In the Name of Allah the Most Gracious the Most Merciful
Imam Reza Holy Shrine Architecture History
If Qom is the center of Shi’a jurisprudence and clerical authority in Iran, Mashhad serves as the nation’s spiritual capital. The Imam Reza shrine (PBUH) complex, also known as the Haram, is located at the heart of the city, and sprung up after the Muslim leaders passing. As the second-largest city in Iran today with over three million inhabitants, Mashhad owes much of its significance to the Imam Reza (PBUH) shrine, which has been built and rebuilt numerous times over the course of history. This article will look at how different governments left their mark on the architecture and urban space.
Because of Mashhad’s status as a holy city, construction is highly ideologically charged. The sacred here becomes spatial, and the spiritual becomes interpreted and articulated through the physical. These building projects offer indications of the complex, intertwined histories of power and religion in Iran.
Beginnings: The Establishment of “Mashhad al-Ridha”
Mashhad is the burial site of Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha, the eighth imam (leader) in the Twelver Shi’a tradition, and is better known to Persian speakers as “Imam Reza (PBUH).” Born in 765 AD in Medina, Imam Reza (PBUH) traveled to and spent the later years of his life in Khorasan, a historical region that spans what is today northeastern Iran, Western Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.
A map of the Imam Reza Shrine. Each section of the complex was built at a different time, creating a mosaic of architectural styles
Shi’a sources agree that in 818 AD, Harun al-Rashid’s son and successor Al-Ma’mun Martyred Imam Reza (PBUH) with poisoned grapes in the city of Tus. Imam Reza’s resting place became known as “Mashhad” or “Mashhad al-Ridha” meaning “[al-Ridha’s] place of martyrdom,” making Imam Reza the only Shi’a imam to be Martyred and buried inside Iran’s modern borders.
Shortly after Imam Reza’s Martyrdom, Muslims of various backgrounds began visiting Mashhad as a place of pilgrimage, and the city was quickly established as a spiritual center. Within decades of his passing, a dome was built over the grave to serve as a visual marker for the shrine. Not all those who traveled to Mashhad left after their pilgrimage, and gradually the city became a center of religious, commerce and travel in the region.
The tomb of Imam Reza with the current sanduq located above the grave
From the Ghaznavids (977–1186 CE) to the Ilkhanate (1260–1335 CE), the Imam Reza (a.s.) Shrine followed a cycle of expansion, destruction, reconstruction, and renovation. It was not until the Timurid period (1370–1507 CE) that the shrine complex and the city experience a substantial and sustainable growth.
Following the death of Timur in 1405 CE, the Iranian Plateau was divided amongst his descendants. The de facto political fragmentation of the empire led to rivalries amongst relatives, which fostered a culture of patronage in the arts as the ruling elite tried to outdo one another. Some of the most active patrons of this period were from the court of Shahrukh (1377–1447 CE), based in Herat. The Sultan’s wife, Gohar Shad (d. 1457), was responsible for commissioning the eponymous mosque that is considered the architectural jewel of the shrine complex. Built near the shrine by the renowned court architect Qavam al-Din Shirazi in 1416, the mosque served as a place of congregation for the ulema and other city residents.
Goharshad mosque, built in 1418 by Qavam al-Din Shirazi
This program of construction and renovation continued during the latter years of the Timurid period. However, the building projects were no longer instigated solely by members of the royal family, but also increasingly powerful advisors and officials.
Golden Ivan commissioned by Ali Shir Nava’i, completed 1470-1480
The Safavids: Shi’ism as State Ideology
Upon coming to power in 1501, the Safavids declared Iran a Shi’a state. Although the Safavids were not the first Shi’as to rule Persia, they were the first dynasty to promote Twelver Shi’ism as the official state religion, beginning a process of proselytization with the objective of spreading the faith among their subjects.
