Iran’s Holy City Isn’t What It Seems

Originally published by the San Antonio Express-News in March of 2007

IMG_3555Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport is a cheerless backwater, especially at four in the morning, after enduring a 10-hour flight to Amsterdam, a nine-hour delay, followed by the six-hour flight to Tehran. At this hour clearing customs takes an eternity, and the only stimulus in the lonely, echoing arrival hall, other than young female passport inspectors sporting lumpy black chadors and henna tattooed hands, is the faded portrait of the Ayatollah Khomenei grimly staring down at those unlucky enough to remain in the customs queue. But that’s how my pilgrimage to Iran began last October, bone-tired, bleary-eyed and ready for whatever came next.

Then, like the click of a slide show, I was off to the golden domes of Qom, through elegant Isfahan, the desolate, ancient beauty of Pasagardae and Persepolis and graceful Shiraz. I dashed across the Dasht-i Kavir desert, passing through Yazd long enough to explore its underground aqueducts. I spent one lonely night in Tabas, Queen of the Desert, and then to Nishapur, the gateway to Khorasan and Iran’s most wrecked, ruined and rebuilt city, which has survived earthquakes, Scythians, Turks, Mongols and Timurids. It was two short weeks of grasping memories from the jealous clutches of time; 3,000 years of culture rushed by me in a blur until I arrived in Iran’s holiest city, Meshed, the chief object of my journey.

Once known as Sanabad, it was here, in A.D. 817, that the eighth Shi’ite Imam, Reza, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, arrived after a triumphant tour of the Shi’a heartland. The Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun, a Sunni, grew jealous of the imam’s rising popularity and imprisoned him. Fearing the imam’s growing spiritual authority might mature into something more temporal, something the greedy caliph could not allow, Ma’mun devised a plot involving pomegranates and poison, which were fed to the unsuspecting imam who soon fell ill and died.

Immense waves of grief washed over the sands of Persia and the martyred imam’s tomb quickly became a site of pilgrimage, one that attracted the scattered Shi’a of the caliph’s far-flung empire. Surviving invasions, earthquakes, rapine and ruin, the site, and even the name changed. Sanabad became known as Meshed — “place of martyrdom” — and Meshed turned into a booming modern metropolis sitting astride the old Silk Roads, some leading north to Samarkand and China and others west to the Levant and the Italian city states.

I crawled out of the car just as the sun set and walked into the hotel. Members of the Tajik national soccer team milled about the small, two-star hotel lobby; a curious mélange of Tajik, Farsi and Russian filled my ears.

“Passport please,” the attendant asked. I fumbled through my money belt but quickly complied.

I looked up, behind the desk stood a clean-shaven young man with slightly receding hair and cheerful, pecan-colored eyes.

“You are American, yes?”

“That I am.”

“How awesome!” he exclaimed in almost perfect American English.

“I’ve never met an American before,” he said excitedly and then came out from around the lobby desk, arms outstretched, exclaiming all in one breath, “This is the best day of my life. Can I hug you?”

After two weeks of kind salutations, warm welcomes and polite, almost infectious pride, I still wasn’t prepared for an outpouring quite like this.

“Sure, why not,” I replied, a tad embarrassed.

“So, now that I’ve hugged a complete stranger, tell me your name?” I joked, a feeble attempt to get through this awkward moment.

“Amir Isazysadr,” he said, stretching out his hand.

“Sean-Paul Kelley,” I replied.

We shook hands vigorously. Full of contagious enthusiasm, I liked him instantly.IMG_3818

“Why Meshed? It is a big, dusty, ugly city, filled with too many people.”

“Gohar Shad,” I told him, as if in a whisper. “If I’m lucky I will see the Gohar Shad.”

“The mosque surrounding the Shrine of the Imam Reza is splendid,” he said.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked.

“No, I am not.”

“That is a pity, my friend, because one pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Imam Reza is equal to 17,000 Mecca pilgrimages, or so say the mullahs.”

Between the late ninth and 14th centuries, the area surrounding Meshed witnessed the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate, an eruption of Turkic hordes into Persia, and then the Mongol cataclysm. Through it all the pilgrims returned. Finally, Tamerlane’s son Shah Rukh, faced with the growing demands of pilgrims, enlarged the shrine in the early 15th century. His formidable wife, Gohar Shad, ordered the construction of a new congregational mosque around the imam’s tomb as well, commissioning the Persian architect Qavam al-din Shirazi with the task. In the 1930s the shrine, by now a burgeoning complex in need of restoration, was again enlarged by Reza Shah. After the revolution it was enlarged once more to its present size encompassing more than 75 hectares in the heart of the city.

