Shiraz is billed as the ‘capital of culture’ – a place of literature, which homes the tombs of renowned Persian poets, Hafez and Saadi. However, as I experienced, wherever you go in Iran, art and culture abound. Shiraz was heaving with young people embracing the wonders of their country, which was rather refreshing to see. The highlight of my trip to Iran’s sixth most populous city was visiting shrines which were unlike anything I had seen, and far exceeded my humble expectations. Although I’d only been in Iran for a week by the time I reached Shiraz, my visit to Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze (Imamzadeh Hamzeh mausoleum) served to epitomes the openness, humility and kindness I experienced in those first few days.
This is the tomb of Emir Ali who died while en route to aid Imam Reza – Shia Islam’s eighth Imam and a descendent of Prophet Muhammad – who is entombed in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest site. Here in Shiraz, the small entrance is attended by local volunteers whose smiles happily welcomed me. They have unenviable task of trying to help foreign female visitors into mandatory chadors (a full-length cloak) required to enter the shrine. After some rather intensive chador training, I still haven’t a clue! I was a little disappointed as I wanted to wear a black one (when in Iran…), but bed linen-style was the only option for visitors.
Covered in tombstones of the lost, the courtyard is a place of contemplation tinged with the beauty of Persian script. Centred, one can find the ablution fountain dwarfed by the shrine. Rich cobalt blue and turquoise tiles stylishly combined with canary yellow ceramics decorate the bulbous dome, and Quranic script elegantly provides words of meaning to the faithful, whilst gently mocking my inability to understand Arabic. However, I can now finally differentiate between Persian and Arabic script. Small victories!
Much to my surprise (and honour), I was permitted to enter the men’s section of the tomb. Removing my shoes, I stepped into the mausoleum and immediately my feet sunk into the plush Persian carpets; my eyes darted around as feelings of awe at the decoration, curiosity of both the tomb and prayer ritual, and fear that this foreign woman (with her bright pink nail polish) in the men’s section of a tomb in Iran (!) would cause offence. Two gentlemen momentarily looked up before continuing their prayers. I watched them intently. I was quite anxious about taking photographs of people; even after a week of being in Iran, I still carried the weight of being British with a camera and everybody potentially thinking I was a spy. It turns out, I have never felt safer or more welcome in any country I’ve had the privilege to visit, but that’s another discussion.
It was the first time I had seen a Turbah (a prayer tablet/stone used by Shi’a), and been this close to someone praying in such a manner. It’s beautiful. Once they had completed their prayers, both gentlemen looked at me, I smiled and they nodded in acknowledgement of my presence, and one walked around me to catch a glimpse of the video I was taking on my iPad, and gave me another nod, before leaving. No animosity or annoyance; peace, tolerance and one of my favourite attributes: curiosity.
Back out into the courtyard, my chador desperately tried to escape me as I made my way through a separate entrance to the ladies section. Here, local ladies prayed, rested and appeared in a meditative state. With their black chadors elegantly framing their faces and highlighting their hazel-coloured eyes, and covering them completely, much unlike my situation. I took photographs of the gleaming Venetian mirrored tiles, the use of green to accentuate the Emir’s tomb and felt at home with one of my real life staples – stained glass windows. I attempted to leave but a group of ladies, sitting in a private female-only area immediate outside the shrine, invited me to sit with them: they were eating a type of lettuce with lemon juice and, although I needed to go, I sat for a few minutes, munching away and feeling humbled by the warm-heartedness of these strangers. I said my goodbyes with a heavy heart. This is the Iran I ‘lived’.
Whilst the mausoleum’s architectural excellence, with its protuberant dome, abundant turquoise tiles, tiny mirrored collages and deep spirituality captivates one’s attention, it has nothing on the beauty of the human souls I encountered there. A real Persian highlight.