A shrine as the center of the city: Mashhad-i Fatima

a good group with its tall gold dome and four blue minarets

Robert Byron stayed in Teheran for a while before going towards Isfahan. After he visited the monuments of Bastam, next to Tehran, he did not visit any other monument, and we do not know the exact reason for this.

After he had visited the Gunbad-i Bastam, the Chief of Police informed him that he could not go around and visit monuments, since it was Ramadan. Byron apparently replied rudely, informing the Chief of Police that he could not follow the Ramadan: he needed to visit monuments! But at the beginning of that same entry, Byron underlines how the period of Ramadan is not an easy one: Ramadan “means no one gets up till midday”. And throughout his journey, he relies on many people to go around, and to communicate.

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General view of the Shrine of Fatima, from a distance. This is the only photo Byron takes of the monument (archnet).

After the month of the Ramadan is over, in late January 1934, he continues his journey.

The first monument he encounters after this ‘break’ is the Mashhad-i Fatima at Qom, that he simply calls Shrine. The short description of the shrine is recorded under the entry dated 8th of February 1934:

“The Shrine here, though rebuilt in early XIXth century, makes a good group with its tall gold dome and four blue minarets.”

What Byron forgets to mention here is that Qom is the second holiest city in Iran, and place of pilgrimage. The pilgrims, particularly, pay a visit to this shrine of Fatima al-Ma’sumah. Bijan Saadat in 1977 published a long work on the shrine: The Holy Shrine of Imam Zadeh Fatima Ma’suma, Qum, a text that digs into every detail of the story and architecture of the shrine.

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Mirror Iwan in New Court, and the golden dome of the Hazrat-i Ma’suma Tomb. Photo by Bijan Sadaat (archnet).

Fatima al-Ma’sumah, also known as Hazrat al-Ma’sumah, was the sister of the Imam Reza (whose most famous shrine is in Mashhad, but that is remembered also elsewhere, in Qadamghah for instance).  Bijan Saadat, in a paragraph (p. 22), informs about the reason why Hazrat was in Qom at one point of her life. In 201 A.H. (816 A.D.), writes Sadaat, she went to Iran to pay a visit to her brother, who had left Medina to Iran following an invitation of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun. Once in Saveh, she got severely ill and was invited by Musa bin Kharzaj, a prominent Shi’ite, to Qom, some 75 km away. In Qom she died after few days and was buried within Musa bin Kharzaj’s property, in the Babolan Garden. In the course of time, many changes happened to the site, but the Babolan Garden still corresponds to the area that is now occupied by the central courtyard and iwan on the shrine.

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A mirrored Haram chamber, the tomb of Hazrat-i Ma’suma is through doorway. Photo by Bijan Sadaat (archnet).

According to the sources, soon enough the Babolan Garden became a place of pilgrimage. There is also a tradition telling that when Imam Reza was asked whether a pilgrimage to his sister’s tomb would be of any value, he replied that it would assure the Paradise to anyone performing it. Bijan informs that at first the tomb was marked by a canopy made of bamboo, which soon deteriorated, and that only centuries later the structure we can see today was erected. The first dome was built in 1055 A.D. and from then on, additions and reconstructions followed, the last courtyard (sahn) having been added as late as 1883. This was the (re-)construction Byron mentioned in his travelogue.

The Shrine became more and more important and (literally) central in the life of the city. Bijan Sadaat underlines that Musa bin Kharzaj’s quarters, where Fatima was buried, were outside the city of Qom: so how comes the shrine today marks the city center? Bijan explains this urban development.

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Detail of the Old Court. Photo by Bijan Sadaat (archnet).

As for many cities in Iran, the Mongol invasion marked a watershed also for Qom. The once delightful city, full of mosques, minarets, and schools built by the Seljuks, “suffered immeasurably” from the Mongol invasion: “the Mongols invaded Qum, destroyed houses and other buildings and put innumerable people to death”. With the city destroyed, the few survivors “lost their interest in whatever had remained of the city”, and re-settled around the shrine. According to Bijan Sadaat, the choice to resettle around the shrine was made because of religious reasons, but also for an economic one: pilgrims needed services, and the citizens of Qom could profit from the situation.

Byron did not indulge in a description of the shrine: maybe he just did not have time to visit it, probably he did not think it was worth it since its reconstruction was quite recent: the phrase “though rebuilt in early XIXth century”, is quite self-explanatory. Yet we do not know, and cannot know for sure. It is a fact that Robert Byron took only one single photo of the Shrine, or at least, we have only one picture of the Mashhad attributed to him, and it seems to have been taken from a distance. Byron was not traveling alone: Mr. and Mrs. Hovland were transporting him, he writes. They were moving from Tehran to Shiraz and gave him a ride. Maybe Byron, simply passed by the shrine, with the car, and did not have the time to discover the long history of the “good group” of dome and minarets. Or even more probable, he could not stop and indulge in taking photos of the shrine: the owners of the car were moving, they did not have time to play the tourists.

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General of view of the court. Photo by Bijan Sadaat (archnet).

Sources and short bibliography

Archnet.org, in this case, is not providing any information about the Mashhad-Fatima: it is as always a valuable source of photos.
Quite an interesting description can be found on the website sacredsites.com.

Bijan Saadat, The Holy Shrine of Imam Zadeh Fatima Ma’suma, Qum. Vol. II, Asia Institute, Pahlavi University, Shiraz 1977. [available online (last accessed: 17th Jan 2018)]

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