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  MASHHAD, often conventionally spelt Meshed, a city of northeastern Persia, the administrative centre of the province of Khurasan and now, in population terms, the second city of Persia. Its importance has since mediaeval Islamic times derived essentially from its being one of the most important shrines of the Shi’ite world, its shrine being built around the tomb of the Eighth Imam, Ali al-Reza. The city is situated in lat. 16° 17' N., long 59° 35' E. at an altitude of 915 m/3,000 feet, in the broad valley of the Kashaf Rud, which joins the Heri Rud, and to the south of the Kashaf Rud. The surrounding mountains rise of 2,500–2,800 m/8,000– 9,000 feet, and the city’s altitude and its proximity to these mountains give it a rather severe winter climate, whilst summers can be extremely hot.

I. History and topography to 1914

Mashhad may in a way be regarded as the successor of the older, nearby pre-Islamic Tus, and it has not infrequently been erroneously confounded with it. The fact that Tus is the name of both a town and a district, together with the fact that two places are always mentioned as the principal towns of this district, has given rise among the later Arab geographers to the erroneous opinion that the capital Tus is a double town consisting of Tabaran and Nuqan. Al Qazwini next made the two towns thought to be joined together into two quarters (mahalla). This quite erroneous idea of a double town Tus found its way into European literature generally. Sykes (JRAS [1910], 1115–16) and following him, E. Diez (Churasanische Baudenkmaler, Berlin 1918, i, 53–4) rightly challenged this untenable idea. The older Arab geographers quite correctly distinguish between Tabaran and Nuqan as two quite separate towns. Nuqan, according to the express testimony of the Arabic bic mile from the tomb of Harun al-Rashid and Ali al-Reza (see below) and must therefore have been very close to the modern Mashhad. The ruins of Tabaran- Tus and Mashhad are about 9 km/15 miles apart.

 In Nuqan, or in the village of Sanabadh belonging to it, two distinguished figures in Islamic history were buried within one decade: the caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Alid Ali al-Reza b. Musa. When Harun al-Rashid was preparing to take the field in Khurasan, he was stricken mortally ill in a country house at Sanabadh where he had stopped, and died in a few days (193/809). The caliph, we are told, realizing he was about to die, had his grave dug in the garden of this country mansion and consecrated by Quran readers. About 10 years after the death of Harun, the caliph al-Ma’mun, on his way from Marw, spent a few days in this palace. Along with him was his son-in-law Ali al-Reza b. Musa, the caliph-designate, the Eighth Imam of the Twelver Shi’ites. The latter died suddenly here in 203/818; the actual day is uncertain (cf. R. Strothmann, Die Zwolfer-Shia, Leipzig 1926, 171).

 Thus it was not the tomb of the caliph but that of a highly venerated imam which made Sanabadh (Nuqan) celebrated throughout the Shi’ite world, and the great town which grew up in course of time out of the little village actually became called al-Mashhad Mashhad) which means “sepulchral shrine” (primarily of a martyr belonging to the family of the Prophet). Ibn Hawqal calls our sanctuary simply Mashhad; Yaqut, more accurately, al-Mashhad al- Rezawi = the tomb-shrine of al-Reza; we also find the Persian name Mashhad-i muqaddas = “the sanctified shrine”. As a place-name, Mashhad first appears in al-Maqdisi, i.e. in the last third of the 4th/10th century. About the middle of the 8th/14th century, the traveler Ibn Battuta uses the expression “town of Mashhad al-Reza”. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the name Nuqan, which is still found on coins in the first half of the 8th/14th century under the Il-Khanids, seems to have been gradually ousted by al-Mashhad or Mashhad. At the present day, Mashhad is often more precisely known as Mashhad-i Reza, Mashhad-I muqaddas, Mashhad-i Tus (so already in Ibn Battuta, iii, 66). Not infrequently in literature, especially in poetry, we find only Tus mentioned, i.e. New Tus in contrast to Old Tus or the proper town of this name; cf. e.g. Muhammad Mahdi al-Alawi, Tarikh Tus aw al-Mashhad al-Ridaw, Baghdad 1927.

