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The Shrine and Mashhad as a centre of Shi’ite learning and piety

  The location in Mashhad of the Shrine of the eighth Imam Ali al-Reza has made Mashhad into the leading place of pilgrimage within Persia, the process whereby its veneration developed being accentuated by the fact that, for some four centuries, with one break of a few decades, the Shi’ite shrines of Iraq were in the hands of the Sunni Ottoman Turks, the powerful enemies and rivals of the Safavids and their successors. Shi’ite ulama place Mashhad as the seventh of the great sanctuaries of the Muslim world, after Mecca, Medina, and the four specifically Shi’ite atabt in Iraq, Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Kazimayn (see Sykes, The glory of the Shia world, p. xiii), but some Shi’ite ulama would rank it next after Karbala (see G.N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian question, London 1892, i, 150 n. 2).

The Haram containing the Shrine seems to be essentially the creation of the last six or seven centuries, its development receiving a powerful impetus when the Safavids turned Persia into a Shi’ite state in the 10th/16th century. Previously, it had been easier for non-Muslims to visit the Shrine, since the Spanish ambassador Clavijo, en route for Timur’s court at Samarqand, was able in 1404 to visit it. Thereafter, it was not till the first half of the 19th century that the British traveler J.B. Fraser was able, by dint of a feigned conversion to Islam, to enter the Shrine in 1822 long enough to make a drawing of the courtyard there (see Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian, James Baillie Fraser in Mashhad, or, the Pilgrimage of a nineteenth century Scotsman to the Shrine of the Imam Reza, in Persia, JBIPS, xxxiv [1996], 101–15). Various other European travelers followed in the later 19th century (details in Curzon, op. cit., i, 148 n. 1).

But the rise of the Mashhad shrine began well before the advent of the Safavids, and especially after the sack of nearby Tus by the Timurid prince Miran Shah b. Timur in 791/1389 dealt Tus a death-blow and brought the Sanabad shrine into prominence as the nucleus of the later Mashhad. Already, Ibn Battuta had gone on from Tus to “the town of Mashhad al-Reza”, which he describes as large and flourishing (Rihla, iii, 77–8, Eng. tr. Gibb, iii, 582), and Timurid rulers such as ShahRukh and his wife Jawhar Shadh were great benefactors in the first half of the 9th/15th century; but members of the new dynasty of the Safavids vied with each other in enriching and enlarging the Shrine. Shah Tahmesp I erected a minaret covered with gold in the northern part of the Sahn-i kuhna which, with the Sahn-i naw, bounds the Shrine on its northern and eastern sides, and he adorned the dome of the tomb with sheets of gold and put a golden pillar on top of it (this was to be carried off by the Shibanids when in 997/1589 they invaded Khurasan and sacked Mashhad). Abbas I laid out the main thoroughfare of the city, the Khiyaban, running from northwest to southeast and dividing the city into two roughly equal halves; the Shrine area divided this street into an upper (bala) and a lower (pa’in) part. Abbas II devoted his attention mainly to the decoration of the Sahn-i kuhna. Safi II, the later Sulayman I, restored the dome of the Imam’s tomb. But there were benefactions during these times from outside potentates also, not only from the South Indian Shi’ite Qutb Shahi ruler Sultan-Quli Qutb al-Mulk in 918/1512 but also by the Sunni Mughal emperor Akbar, who made a pilgrimage to Mashhad in 1003/1595.

Although likewise a Sunni, Nadir Shah Afshar was the greatest benefactor of the city and the Shrine in the 12th/18th century, devoting a great part of the plunder brought back from India to their embellishment. Before his accession to the throne, he had in 1142/1730 built a minaret covered with gold in the upper part of the Sahn-i kuhna as a counterpart to that of Tahmasp I on the north side of this. He now thoroughly restored the southern half of the _a_n, and decorated the southern gateway richly and covered it with sheets of gold, so that it acquired the historic name of “Nadir’s Golden Gate”; in the centre of this court he placed his famous octagonal marble “water house”, the saqqa-khana-yi nadiri. The Qajar Shahs, from Fath Ali to Nasir al-Din, likewise cherished the Shrine, despite the frequency with which the city of Mashhad was involved in rebellions against the central government at various points in the 19th century.

