person in Iranian history. Then again, he doesn’t really stand out for me compared to the other great Iranian figures.
That night we went to Mohammad’s apartment for a traditional dinner of ghorme sabzi, where afterwards Sadra and I were recruited into the most intense game of hokm I’ve ever played. For those of you who don’t know what hokm is, it is a card game similar to Trumps. For more information you can check out the wikipedia article about it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_piece . Now I’ve played hokm with friends in the U.S. and after a few rounds, a new player can get the general hang of it. Here in Iran I thought I was playing a completely different game. The cards were being played so fast by the three other players that I could barely think of what card to play. Half the time they wouldn’t even wait for my card if the hand was already won. Hokm is also quite competitive here. It got to the point where Mohammad offered his carpet to whoever won the game as a bet. During one hand, where I wasn’t playing I saw one of Mahdiyeh’s brothers cheating by placing an ace at the top of the deck and then dealing it straight to his partner, Sadra. I immediately called him out, which caused a great ruckus in the apartment. In short a fun night was had by all.
The following day Sadra and I made the trip to Neyshabur, a small city which is a must see for anyone who comes to visit Mashhad, in my humble opinion of course. Details on Neyshabur will be in my next blog post along with Tus, so you’ll just have to wait.
On our last day in Mashhad we went to Imam Reza’s Baazar where they sell souvenirs for the pilgrims who come. The baazar was two very long hallways with little stores on either side and only offered five different kinds of shops that alternated themselves, sometimes right next to one another: a scarf store, a religious shop, jewelry store, saffron/barberry store, and last but not least men and women’s clothing store. This wouldn’t have been so bad if every store didn’t have the exact same merchandise, which unfortunately made things a little dull after awhile because literally this hall would not stop. It just kept going and going and going and going.
I can’t remember which night it was, but one night before dinner Sadra and I decided to go to a fruit stand to get a few things. Being the American I am, as I was looking through the grapes I inspected to see what bunches were the best, when the fruit stand owner made a curt remark about abusing his grapes. So I finally picked one up without looking and placed it in a bag. Sadra had heard the owner mention peaches were $2.50 a kilo so he picked a few up. The fruit stand owner began adding up the prices when Sadra noticed he charged us 50 cents more for peaches. Sadra of course pointed out that he heard the owner tell other customers it was $2.50. The owner replied that Sadra shouldn’t complain as I had destroyed his grapes and we didn’t deserve the fruit in the first place. Sadra and the owner exchanged some more words that don’t really need translating and then Sadra and I stormed out of the stand. The fruit stand owner is why Mashhad has it’s reputation. haha
Our last night in Mashhad we finally made it to the shrine, a site to behold for sure. In order to enter the shrine you must go through security. Visitors are not allowed to bring anything inside, with the exception of a cell phone. While in security I met an Iranian woman who lived in Oklahoma and she and her husband offered to show the shrine to Sadra and I. It’s hard to describe how large the complex that houses the shrine is. There is a huge mosque, museums, libraries and of course the shrine itself. What’s amazing is despite it’s size, they are constantly expanding the complex in order to house the amount of pilgrims who visit it. We came at night after prayers, which is a good time to visit as it’s less crowded. Inside the building which houses the shrine there are numerous chambers and rooms where people are praying, reading the Quran, or just sitting in quiet meditation. The detailed artwork which surrounds these chambers are priceless and reminds you of just how much money was spent building and creating the complex. It is no doubt beautiful and a wonderful way to honor the man who is buried there, however it makes you wonder if a religious man such as Imam Reza would really like such amounts of money spent on him. I’m not trying to be critical, it’s just a problem I have with many religions, even the one I grew up with, spending unimaginable sums of money into the institution of the religion instead of giving it to help the poor, the needy, the helpless.
As they enter the shrine, pilgrims like to touch the doors and make little wishes. The closer you get to the shrine itself, the more people you see. Even though it was a slower time to visit the shrine, getting to the shrine is nearly impossible. I tried, but as soon as I entered the room where Imam Reza’s tomb is, the mob of people became overwhelming, all of them pushing forward to get closer. I opted instead to sit just outside the room so I could still see the tomb and sit in quiet meditation.
For those of you who don’t know what the shrine looks like here is a photo I found which I like. Unfortunately no photos are allowed to be taken inside the complex, however this person found a way around it. 😉
Funny story, I tried looking for photos of the shrine, but Iranian filters prevented me from looking at most of them.
Well that’s Mashhad.