We leave Mary for the border crossing into Iran. This is a crossing little used by western tourists, and we were a bit of a curiosity. As one tends to get with minor bureaucrats anywhere, but specially at borders, small men can flex their muscles, and all one can do is to try to humour the thing along. This crossing took 3 hours, and involved us (or to be exact only those with British passports) being fingerprinted. The fingerprints were taken by dipping each finger into a vivid purple ink and putting the print on a card. The sole reason is that the British Government, but presumably not the Chinese or New Zealand or Irish Governments, subjects Iranians arriving in the UK to this, and it is, as they say in the trade, "reciprocaton". Anyway after much examining of our passports and fingerprints, xraying and seaching of our baggage we were finally let loose into Iran. Our Iranian guide Madjid was refreshingly different to most guides one meets on tours, and had a waspish sense of humour.

En route from the border to Mashhad we stopped at Robat-e-Sharaf, one of the oldest and most ornate caravanserais in the region. Located in a desert area on the Khorasan route between Merv (near present-day Mary, Turkmenistan) and Nishapur, also known as the "Shi'a Pilgrim Road," the Robat-i Sharaf was both a commercial outpost and a palace. It is believed to have been built by Sharaf ad-din Ibn Taher, who was both governor of Khorasan for forty years and minister during the reign of Sultan Sanjar (1118-57). Although it was heavily damaged by Ghuzz nomads in the middle of the twelfth century, it was restored shortly thereafter by Terkan bint al-Kaghan, the wife of Sultan Sanjar, in 1154. The plan of the Ribat-i Sharaf is composed of two courts set in a rectangular enclosure; a rectangular courtyard measuring 32 by 16 meters is followed by a larger, approximately square courtyard that measures 32 by 32 meters. Along the axis beginning at the entry iwan and terminating at the large dome hall of the larger square courtyard, each side is a mirror copy of the other. The rectangular courtyard served as a caravanserai, while the inner courtyard was of a more private nature, used by the sultan and other officials. In it could be found all the amenities considered necessary at the time, addressing the needs both of the general public and of the royal retinue. The spaces surrounding both courtyards included a mosque, accommodation, spaces for meetings and gatherings, stables, a kitchen, and a water reservoir.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

Since the Robat-i Sharaf was built as an outpost in the desert, it was built to be seen from all sides. There is only one entrance into the complex, found on the southeast elevation. The main entrance elevation is articulated by a large entry iwan flanked by two niches of smaller size. A mihrab is located on the northeast side of the entry iwan, providing for visitors on the exterior to exercise their faith. Semi-octagonal bastions mark the two front corners; three semi-circular bastions, creating a trefoil shape, occupy the corners of the rear elevation.

From here we continued on to the holy city of Mashhad (the Place of Martyrdom). Mashhad: Iran’s second largest city is one of the holiest in the Shia world. Mashhad lies close to the Afghan and Turkmenistan borders, some 850 kilometres to the east of Tehran. The shrine here, and the reason for pilgrimage, is the tomb of Imam Reza, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the 8th Shi’i Imam, who was killed on the orders of the caliph in 817AD. Heir to the Abbasid caliphate, his shrine went on to become a major pilgrimage site in the 16th century and today remains one of the Shi’i faith’s most sacred cities.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

Our "standard" hotel in Mashhad The shrine itself is under the gold dome. A throng of pilgrims around the entrance, and then one passes through security to enter the ..
..shrine. Women had to change from the hijab to the chador inside. Cameras were not allowed, so I picked these photos up from the web. Carpets were rolled out for ..
prayers. And the shrine itself is the centre of the pilgrims efforts. Outside we browsed the shops and bought some saffron (did not seem to make it home), while others
bought anything from TV puppets to Iranian pastries Don't forget you Hijab, girls. And the bazaar was guarded by portraits of the 2 Ayatollahs