 The importance of Sanabadh-Mashhad continually increased with the growing fame of its sanctuary and the decline of Tus. Tus received its death blow in 791/1389 from Miranshah, a son of Timur. When the Mongol noble who governed the place rebelled and attempted to make himself independent, Miranshah was sent against him by his father. Tus was stormed after a siege of several months, sacked and left a heap of ruins; 10,000 inhabitants were massacred. Those who escaped the holocaust settled in the shelter of the Alid sanctuary. Tus was henceforth abandoned and Mashhad took its place as the capital of the district. As to the political history of Mashhad, it coincides in its main lines with that of the province of Khurasan. Here we shall only briefly mention a few of the more important events in the past of the town. Like all the larger towns of Persia, Mashhad frequently saw risings and the horrors of war within its walls. To protect the mausoleum of Ali al-Reza in the reign of the Ghaznavid Masud, the then Ghaznavid governor of Khurasan erected defences in 428/1037. In 515/1121 a wall was built round the whole town which afforded protection from attack for some time. In 556/1161 however, the Ghuzz Turks succeeded in taking the place, but they spared the sacred area in their pillaging. We hear of a further visitation by Mongol hordes in 695/1296 in the time of Sultan Ghazan. Probably the greatest benefactors of the town, and especially of its sanctuary, were the first Timurid ShahRukh (809–50/1406–46) and his pious wife Jawhar-Shadh.

 With the rise of the Safavid dynasty, a new era of prosperity began for Mashhad. The very first Shah of this family, Ismail I (907–30/1501–24), established Shi’ism as the state religion and, in keeping with this, care for the sacred cities within the Persian frontier, especially Mashhad and Qumm, became an important feature in his program, as in those of his successors. Pilgrimage to the holy tombs at these places experienced a considerable revival. In Mashhad, the royal court displayed a great deal of building activity. In this respect Tahmasp I, Ismael I’s successor (930–84/1524–76), and the great Shah Abbas I (995–1037/1587–1627) were especially distinguished.

 In the 10th/16th century the town suffered considerably from the repeated raids of the Ozbegs (Uzbeks). In 913/1507 it was taken by the troops of the Shayban_ or Shabani Khan; it was not till 934/1528 that Shah Tahmasp I succeeded in repelling the enemy from the town again. Stronger walls and bastions were then built and another attack by the same Ozbeg chief was foiled by them in 941/1535. But in 951/1544 the Ozbegs again succeeded in entering the town and plundering and murdering there. The year 997/1589 was a disastrous one for Mashhad. The Shaybanid Abd al-Mu’min after a four months’ siege forced the town to surrender. The streets of the town ran with blood, and the thoroughness of the pillaging did not stop at the gates of the sacred area. Shah Abbas I, who lived in Mashhad from 993/1585 till his official ascent of the throne in Qazwin in 995/1587, was not able to retake Mashhad from the Ozbegs till 1006/1598.

At the beginning of the reign of Tahmsp II in 1135/1722, the Afghan tribe of the Abdalis invaded Khurasan. Mashhad fell before them, but in 1138/1726 the Persians succeeded in retaking it after a two months’ siege. Nadir Shah (1148–60/1736–47) had a mausoleum built for himself in Mashhad. After the death of Nadir Shah, civil war broke out among the claimants to the throne, in the course of which the unity of the Persian Empire was broken. The whole eastern part of the kingdom of Nadir Shah, particularly Khurasan (except the district of Nishapur), passed in this period of Persian impotence under the rule of the vigorous Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani. An attempt by Karim Khan Zand to reunite Khurasan to the rest of Persia failed. Ahmad defeated the Persians and took Mashhad after an eight months’ siege in 1167/1753. Ahmad Shah and his successor Timur Shah left ShahRukh in possession of Khurasan as their vassal, making Khurasan a kind of buffer state between them and Persia. As the real rulers, however, both these Afghan rulers struck coins in Mashhad. Otherwise, the reign of the blind ShahRukh, which with repeated short interruptions lasted for nearly half a century, passed without any events of special note. It was only after the death of Timur Shah (1207/1792) that Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, succeeded in taking ShahRukh’s domains and putting him to death in 1210/1795, thus ending the separation of Khurasan from the rest of Persia. The death soon afterwards of Agha Muhammad (1211/1796) enabled Nadir Mirza b. ShahRukh, who had escaped to Herat, to return to Mashhad and take up the reins of government again. A siege of his capital by a Qajar army remained without success; but in 1803 Fath Ali Shah was able to take it after a siege of several months when Nadir’s funds were exhausted.