Ivan-e Sa’at, with the famous clock tower built by Shah Abbas
While the site has been considered a locus of pilgrimage since the martyrdom of the Imam (PBUH), Farmanfarmaian argues that Shah Abbas began promoting the site in order to “deflect the flow of pilgrims and their money from the more important shrines of Ottoman-controlled Iraq.” Shah Abbas’ attention to Mashhad reflects a desire to legitimate Iran as a Muslim Shi’a power on the international stage and to challenge the prestige of the Ottoman Caliphate, despite their control over major holy sites like Mecca, Medina, Karbala, and Najaf.
Like Shah Abbas, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar is said to have walked barefoot to the tomb of Imam Reza (PBUH) in 1796. When Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar made his pilgrimage, he had recently taken Mashhad from Shahrukh Shah, the grandson of Nader Shah Afshar, in 1796. By visiting Mashhad personally, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar was able to establish himself amongst the city natives who knew little about the new king.
Agha Mohammad Shah Qajar was succeeded by his nephew, Fath ‘Ali Shah who continued to expand the Qajar state. Mashhad had been the capital of the short-lived Afsharid Empire, and although Shahrukh Khan had been defeated, it remained a stronghold of the Afsharids until Fath ‘Ali Shah launched two prolonged sieges on Mashhad and drive out the last of the remaining Afsharids. The sieges, undoubtedly, devastated the city, and Fath ‘Ali Shah began a program of reconstruction and expansion for the Haram complex. The New Courtyard was one such addition.
Muqarnas found in a connecting chamber between courtyards
Ivan-e Sa’at, with the famous clock tower built by Shah Abbas
An example of the geometric tile work decorating the walls of the complex
A fountain pool in the New Courtyard (Sahn-e No)
Looking to establish their power independently of ulema control, the Qajars supported forms of popular Shi’a culture that were less driven by texts but instead on local traditions, thus placing them beyond the realm of clerical authority. These included taziyeh performances and the rebuilding of shrines. Qajar support for Shi’a shrines included the funding for repairs and general maintenance of Shi’a shrines or mosques in even the Ottoman Empire, especially those in Karbala and Najaf. Naturally, the Qajars paid special attention to the maintenance and expansion of the Imam Reza (PBUH) Shrine, as the most important Shi’a site under their jurisdiction.
And so, these additions continued with subsequent Qajar kings. In 1861, Nasir al-Din Shah renovated the Ivan leading into the shrine chamber from the new courtyard by covering it with gold. It is now accurately known as the Ivan-i talaie nasiri, or the “Nasiri Golden Ivan.” Nasir al-Din Shah also ordered the installation of masterful ayeneh kari or “mirror-work” in the shrine, covering earlier Safavid-era decorative pieces with mosaic-like mirrored patterns. Mirror-work became a distinctly Iranian art, famously associated with the Imam Reza (PBUH) Shrine.
During the late Qajar period, the majority of those employed in the shrine received their salaries by the state. Thus, the shrine was not used for revolutionary purposes or bast. This was unusual in relation to other mosques and shrines across the country, which were host to a wide variety of political activities during the Tobacco Revolt in 1890 and Constitutional Revolution in 1906-11.
Reza Shah came to power in 1925, and almost immediately embarked upon a series of reforms to Westernize and modernize Iran. The most famous of these reforms were the laws banning traditional dress, including women’s veil in the 1930s. Although the debate raged all over the country, due to the Shrine’s unique importance as a spiritual center, it became the site of a decisive confrontation between religious leaders and the authorities. It was especially important in the context of the shrine because kashfe-hijab, which prohibited women from covering their hair, had important implications for pilgrims.
An old aerial view of the shrine . The complex was directly accessible to the neighborhoods surrounding it.
The Goharshad mosque became a site for members of the ulema to discuss Reza Shah’s dress code decrees. Ultimately, the Pahlavi government decided that scarves were illegal, but hats were not. The ulema reacted negatively to these new policies, and eventually took up bast (refuge) in the mosque. On July 13th 1935, government forces entered the site and fired at protesters, killing 1670 i. In 1936, a similar question arose, this time regarding Muslim women pilgrims from India and Afghanistan, and an understanding was reached they would be permitted to veil
.The Ivan-e Maqsurah in front of the Goharshad mosque, is one of the largest Ivans in the complex and was decorated under the reign of Baysungur
An aerial view of the Imam Reza (PBUH) Shrine photographed on 22 September 1977.
