The Glory of the Shia World

Being a lover of history I examined everything in detail, and if I tell you that the court was some ninety by sixty metres, with four great porches, and that it was covered with tiles of many colours which not only cannot be made except by Persians, but require the sapphire blue of the sky of Iran to show them in their perfection, you may faintly imagine its beauty. It is paved with hewn stones, and underneath lies the dust of thousands of pious Mussulmans.

The court is two-storied, the upper row of chambers being occupied by the high officials of the Shrine. The lesser officials, such as the carpenter, the goldsmith, and the repairers of the holy Korans, occupy the lower chambers, some of which have even been converted into tombs.

There are four porches, the most beautiful of which is known as "The Golden Porch of Nadir." It was indeed built bySultan Husein, but was enriched by the mighty Afshar, may Allah forgive him, who not only paved and panelled it with white marble brought from distant Maragha, but covered the walls with tiles cased in gold.

The inscription in great golden letters on a blue ground is very perfect, and, Allah knows, Nadir was a World Conqueror and a Lord of Perception, albeit cruel.

Of his power of perception they relate that one day when he entered the Sacred Shrine he saw a blind man invoking the aid of the Imam, and upon inquiry he learned that he had been there for several months. The Great Monarch asked him why his faith was so weak that his sight had not been restored, and swore that if on his return he found him still blind he would cut off his head. The wretched man prayed so fervently, and fixed his mind so intently on the Imam, that within a few minutes his sight was restored, and in honour of the miracle the bazaars were illuminated.

Upon entering the court we first performed our ablutions at the famous "Fountain of Nadir." This unique fountain is formed from a single block of white marble decorated with exquisitely chiselled flowers; it is octagonal in shape, three feet in height, and eighteen feet in circumference. The top is hollowed out, and copper cups are suspended for drinkers; above it is a gilded cover.

They say that Nadir saw this stone at Herat, and agreed to pay a large sum for its transport to Meshed in twelve days, which, for a distance of sixty-five farsakhs, would be very difficult.

Yet, urged by the hope of a royal reward, the man brought the stone in nine days and presented himself before Nadir full of hope and happiness. The Shah, however, upbraided him for not keeping his contract and blinded him. His descendant was the owner of the house we were lodging in, and I am convinced of the truth of this story. In short, I have by these two examples shown to you both the perfect perception and also the cruel nature of Nadir Shah, the Conqueror of Delhi.

To complete my description of this court, there are two unrivalled minarets which are also cased in gold. Indeed, when the pilgrim stands where he can see the Golden Porch, the minarets, and the dome, he has no breath left in him; and it was only at my second visit that I noticed that round the dome were two inscriptions by Shah Abbas and Shah Suliman respectively. The Safavi dynasty is too famous to need praise from me. As they say, "Our enduring record is engraved in the history of the world."

After admiring the glorious blue tiling and the Golden Porch, we approached a grating of steel covered with brass, through which we could see the sacred haram1 This we touched, and then bowing towards the Shrine, left our shoes at the Kafshkan, which was in charge of a man who really seemed to be worthy to be a Vizier, as, although hundreds of pairs of shoes are always in his charge, he apparently never forgets to whom they belong!

Leaving, then, our shoes to the care of this individual, we entered the passage leading into the Porch of Nadir, and saw that on both sides were silver-plated doors. Traversing the corner of the Porch we entered a second "Fountain House," in which is a large tank hewn out of a single piece of marble. Under the dome lie the remains of the favourite eunuch of Gauhar Shad Aga. They say that this individual was so honest that he was entrusted with all the money expended on these buildings by his mistress; and that when he died it was proved that he had not accumulated any wealth whatever. As the poet sings:

A black slave is often by his character whiter than others,
And a musk-coloured body has often a heart pure as camphor.
This dark colour then resembles the pupil of the eye, which is termed black,
But which is, nevertheless, its light.

From this building we entered the Dar-ul-Siada or "Place of Greatness," and surely it is worthy of its name. Its extreme length is one hundred feet, and in the middle it rises to a central dome, with a smaller dome at each end. Its decoration consists of a panelling of blue and gold tiles; and above, the wall and ceiling are covered with glass facets resembling diamonds, which, were not the chamber dark, would make the gazer blind. Set in the wall is the round golden dish from which the immaculate Imam, on him be Peace, had partaken of the poisoned fruit. In the centre of it is a hole from which ignorant people extract a little dust and rub it on their eyes, believing it to be the very dust of the holyImam.

