Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Tale Of Two Flowers

From Kerman I headed north to the city of Mashhad. Most of eastern Iran is empty and barren, but getting closer to Mashhad the land becomes more fertile and large fields of crocuses begin to take over the countryside. The flowers aren't grown for their beauty, but for their carpels, which are hand-plucked and dried to make saffron, the world's most expensive spice. The bus journey is a long one, taking over 13 hours, but Iran's buses and roads are good enough to make the night relatively relaxing ... if only it wasn't for being woken several times in the middle of the night by over-zealous police and their incessant checks. I complain but I actually understand the need for the patrols and checkpoints because Iran's eastern neighbours are particularly lawless and dangerous places. They have particular problems with Afghans and their cultivation of another flower: the poppy. It's no secret that Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and it's stronger cousin, heroin. The majority of the opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan works its way west via Iran, which is waging a continuous battle against the traffickers. And it's actually quite successful: 40% of all drugs seizures worldwide and 85% of opiates. Though the costs are also quite high: on average 2 Iranian policemen die every week in battles against traffickers and it is estimated that around 3% of the population are regular drug users (and I must admit that I have seen a fair amount of opium being passed about in the past 2 weeks).

But enough about drugs, on to Mashhad. It is the largest city in the area and owes its existence to the tomb of Imam Reza, the 8th Shi'ite Imam. It is therefore one of the main pilgrimage site for Shi'ites (there are a few holier Shi'ite shrines, but they are either in Iraq or Afghanistan and so are far trickier for pilgrims to visit) and attracts devotees from all over the region. As it is the middle of the pilgrim season hotel prices were ridiculous and so I could only stay for one day before heading off again, but that was enough for me to see the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the holy compound containing Reza's tomb. By all accounts Reza was a nice chap, being particularly friendly to animals and, true to Shia tradition, was heinously assassinated (or so the Shias claim) by his supposed benefactor, the wicked caliph. The compound contains the tomb, a mosque, several courtyards, eivans, museums, libraries and theological schools and is, whilst also being a highly spiritual place, of course, a big money-spinner. But that's OK because I can say, with no over-exaggeration, that the mosque and tomb are the most impressive religious buildings that I have ever seen. I know I often reach for superlatives when describing places, but the size, mirrorwork, tilework and proportions are just awesome (in the truest sense of the word). Not to mention the fact that the dome of the tomb, its four eivans and minaret are all covered in pure gold, which shine in the bright sunlight and are spectacularly lit up at night. During the day people throng around the tomb chamber letting out sobs and wails for their Imam (Shi'ism is all about mourning, wearing black and self-flagellation) whilst being shepherded about by dour looking wardens armed with feather dusters (honest!). In the evening hundreds of carpets are laid out in the extensive courtyards as people flock for evening prayers.

As I mentioned before there are a few museums in the complex that are quite interesting, such as one containing old artifacts from the shrine or items that have been donated to it over the years. Some of the museums left me rather baffled as to how they came about, for example the coin and stamp museum, or odder still the stuffed sea-creatures museum (considering that Mashhad is about 1500km from the sea!). It's only a shame that camera's aren't allowed within the complex, as it is an amazing place that deserves to be more widely known. But you can get a slight taste of what it's like on the shrine's website.

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