‘There are in life a few moments so beautiful, that even words are a sort of profanity.’
My Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t have any photographs and the internet connection was rather bleak so, with the exception of a brief paragraph about the shrine, I had no idea what to expect at the Shāh Chérāgh Shrine. By now I had been in Iran for about 8 days; I had visited a few mosques, felt extremely safe and deeply connected to the people whom I had encountered. Even writing that I felt safe frustrates me. Am I trying to reassure you? If I visited Portugal, would I hammer on about feeling safe? It would certainly get a mention because, as a woman travelling alone, safety is my main priority, but why do I feel need to talk about Iran in these terms, particularly when discussing the beautiful of a religious building?
A few days after arriving in Iran I realised how utterly ignorant I was about the fundamental differences between Shia and Sunni Islam. I have a great appreciation for Islamic art, but was clueless about the roots and traditions of this rich religion. I knew nothing of the difference between an Imam and Mullah, the significance of the colour of turbans worn by mullahs or what was specifically said during the adhan. It was the most informative 3-week trip I could have hoped for, and a painful acknowledgement of my unconscious consumption of bias and misinformation within my own environment.
I exited my taxi, turned the corner and gasped. As the sun was setting, the light twinkled of the bulbous blue dome and everything sort of stopped. Thousands of visits to the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Islamic Gallery at the British Museum; dozens of images on Pinterest and even after 8 days in Iran (though I hadn’t been to Esfahan at this point), nothing prepared me for what stood before me. The turquoise tiles, a combination of Arabic and Persian script, the sheer size of the shrine and the contrast of women’s bellowing jet black chadors against the vibrancy of structure left quite the impression. How could such a place exist and I hadn’t even heard of it? A year later, I met an Iranian woman in India and she, referring to the dirt, sense of danger and general poverty and dilapidation, said “this is what everybody thinks Iran is like”. Shamefully, I understood that perspective all too well.
This shrine is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam and, according to Lonely Planet (and a few blogs I read), non-Muslims are not usually permitted to enter (obviously not the case when I went). The mausoleum was erected in the 12th century, however most of the current structure dates from the 18th century onwards.
Of the twelve imams, Imam Reza (8th Imam) is the only one to be buried in Iran (in Mashhad); 10 are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the 12th, Imam Mahdi, is believed to be in occultation.
All women entering are required to a. enter through a separate security entrance where a very touchy-feeling (don’t say I didn’t warn you!) but friendly pat down occurs and b. wear a chador. Some women in Iran wear them as standard, some do not. As such, they can be rented (my guidebook states there is a small US$1 fee but I was not charged). I noted that I was given a patterned chador whereas local women were provided with plain black one. Additionally, foreigners are not permitted to enter without an authorised (complimentary) guide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Shoes off, I entered with Fatima, my wonderful volunteer guide. Immediately I smiled; my feet sank into the plush Persian carpets and I could see Koranic script, painstakingly carved into white marble, framing the space. At that moment, I heard the Imam speaking to the congregation and it finally hit me: I made it to Iran and, in that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be. Why wasn’t I afraid? Iran is scary and evil, politicians and the media tells us. But, is it really? Or, like our respective countries, surely it has multitude of both flaws and strengths. My advice: before you buy into the concept of good countries vs bad countries (yet another them vs us), check yourself and your own country. We have a proclivity to point the finger, to buy into the notion of other and to focus on what is ‘wrong’ with other people, religions, cultures and countries, and in doing so we close ourselves off to the richness of our fellow people. We need to stop this. We, mostly, need to recognise the distinction between the general population and politicians. When I listen to my own government talking about limiting immigration, decreasing funding for elderly care and failing to support those in need, I am reminded that those people do not represent my beliefs or are not remotely indicative of who I am, so why would I define an entire population based on its politics?
By now, I’d been to a few mosques in central Iran where people had prayed together. Here, men and women were segregated. I noted many women, particularly older women, were visibly emotional. One might even suggest they were in mourning. Despite their grief, people were, as they had been through my Persian adventure, welcoming. I stared in awe of the dazzling mirrored mosaics and turquoise tiling, they stared at this decidedly ‘different’ looking woman desperately struggling with her chador whilst taking photographs. I smiled. They smiled. Some asked where I came from and, again, by this point, I wasn’t too worried about sharing my British origin (which concerned me greatly when I arrived). Women read the Koran, little ones chatted and played and adolescents recharged their iPhones and people came together. I found a respectful community spirit unlike anything I had imagined. My own religious practice is (as I like it) solemn and personal, and this was pleasantly surprising.
Upon returning home, I read some reviews of other travellers who had visited Iran. Many were not permitted to enter the shrine because they had attempted to visit during a time when many pilgrims were paying their respects or there was an unavailability of guides, which highlights my privilege even more. Months after my trip I am still trying to reconcile what we are told about Iran with what I experienced. Thus far, this was the most surreal experience of my life, and I cannot wait to return and explore more of this rich country.
Shiraz, 13364 -71387