 From 1825 Khurasan suffered greatly from the raids of Turkoman hordes and the continual feuds of the tribal leaders. To restore order, the crown prince Abbas Mirza entered Khurasan with an army and made Mashhad his headquarters. He died there in 1833. The most important political event of the 19th century for Mashhad was the rebellion of Hasan Khan Salar, the prince-governor of Khurasan, a cousin of the reigning Shah Muhammad Abbas. For two years (1847–9) he held out against the government troops sent against him. At the time of the accession of Nadir al-Din (1848), Khurasan was actually independent. It was only when the people of Mashhad, under pressure of famine, rebelled against Salar that Husam al-Saltana’s army succeeded in taking the town.

In 1911 a certain Yusuf Khan of Herat declared himself independent in Mashhad under the name of Muhammad Ali Shah, and for a period disturbed Khurasan considerably with the help of a body of reactionaries who gathered round him. This gave the Russians a pretext for armed intervention, and on 29 March 1912, they bombarded Mashhad in gross violation of Persia’s suzerain rights, and many innocent people, citizens and pilgrims, were slain.

This bombardment of the national sanctuary of Persia made a most painful impression in the whole Muslim world. Yusuf Khan was later captured by the Persians and put to death (cf. Browne, The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909, Cambridge 1910, 343–4; idem, The press and poets of modern Persia, Cambridge, 1914, 124, 127, 136; Sykes, History of Persia, London 1927, ii, 426–7).

 In Qajar times, Mashhad was usually governed by a member of the royal family, and after 1845 this governorship was usually combined with the important and lucrative function of Mutawalli Bashi, controller or treasurer of the shrine.

 Like most pre-modern Persian towns, Mashhad was enclosed by a great girdle of walls. The lines built to stiffen the defenses, namely a small moat with escarpment before the main wall and a broad ditch around outside, were by the early 20th century in ruins and in places had completely disappeared.

The citadel (arg) in the southwest part of the town was directly connected with the system of defenses. It was in the form of a rectangle with four great towers at the corners and smaller bastions. The palace begun by Abbas Mirza but finished only in 1876, with its extensive gardens, was connected with the fortress proper, by the end of the 19th century fallen into disrepair. It was used as the governor’s residence. The whole quarter of government buildings which, according to MacGregor, occupied an area of 1,200 yards, was separated from the town by an open space, the Maydan-i Top (Cannon Place) which was used for military parades.

 There were six gates in the city walls. The town was divided into six great and ten smaller quarters (mahalla), and the six larger ones bore the names of their gates. The principal street which divides the whole town into two roughly equal halves, the Khiyaban, was a creation of Shah Abbas I, who did a great deal for Mashhad (cf. the pictures in P.M. Sykes, The glory of the Shia world, London 1910, 231). This street, a fine promenade, is, being the main thoroughfare, filled all day with a throng of all classes and nationalities, including numerous pilgrims, and caravans of camels and asses; the bustle is tremendous, especially in the middle of the day.

The canal, which flowed through the Khiyaban in a bed about 3 m/10 feet broad and 1. m/5 feet deep, was fed, not from the Kashaf Rud (see above) which runs quite close to Mashhad, for it has too little water, but from the Cheshme-yi Gilas, where the river rises, and which used to provide Tus with water. When this town had been almost completely abandoned, Shir Ali, the vizier of Sultan Husayn b. Mansur b. Bayqara (1468–1506), at the beginning of the 10th/16th century had the water brought from this source to Mashhad by a canal 30 km/45 miles long, thus sealing the ruin of Tus. The making of this canal contributed essentially to the rise of Mashhad; for the greater part of its inhabitants relied on it for water, although after entering the town, the canal became muddy and marshy (which was often a subject of satire), and used it for drinking, washing and religious ablutions without hesitation. There were also large and deep reservoirs before the main gates. The water was saline and sulphurous and therefore had an unpleasant taste.



The Haram-i Sharif or sacred area, often called the Bast, literally “place of refuge, asylum”, straddles the lower part of the main street; for a detailed consideration of the shrine.