With no ommelette or even tea to be had, an inedible sludge was all there was on offer for brekkie in Mashad, porridge with vague strings of chicken in it, god awful. You could sweeten it to your taste but that just made it sweet inedible sludge. Served with flat bread, I later learned it to be a barley porridge called Ash, that certainly sounded about right. The locals tucked into it as though they enjoyed it. I gave the young boy 10,000 Rials and received no change, so either it was very dear sludge or there was a culture of squeezing the pockets of passing pilgrims for all they could get. Mashad's story is an unusual one. Meaning "Place of Martyrdom", man thats just so damned Iranian, its whole existence is due to the fact that the 8th Shi-ite Imam, Emam Reza died here in the year 817, poisoned allegedly. Back then it was just the small village of Sanabad. It now covers 27,000 square kilometres with a population of 2.3 million and receives 15 million visitors annually. Though his shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again over the centuries it remains the focal point and sole raison d'etre of the city, Iran's most sacred place and one of the world's largest pilgrimage sites, steeped in religion. With no industrial base, its said that any other city would struggle to sustain itself but in Mashad, this being Islamic Iran, religion was quite enough to keep it ticking over. Certainly it was apparent. All the women without exception wore the Chador, souvenir shops proferred tacky touristy tosh, and every TV I saw seemed to be showing either prayers or pictures of the Haj.
THE IMAM REZA SHRINE
The complex was enormous and entering one of the many gates I found myself in the Razani Great Courtyard, big enough in itself to build a football stadium in. Surprisingly the whole place seemed to be under heavy reconstruction and 6 new very tall minarets were still nothing but framework. This is how the mullahs squandered all those petrodollars. Further on, the smaller Qods Courtyard was in much better condition with 3 large portals and the north facing Great Mosque. The ritual ablutions fountain in the centre was especially fine, topped with a golden dome. A ubiquitous blue onion dome and twin minarets denoted the shrine entrance, and the actual shrine was supposed to be strictly off limits to non-muslims. I chanced my arm and went in.
If the guardians with feather dusters saw me at all they would have just imagined one more hairy muslim and I mirrored the motions of all the other devotees of holding hand to heart and stroking door pillars for good measure. I had been reading the Koran lately and had it with me, so thought I might as well go through the motions like everyone else and play the part, lest anyone was paying particular attention. Later I had my camera momentarily confiscated but I wasnt the only one taking snaps, that was plain. With that I thought it was time to quit while I was ahead and so back out into the courtyard I searched out the "Reception for Foreign Pilgrims" where I should have reported in the first place, I thought I might as well continue the gag. You could help yourself to literature here and I bagged an interesting booklet explaining how to pray in the prescribed islamic manner, as well as 2 works by big chief Khomeini. Strangely, again I was not aware of seeing a single other westerner here and yet this is where they should all be coming, it was the only show in town. Upon their suggestion, I sought out the museum within the complex which has a surprisingly large and varied collection considering its venue. Unfortunately at this point my pencil ran out of lead and so I was unable to take notes. The display started with relics of the shrine complex which had been replaced, such as very ornate carved wooden doorways, a previous cage and shroud which had covered the tomb, tilework which had been renovated, and windows which had been damaged in a 1994 bombing which killed 27. Following that was a series of paintings including predictably overwrought religious themes but curiously also a landscape of Surrey. There were sea shells and some marine animals, a collection of sporting accolades including the medals of a famous Iranian wrestler who had won 2 Olympic silvers, he was bumped off by the Shah's secret police, the notorious Savak when he was only 38. There were clocks, telescopes, navigational instruments and orories. Most interesting was a thermocouple, a device which let you run a radio off the heat of a paraffin lamp. The basement enclosed a comprehensive and fine display of world stamps and banknotes. With that, I celebrated my impromptu pilgrimage with tea and qalyan in a small but very nicely decked out chaykhuneh, before checking out another smaller but excellent shrine marooned on a busy roundabout. Mashad had been very easy to deal with, with a preponderance of all the services I needed for once obvious for the taking. Though devoid of interest apart form the shrine, it was a relaxing spot for such a large city and I left it with more than just memories. Having made the pilgrimage I now had a title to go with them. I was now Mashti Andy!
Shi'ite means party, the Party of Ali. Mohammed had nominated his son-in-law Ali to become his successor, but opposition to a dynastic process by some created the Sunni/Shia divide within Islam immediately upon Mohammed's death. The Sunni's ensured that Ali was passed over 3 times before eventually becoming Caliph, and his son Hussein is also revered for his martyrdom at Karbala in Iraq in defence of the faith. Other notables in Shia Islam are the Muharram, the ritual procession which involves self flagelation, a display of anguish at that sacrifice. The Aga Khan is the leader of ther Ismaili sect of Shi'ites.