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The complex over the tomb of 9th imam, Ali ar-Rida. Mashhad, Iran.
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The complex over the tomb of 8th imam, Ali ar-Rida. Mashhad, Iran.

Courtyard of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad, Iran.
Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad, Iran.

The main dome of the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad, Iran.

Tomb of Ferdowsi, Mashhad, Iran.
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Tomb of Ferdowsi. Photo: Alexander Nitzsche.

City scene of Mashhad
City scene of Mashhad

City in Iran with 2.1 million inhabitants (2005 estimate), at an elevation of 985 metres above sea level in the valley of the Kashaf River. Mashhad is the capital of Khorasan Province with 6.5 million inhabitants (2005 estimate) and an area of 302,966 km². It is the centre of the northeastern corner of Iran that borders Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
Mashhad is the centre for a sizeable region, which it serves through transport, commerce, manufacturing, producing traditional carpets from local wool supplies, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and processed food.
Mashhad is the most important and popular holy Muslim city in Iran, and is ranked by Shi'i theologians as the 7th most holy place of Islam (Mecca and Madina of Saudi Arabia; Karbala, Najaf, Samarra and the Kadhimain district of Baghdad of Iraq are more holy). Every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit Mashhad. Central in this pilgrimage is the tomb of the eighth imam Ali ar-Rida, who died here in 818 (then known as Tus).
Mashhad has a unique layout, with the holy areas, called Bast, forming a perfect circle. There is one circular road around, and four roads between the Bast and the secular parts of Mashhad. The four roads are perfectly turned half the way from the compass, pointing in northwestern, northeaster, southeastern and southwestern directions.
The Bast functions almost like a state of itself in some respects. Animals entering the Bast by accident become the property of the religious authorities, and the Bast even has the right to give asylum anyone no matter what they need to hide from. The Bast even has its own police and prisons. The Bast may not be entered by non-Muslims.
Pilgrims coming to Mashhad has the right of free maintenance for three days. The activities around the tomb resembles hajj in some respect, with circumambulations around it and three times cursing of all enemies of the imam. Pilgrims to the tomb of Ali ar-Rida has the right to call themselves mashhadi.
Every year are thousands of corpses brought to Mashhad, not only from other parts of Iran, but also other Shi'i countries. The number of graves are limited, and after decomposing, are they used over again. The fee for these graves represent one of the most important incomes of the Bast.
Other prominent figures are buried in Mashhad, too. Caliph Harun ar-Rashid fell mortally sick and died after few days, on a campaign towards Khorasan. This was in 809. In 818 the caliph designate died here, too.
The ruined town of Tus lies 23 km west from modern Mashhad.

809: Caliph Harun ar-Rashid dies in Tus.
818: Imam Ali ar-Rida dies in Tus.
1220: Large parts of Mashhad are destroyed by the Mongols, but several of the sacred buildings were spared.
1389: Tus is destroyed by Miran Shah, and abandoned by its inhabitants, making Mashhad the most important town in the region.
15th century: Shah Rokh has several great buildings added to Mashhad.
Around 1600: Abbas 1 starts a large programme on beautifying Mashhad, as well as encouraging pilgrimage here.
1736: Nadir Shah makes Mashhad his capital.
1874: More than 24,000 of Mashhad's inhabitants die in a terrible famine hitting Khorasan.
1956: Mashhad University opens.

By Tore Kjeilen