Imam Reza Shrine

A gold dome flashed, a blue dome loomed, out of the cold autumnal haze

The Imam Reza Shrine is by far the most important and most articulated monument of Mashhad, and probably Iran. It is also one of the biggest religious complexes in the world, with a total area of about 598,657 m2. So big that Robert Byron had a hard time describing it, and in his travelogue, many of its features and components are overlooked. Byron, in fact, will devote his attention to the western court of the complex, the one of the Mosque of Gawhar Shad. But its beauty and complexity requires at least a post.

The first time Byron sees the monument is the 16th of November 1933, while approaching the city, when he writes, also with a hint of irony: “Century by century […] this vision has refreshed the desert-weary sight of pilgrims, merchants, armies, kings, and travellers—to become the last hope of several dozen fretful passengers in a damaged motor-bus.”

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General view of the complex in the distance. Photo by Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten (archnet).

The story of Mashhad is strictly intertwined with a major religious event, as Robert Byron himself explains in the entry dated 24th December 1933: the death of Imam Reza (the eighth Shi’ite Imam, the same of the Shrine of Qadamgah) in 817 AD. This had, in turn, determined the growth of the city: what in 817 AD was nothing the small village of Sanabad became the Mashhad, “Place of Martyrdom”, and began attracting pilgrims and believers, becoming the most important sacred city in Persia.

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Aerial view looking to the shrine complex. Photo by Martin Gray (archnet).

The shrine has been constructed, destructed and reconstructed several times, under different rulers. Following the whole history of the building, from the 14th to the 20th century would be enchanting, but very long. Then, let’s just mention that even if the Seljuks and Il-Khanids took part in the building, the main construction works were made under the Timurids and the Safavids. Thus, although some of its elements are dated to 1215 AD, and the dome originally was not plated in gold but decorated with tiles, the monument as we see it now is the result of some patrons, whose interventions are deeper and lingering longer than others: Shah Tahmasp (1514 – 1576), who decided to plate the dome in gold; before him, under Shah Rukh and his wife Gawhar Shad, the complex received substantial royal patronage; the same happened later on, with the Safavid Abbas and Nader Shah.

The hugeness of the shrine of Mashhad is due to the many monuments that through times had been added to the complex. Among these, the Mosque of Gawhar Shad (1416-1418), the Madrasa Du Dar (1439), the Dar al-Huffaz (late 15th century), and more recently the Sahn-e Khomeini and the Sahn-e Jumhuriyet Islamiye, two courtyards added under the rule of the Islamic Revolution.

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Transverse section through Tomb Chamber. Drawing copyright Asia Institute, Shiraz (defunct) / Courtesy of Richard N. Frye (archnet).

For a general description of the complex, we can stick to what Byron wrote on the 24th of December 1933, when, as he reports in the travelogue, he was watching the Shrine from a roof (underlining once again the hugeness of the monument): “I spent the morning on various roofs examining the Shrine through field-glasses from the other side of the circular street. There are three main courts, each with four ivans (no other word will describe those huge open-fronted halls with pointed vaults and high façades, which are the special feature of Persian mosque architecture). Two of the courts point north and south, and are situated end to end, though not on the same axis; the tilework in these, from a distance, looks like chintz and must date from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Between them rises a helm-shaped dome plated in gold, which marks the tomb of the Imam and was erected by Shah Abbas in 1607”. In fact, Shah Abbas patroned a huge renovation project of the Imam Reza Shrine: the dome was already there.

Byron will anyway devote much more attention to the Mosque of Gawhar Shad, which he describes profusely, and even try to enter (this in a separate post).

Sources and further information:

On archnet.org, as always, one can find detailed information and photos of the Imam Reza Shrine and the buildings part of the complex.

S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, Yale University Press, New Haven 1994.
R. Byron, “Timurid Architecture”, in A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford University Press, London and New York 1939, vol. II, pp. 1103-1118.
L. Golombek and D. Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988.

 

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