Mashhad – a spiritual and actual refuge


Mashhad is Iran’s holiest city, and its second largest.

The holiness is due to the massive shrine complex in the city’s centre. Inside is the body of Reza, one of the twelve Imams of Shia Islam, and the only one to be buried in Iran. Reza was poisoned with grapes and pomegranate juice, which is kinda cool. Shia pilgrims come to pay their respects and ask for favour from Reza.

They stay in concentric circles of hotels that span out from the shrine. Arab tourism means the streets we walk in are filled with men in long white robes and women dressed even more conservatively than Iran’s laws require. We’ll write about our experience in the shrine soon.

The population is largely due to the Iran-Iraq war. Mashhad was the Iranian city that was furthest from the front. Its population skyrocketed with Iranians displaced from the conflict and others who were scared its misery would encroach further towards their homes.

It feels like the Iran-Iraq war is under-represented in western consciousness. Which is to say, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about it. As a broader mark of how much we care it apparently used to be called the Gulf War in English until Iraq invaded Kuwait a few years later and we decided the fight that involved western forces deserved the name. The war lasted for eight years, the longest conventional war in the 20th century. It also saw the revival of trench warfare for the first time since world war one, and the serious use of chemical weapons.

About a million people died. A considerable number of them died as deliberate martyrs. It was common for young Iranian men to walk through minefields, sacrificing their lives to try and clear them. Today billboards in towns throughout Iran still display their pictures and offer thanks.

When the war started in 1980 Iran was still piecing itself back together after the 1979 revolution. It seems the domestic chaos was a prime motivation for Saddam Hussein’s opportunist grab of oil rich Khunestan province on his northern border. He was also concerned that the Iranain revolution might serve as a model for the Shia Islam minority he oppressed.

In some senses the invasion probably galvanised Iran’s new Islamic State; volunteers flooded south to fight the Iraqis. Iraq’s army was better organised and armed but Iran’s was more numerous. By 1982 Iraq had been pushed back to its borders but Iran sought to continue the conflict, invading Iraq with dubious claims to legitimate sovereignty over important Shia pilgrimage sites Najaf and Karbala. A cease-fire was negotiated in 1988, though apparently prisoners were still being exchanged as late as 2003. By the time this uneasy peace was reached about a million Iranians had fled their homes, and most of them had ended up in Mashhad.

Despite the horror and longevity of the war I can’t find anything that says anyone seriously considered intervening to knock it off. The US did give a bunch of money and weaponry to Saddam though. And that worked out well.

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