Furthermore, it cut the shrine off from the daily life of Mashhadis, making it primarily a structure for tourism and for visiting but one removed from daily life. By isolating the sacred even while seemingly highlighting it as the heart of the city, the Shah’s government also made a clear statement about the distinct division between daily life, which should be secular, and the private realm of the religious. The Shah’s “modern Mashhad” (located further to the northwest) was oriented away from the complex and does not take the shrine as its main reference point.
Islamic Republic of Iran: Expansion and Ideological Re-appropriation
After the 1979 Holy Revolution, the Islamic Republic strove to reconnect the shrine to the city. Today, a network of roads goes both around and underneath the shrine, ensuring that it is a central traffic circle for the entire city, allowing for people to travel to and from the Haram. And yet this network of roads does not isolate the shrine from the city, as it did under the Pahlavis, but instead weaves it into the city, sacralizing the everyday at the same time that it normalizes the sacred.
A series of tunnels and underground passageways were built by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI)
Islamic Republic was responsible for constructing the Jami’-e Razavi Courtyard on top of the area cleared by the Pahlavis decades earlier. It is now the largest open space in the shrine complex. With this expansion, the courtyard can hold over 100,000 people and can now accommodate large congregations for Friday prayers.
A contemporary aerial view of the Imam Reza Shrine. The IRI has taken advantage of the space cleared by the Pahlavis and greatly expanding the site. Three entrances to the subterranean rotary (zirgerd) are also visible.
Much like general changes made to the urban landscape after the 1979 revolution, names of old courtyards were changed to reflect the grand narrative of the Islamic Republic and also the religious ideology behind it. For example, Sahn-e ‘Atiq, roughly translated as “the Old Courtyard” is now called Sahn-e Enqilab-e Islami or “the Courtyard of the Islamic Revolution.” Other courtyards have been re-labelled as well, drawing from major themes from the revolution, like Azadi “freedom” (previously the New Courtyard). Another courtyard has been renamed “Imam Khomeini.”
Sahn-e Qods, “the Qods Courtyard” was opened to the public in 1990, named after Jerusalem. The saqqakhaneh is built in the shape of the Dome of the Rock in Palestine. Ideologues state that the repository was constructed to commemorate Jerusalem’s status as the the “First Qibla” of the Muslims. However, this architectural choice is also heavily ingrained by the Islamic Republic of Iran of the Palestinian narrative and highlights the current status of the Dome of the Rock under Israeli occupation. The exterior of it features the architecture and mosaic tile work of Masjid-e Aqsa and its dome is completely composed of gold.
Sahn-e Jami’-e Razavi
The effective spiritual atmosphere and the attractive expansion and reconstruction of the holy shrine made by the Islamic Republic of Iran over three decades has led to an increasing number of pilgrims from all countries of the world. On Imam Reza Street, located south west of the shrine, many large corporations have constructed five-star luxury hotels to accommodate travelers. Such urban development has proven lucrative, which in turn has attracted more developers, raised property value, and significantly transformed the urban landscape surrounding the complex.
Similar to holy places across the region, the increasingly transnational religious tourism has had the effect of making the shrines more accessible to a wider, more diverse public.
The Imam Reza Shrine (PBUH) has grown significantly over the centuries from a small shrine over the grave of the 8th Imam into the one of the largest religious complexes in the Islamic World. Since its establishment, the political powers have used the sacred space to demonstrate their temporal power, creating some of the most astounding wonders of Islamicate art. At the same time, Mashhad itself — the living, breathing city — is often the main victim of these grandiose visions, subject to the whims of far-off rulers for whom the city is an abstraction. As past and current trends have shown, the architecture and open spaces of the site will continue to be shaped and re-appropriated by the ideologies of governing powers. Nevertheless, the Haram continues to serve as an important and sacred place of worship and prayer for pilgrims from all over the world.