Saturday, 21 May 2011

Mashhad and the Imam Reza Shrine

I'm working on travel writing from the Middle East for Sons of Camus International Writers Journal [you can read a review of the last issue here].

In Mashhad, in eastern Iran, near the border with Afghanistan, there is a shrine to Iman Reza, which was first built in 818 AD. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt several times, the most recent being 1978 and since then has, according to undergone continuous renovation and enlargement. I'm grateful to this site for the photographs and the following quotation:

A tradition (legendarily attributed to Imam Reza's father) told that a pilgrimage to Imam Reza's grave would equal 70,000 pilgrimages to Mecca and the tomb of the Imam became a holy place of pilgrimage to which people thronged from throughout Persia.

This is part of my translation of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, writing about Mashhad, and the Imam Reza shrine. It's from the chapter No Man's Land. Between Persia and Afghanistan, in Ou est la Terre des Promesses? a description of the journey she made with fellow Swiss writer Ella Maillart, in 1939-40.

Many more pictures from their journey can be seen at this Swiss website

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Ella Maillart and the Ford car they drove to Afghanistan.

We have passed through Mashhad. We are leaving the town behind, its gridwork of new streets and the narrow alleyways of the covered bazaar, plunged in semi-darkness. Towering above it all is the shining golden dome of the tomb of the Imam Reza. It looks like a bell-jar that has descended from the peerless blue sky, a blazing star at midday.

We are leaving behind the imperishable blue of the mosque of Gohar Shad, the crushing heat in the courtyards, which seem to echo a harmony of shapes and colours. We are leaving behind the darkness and the luxury of mirrors inside the sanctuary, the sighs and tears of the emaciated pilgrims, Shi’ites from the four corners of Asia, who for years have dreamed of kissing the bars of thesarcophagus. They have crossed the desert, enduring extremes of exhaustion, to be able to touch the marble floor with their bare feet and to see the fourteen doors of silver, and the two doors of gold, opening in front of them. On theirknees, weeping and crying out with exhaustion and hysterical joy, they clutch the iron railings which screen the Imam lying in the darkness, surrounded by modern carpets, turbans, votive offerings and holy texts.

Outside, all around the spacious mosque, the craftsmen – metal workers and goldsmiths, saddlers and tailors – work in kiosks so tiny they are like cages. In rooms with rounded arches full of dusty carpets the sellers haggle over prices and the shaft which leads down from the bazaar to the darkness of the water tank descends for fifty steps. Porters dressed in rags stagger under the weight of their leather sacks.

We are leaving the town behind. A strong wind is blowing on the road that heads towards the east and which will soon turn into a desert track. Here and there the straw coloured fields are wiped out by the grievous drought. From the top of the bare mountains the mounds of kanat come into view again. They are lined up across the plain, the gaping and thirsty craters of the underground canals. They give life to a village, a slip of green around a swarm of earth domes which are cracking under the scorching sun. But, in the inner courtyard of a caravanserai which resembles a fortress, water from the kanat fills a tank and in the vaulted room which adjoins it, men give us tea and melons.

Yes, even here it is possible for human beings to live, and Persia gives us one last surprise, offered like a farewell present to a departing guest as a token of friendship. At two o’clock we take a break and seek out some shade in the village of Torbat. At a junction where two roads intersect at right angles, the central area is arranged in the obligatory fashion for every modern Iranian town, with a police post, a few dried-out flower beds, and a scattering of sand and gravel. Surrounded only by broken-down clay walls, and hollowed out human habitations, in the midst of this sea of yellowed ruins, a gleam of turquoise leaps out, and a winding path leads us right to the doorway of a mosque whose remains evoke all the pomp and beauty of the age of Shah Abbas the Great.

First of all there's a garden, that serves as an entrance. The fan of branches from a spreading pine tree offers shade, and there is grass growing – it seems to us as soft and thick as a carpet. The triangle of a chain in the lower gate, a blind man, who is the guardian, a few young boys and then, encircled by bushes, the yellow and alabaster coloured gravestones. Finally, rising magnificently into the sky, there is the high entrance door, the mehrab, decorated with delicate blue and turquoise arabesques. At the side, half hidden by a wall, the luminous green dome of a mausoleum.

The complete text, including their arrival in Afghanistan, will appear in Issue 8 of the magazine, later this year.

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