 The Shrine area forms the so-called Bast, thus designated from the rights of asylum and sanctuary traditionally operating there for e.g. debtors, and, for a limited period, criminals (see Curzon, op. cit., i, 155). Nadir’s Golden Gateway leads southwards to the area of the Imam’s shrine itself and its ancillary buildings, what is strictly speaking the Haram-i muqaddas. The almost square shrine has the actual tomb in its northeastern corner. Shah Abbas I provided the tomb with a gold covering, and he also covered the dome, 20 m/65 feet high, with gilded copper sheets. Notable also here is the Dar al-siyada hall built by Jawhar Shadh, a Dar al-huffaz, and the _ ne mosque bearing Jawhar Shadh’s name, regarded by many authorities as the most attractive building in the sacred area (see illustr. in Sykes, op. cit., at 263). There are also teeming bazaars, caravanserais, baths, etc. in the aram, the property of the Shrine, but the Shrine also in pre-modern times held awqaf all over Persia, and especially, in other parts of Khurasan, contributing to the income of the Shrine and its upkeep. This last varied according to economic prosperity and peaceful or otherwise conditions in the land; information given to Curzon at the end of the 19th century put the Shrine revenues at 60,000 tomans, equivalent at that time to £17,000 sterling per annum (op. cit., i, 162–3).

The Shrine was administered by a lay Mutawalli Bashi, from the later 19th century onwards until Pahlavi times as an office held by the governorgeneral of Khurasan, previous times having been often characterised by disputes between the Shrine administrator and the representatives of the central government; at the time of Curzon’s visit, the Mutawalli Bashi was Nasir al-Din Shah’s brother Muhammad Taqi Mirza, Rukn al-Dawla (replaced in 1891 by a former governor of Fars). The office was a lucrative one, since the administrator normally drew 10% of the Shrine’s revenues. Beneath him was a large staff of lower mutawallis, mujtahids and mullas, some enjoying hereditary appointments.

 Pilgrimage to the shrine of the Imam began at an early date. European travelers and visitors in the 19th century endeavoured to estimate their annual numbers: Ferrier (1845) gave 50,000; Khanikoff (1858) and Eastwick (1862), over 50,000; C.E. Yate (in the 1890s), 30,000. These numbers tended to rise at the times of special festivals such at the anniversary of Ali al-Reza’s death and during Muharram. The rites of pilgrimage involved a triple circumambulation or tawaf and the three-fold cursing of the Imam’s enemies, and especially of the caliphs Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun. The pilgrims enjoyed a support system of food kitchens and accommodation for three nights, and a pilgrim who had performed all the rites in the prescribed fashion was entitled to call himself a Mashhadi.

 As with the lands adjacent to Najaf and Karbala, the holiness of the Shrine and its environs made it very attractive for burials, and several large cemeteries lay round it, such as the Maqbara-yi qatlgah (“killing ground cemetery”) to its north. Since there was so much demand for places - not merely from Persians but also from Shi’ites from the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and Central Asia – the same ground had to be used over and over again for burials. The fees for such burials – graves with proximity to the Shrine itself being the most expensive – brought in a not inconsiderable revenue to the Shrine.

As well as a centre for piety and pilgrimage, Mashhad was an educational centre, with a considerable number of madrasas, whose number in the first decade or so of the 20th century approached twenty, the oldest still standing being the Dudar one, founded by ShahRukh in 823/1420, the majority of them, however, dating from the later Safavid period. From an architectural and artistic point of view, the Madrasa of Mir Ja’far, built and endowed by the founder in 1059/1650, is regarded as especially fine. These colleges attracted students from Persia itself and also from the Shi’ite communities of India; Sykes in 1910 put the number of students at that time at 1,200 (The glory of the Shia world, 267–8), many of whom at this time went on subsequently for further study at al-Najaf.