Since the revolution non-Muslims have been prohibited entry into the shrine housing Imam Reza’s tomb, but the rules regarding the Sacred Precinct and mosque surrounding the shrine are more confusing. Some guards let non-Muslims pass. Others do not. Sometimes it just depends on what day one visits. Aware of this maddening state of affairs long before I arrived in Meshed, it wasn’t until the night before my visit that I asked Amir and his brothers, who had come for dinner at the hotel, for help.

“What should I do? I want to get in, but I don’t want to see the shrine, that would be disrespectful. I only want to see the Gohar Shad.”

“Talk to the guards, express to them your deep admiration for the art of our land,” he told me, winking.

“No,” said Ali, with a strange grin, “it would be best if he said nothing. Just act like an Iranian.”

Adel, the youngest, suggested that I hire a local guide, one who might be able to bribe the guards.

“No bribes, not for this,” I replied.

The brothers looked at each other, said something in Farsi and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You are funny. This is such a serious matter for you. But Ali is right. Just walk in. Say nothing to the guards. Act like you belong there.”

“So, I’ll have to brazen it out, yes?”

They laughed again, as if in on some secret.

“Yes,” said Adel. “I’m certain you will be fine.”

The next day I set off before late afternoon prayers. The walk from my hotel to the Sacred Precinct in the heart of the city was easy. I only stopped once for directions before I arrived.

I crossed the street, dodging traffic, stepped onto the large plaza and strode towards the entrance gates. A large family ambled slowly in front of me, the mother pushing a baby stroller. I followed them closely, better to blend in. A guard waved a security wand over and around me as nervous fear and excitement pulsed through me. He patted me down for good measure and sent me through the gates. Not a word was spoken until I was about 10 meters away. I said nothing and kept walking.

Once inside the main gates I took a moment to absorb the outer plaza. Polished and sparkling in the sun, the immense outer courtyard was paved in bluish marble. A thick wall of brick geometrical shapes rose up in front of me, not, however, high enough to block out the sun, as I shielded my eyes. Finally, I caught a glimpse of a small passageway, took three deep breaths and walked into the main quadrangle of the Gohar Shad.

Masjede Gohar shadFor a moment, all activity around me stopped. The colors were mesmerizing, as turquoise, pink, purple, yellow and green danced along the walls. Tall bands of ivory white kufic calligraphy topped four high iwans(monumental arches). Arabesques and floral patterns blended into the right angles of the courtyard. A perfect symmetry of light and beauty collided and caromed up and across the walls climaxing in a narrowing pointed arch, its niche filled with deep blue muqarnas. Sitting against a wall in a small niche I watched pilgrims enter the courtyard, hundreds of them milling about under the cerulean sky. Like the sacred spaces of any religion, they all come to participate in something personal but paradoxically bigger than themselves. Perhaps a few came, like me, hoping to snatch a hint of inspiration, to touch the walls and feel the echoes of the past on their fingertips. Or maybe there were others seeking surcease from their own troubles, finding peace at the foot of the imam’s tomb.

A thick cloud covered the sun while the faint prayers of the devout rose up into the cool air of the courtyard. An inner calm came over me, that wondrous calm which is reserved for the summits of mountains, perfect sunsets and the birth of one’s children.

The call to prayer sounded. Thus, like many other more famous travelers before me, my time was cut short. Out of respect for traditions not my own, I left. I walked back to our hotel in contented silence.

Later that evening I ate a last meal with the brothers Isazysadr. All three asked me the finer points of certain English words and taught me a few similar Farsi words, but cautioned me not to speak them in public or in mixed company. Toward the end of the night, Adel asked me about my day.

“I hear you made it into the Gohar Shad today, yes?”

“I did. It was worth coming all this way just to have 10 minutes there.”

“Indeed, they let many foreigners in at this time, especially Americans. I think the Mullahs are trying to, how do you say it, ‘play nice’ with your government.”

Slightly crestfallen, I replied, “I didn’t know that. I thought I was sneaking in. Like a real adventurer, you know? You three knew all along I would get in, didn’t you?” The table erupted in laughter.

“Sean-Paul, my good friend,” said Ali, “nothing is ever as it appears in Iran. Surely you have learned this by now.”

Apparently I hadn’t. But I was catching on.


Sean Paul Kelley is a travel writer, former radio host and recovering investment banker native to San Antonio. You can read his travel-blogging at

Originally published in the print version of the San Antonio Express-News March 18, 2007