Here also the Sayyid drew our attention to a second grating which is made of silver, and was presented by the father of the deceased Kawam-ul-Mulk of Shiraz, whose ancestor, Haji Ibrahim, was boiled to death by Fath Ali Shah.

This Haji Ibrahim was the famous Vizier of Aga Mohamed Shah, whom he joined at Kerman after deserting Luft Ali Khan Zand. So powerful was he that the far-seeing Shah advised his successor not to trust him, but to put him to death on a suitable occasion.

At this period almost all the governorships in Persia were held by his sons, but such devoted servants had the Shah, that they were all seized on the same day at the same hour; and Haji Ibrahim was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil as a punishment for his many crimes.

Looking through the silver grating, we, once again, saw the Imam's tomb, and once again we bowed towards it; and, burning with desire, we hastened on by the gate of the Hissam-u-Saltana, which is also plated with silver, to the Dar-ul-Huffaz, or "Place of the Reciters," 1 which resembles the "Place of Greatness," but is not so magnificent.

Here we prostrated ourselves, touching the ground with the sides of our face, as in honour of Allah alone may the forehead touch the ground; and we prayed in accordance with the verse of the Holy Koran, "O believers, do not enter the house of the Prophet without the permission of its owner."

At last, thanks be to Allah, we moved forward and again prostrated ourselves, rubbing our faces on the threshold of the Golden Gate, one of the marvels of the world. We then rose, overjoyed to be inside the haram, and, approaching the grating round the tomb, shook it, with prayers and entreaties to His Highness the Imam, and kissed it. We also kissed the lock, and you must know that every pilgrim, after handling and kissing the lock on his own account, and that of his dead relations, must do likewise on behalf of his living relations and friends, whose petition to visit the Shrine in person is thereby placed before His Highness.

I must now tell you that when the immaculate Imam died, it was desired by Mamum to bury him under the dome in the centre of the building, that his accursed father might attain his salvation from the contact of his body with that of the sacred Imam; but no tool could break open the Caliph's tomb, may the curse of Allah be on him! And, lo! a miracle befell as, while the workers were toiling in a discouraged fashion, they suddenly saw a grave ready dug in the north-east corner, and there the innocent martyr was buried with his feet towards the head of Harun-al-Rashid, the accursed.

The richness of the Shrine is unspeakable. The price alone of the door facing the foot of the tomb is worth the revenue of seven kingdoms, as it is of pure gold. The floor is inlaid with the choicest slabs of coloured marble from Shandiz, and the walls are covered with tiles in white, blue, and gold, like the work of China. Above them there is glass facet work of such beauty that how can I represent it?

The tomb of the accursed Caliph is beneath the earth and is nowhere visible, but round the tomb of the sacred Imam are three gratings. The outer of these is of steel, the one next beneath was, they say, taken from Nadir's tomb, and is of silver, studded with rubies and emeralds: the inmost grating is also of steel inlaid with gold. Above the tomb are hung jewelled aigrettes, daggers, swords, and other offerings of such value that the treasure of Karun 1 is nothing in comparison.

We pilgrims, after kissing the blessed lock, moved round to "The Foot of the Saint," and here, after prostrating ourselves close to a second gold-plated door, which is studded with rare jewels, the appropriate prayer was read.

Continuing on, we moved slowly and solemnly round to "Behind the Head," facing the "Old Court." Thence by a narrow passage to "The Head."

In the passage all the enemies of the Imam are cursed, and Sayyid Mirza Ali called out, "A curse be on Harun and on Mamun!" to which we responded, "Let it be more!" At the head of the tomb the grating was again kissed, and, after prostrations, the two prayers were read.

Thrice was the tomb encircled and thrice were the curses pronounced, after which, with tears of joy and in deep humility, we each lifted up our hands to heaven and said: "O Allah, accept my prayers and receive my praises of Thee and bind me to thy chosen people."

All information provided in good faith, please check as appropriate before you travel (c) 2009