Middle East


With Iraq in Turmoil, Pilgrims Head to Iran

Hazrat-e Masumeh Shrine

The Hazrat-e Masumeh Shrine in Qom, Iran. (Photo: Paul Cochrane)

Iranians have watched with a great deal of consternation, the actions of U.S. forces in the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq over the past few months. As the situation escalated between occupation forces and the Iraqi resistance, Iranians staged protests in numerous cities around the country, while official Iranian news sources regularly condemned the U.S.

One unanticipated side effect of the war on Iraq however has been an increase in the number of pilgrims visiting Iranian Shiite shrines in Mashhad, Qom and Rey. All these cities, incidentally, are ones in which Arabic is widely spoken, unlike other Iranian towns.

“We are busy all year round here, but we have been especially busy since the war on Iraq,” said Ahmad Abdian, the manager of Hotel Nasr in Mashhad in Eastern Iran. “All our rooms are booked now, even though it is not pilgrimage season.”

“The majority of my guests are from Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran,” he added, “as pilgrims are no longer going to Iraq because it’s not safe. Even Iraqis are coming on pilgrimage and to get away from their country for a while.”

Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city and its name literally means “Place of Burial of a Martyr.” Over 12 million pilgrims annually visit the shrine of the eighth Shiite imam and direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Reza, who died in AD 817.

The Holy Shrine of Imam Reza and the surrounding mosques, museums, theological colleges, libraries, courtyards and other buildings are collectively known as the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, one of the wonders of the Islamic world.

Since the Islamic Revolution, massive construction work has been underway to develop the complex that dominates the center of Mashhad, which includes the Imam Reza University and numerous educational and administrative facilities.

“We get pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, and although it is hard to estimate whether more have come since the U.S. war on Iraq, I think that is true,” said Ali Khan, a guide at the office of the International Relations of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi.

The outer courtyards, to which non-Muslims are permitted, and the entrances to the shrine were thronged with pilgrims. Mashhad is considered one of the holiest Shiite shrines, and just as the title Hajji can be used by those who attend the pilgrimage to Mecca, pilgrims to Mashhad can add the prefix Mashti to their

Pallbearers occasionally passed in front of the shrine carrying on stretchers those who were soon to be buried in the huge graveyards beside and beneath the complex. To be buried close to the Imam, Khan said, is a privilege, one which now warrants a burial fee of $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the burial site's proximity to the shrine.

In Qom, the second holiest city after Mashhad, the hotels were full of Iraqis and Gulf Arabs. “I’ve come with my whole family,” said Abou Saif, from Basra, Iraq. Sitting in his sparsely furnished, five bed hotel room overlooking the Hazrat-e Masumeh Shrine, the burial place of Fatima, the sister of Imam Reza, he explained why they came to Qom:

“Mashhad was too far for us to afford to visit as Iran is more expensive than Iraq, and we wanted somewhere more spiritually relaxing than home.”

The shrine itself, which has a magnificent golden cupola and exquisite tile work on the walls and towering minarets, was crowded with pilgrims, sheikhs and children throughout the day and the evening.

Qom is a learning center for Shiite scholars and clerics. Ayatollah Khomeini studied and lived here before being going into exile in the 1960’s.

The owner of the Alminan Hotel, Abass Faqihi, said that although the hotel was always busy, there had been a noticeable rise in Iraqi pilgrims since the war on Iraq.

“There are also more Iranians coming here, and more often, than before the war,” he said. “It has benefited Iran in terms of religious tourists I think.”

In Rey, the site of a mausoleum for a descendant of Imam Hussein, on the outskirts of Tehran, the majority of pilgrims appeared to be Iranians. Some Afghanis were visiting the shrine however.

“I came from Herat to look for work but also visit the holy sites here in Iran,” said Hassan Ehsan, 28. “I would like to continue onto Iraq, but they are suffering the same problems there that we are in my home country.”

In Beirut, Lebanon, pilgrimage tour operator Fawaz Hameh said that he has suffered a decline in demand for tours, particularly to Iraq.

“People are still going to Damascus to the shrine of Al-Sayedeh Zeinab,” he said. Al-Sayedeh Zeinab is the daughter of Imam Ali and the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed. “More people are going to Iran, but Iran was never as popular for pilgrims here as Najaf and Karbala.”