Mashhad started life out as Sanabad, a village pitstop for trade caravans headed towards Turkmenistan. But in the ninth century, the eighth Shi'ite Imam Ali Bin Moosa Al Reza, the great grand son of Imam Ali who was the cousin & son in law of Prophet Mohammad was poisoned by the jealous caliph of the time. Imam Reza was buried in Mashhad, and his shrine became one of the holiest sites to the shi'ite muslims after the Holy Kaaba in Saudi Arabia and Karbala in Iraq. Over the next thousand years, the shrine complex was levelled, ransacked and rebuilt a number of times depending on the ruling army of the day. Today the Shrine is the most important place in the city and in the whole of Iran. Dress code for women is strict, as it is in any part of Iran, however a self encompassing chador is not a must for any lady in public place in city. For women, a simple headscarf or roo-sari, with a trenchcoat and pants are fine. Men are also not allowed to wear shorts. These rules are the same for any and all cities and villages in Iran; it is national law. Photography inside the holy Shrine is not permissible as all visitors will be frisked at the various gates leading to the Shrine. There are separate entry gates for men and women.

Ironically it was the arrival of the Mongols in 1220 that saw the city begin its rise to prominence, when it saw a sudden influx of refugees from surrounding cities that had been laid waste by the Mongol armies. It continued to grow during the Timurid and Safavid eras and its religious significance has seen it benefit from the patronage of a number of rulers over the intervening centuries. Today its shrine attracts more than 20 million pilgrims and tourists each year and it has long been a centre for the arts and sciences. It is home to one of the oldest libraries in the Middle East, several important theological schools and has long been associated with Ferdowsi, the great Iranian poet.

Imam Reza Shrine Complex is a mausoleum to the eighth Imam of Shia Islam. Complex includes a library and Ghoharshad mosque. It is the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest in capacity. You are not allowed bags or cameras inside the shrine area. There is full airport style security, and all the women in our group were given a free chador to wear within the shrine precincts - theirs to keep afterwards. These chadors, for non muslims, were of a white floral design, rather than the straight black worn by Muslim women, presumably to enable the religious police to see who was and was not a believer. Not surprising all the security when you consider that on June 20, 1994, an explosion from a bomb occurred in a prayer hall of the shrine of the Imam Reza, killing 25 people and wounding many more.

We were escorted into a shrine office and given books and photos about the shrine. We then wandered through the courtyards, and were amazed by the size of the place. It is said that the various courtyards can accommodate 2 million pilgrims at the peak periods each year, and I can well believe that.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

Ferdowsi Tomb.

It was a fairly long bus ride out of town to visit Ferdosi's tomb.

Ferdowsi is one of the undisputed giants of the Persian literature. After Ferdowsi's Shahnameh a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries within the cultural sphere of the Persian language. Without exception, all such works were based in style and method on Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, but none of them could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity as Ferdowsi's masterpiece.

Ferdowsi has a unique place in Persian history because of the strides he made in reviving and regenerating the Persian language and cultural traditions. His works are cited as a crucial component in the persistence of the Persian language, as those works allowed much of the tongue to remain codified and intact. Many modern Iranians see him as the father of the modern Persian language.

Ferdowsi's influence in the Persian culture is explained by the Encyclopædia Britannica: The Persians regard Ferdowsi as the greatest of their poets. For nearly a thousand years they have continued to read and to listen to recitations from his masterwork, the Shah-nameh, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker. The language, based as the poem is on a Dari original, is pure Persian with only the slightest admixture of Arabic.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

We had dinner at HazarDastan in Mashhad. A very atmospheric Restaurant/Tearoom/Museum

HazarDastan was a famous tale in the 1001 Nights stories. The restaurant in the same name in Mashhad has antique atmosphere. The Hezaardastaan Teahouse is a traditional Persian eatery on a quiet little shopping street in the center of the holy city. Located in the basement of a commercial building, the teahouse serves traditional Persian food, tea, sweets, hookah pipes and is a treasure filled with art, poetry, and beautiful Persian music.

Exceptional murals from the Shahnameh, depicting Rostam and his ancestry cover the walls in whimsical ways, transporting the visitor to a time when Rumi and red wine were at the core of everyday life. Archways and corners are filled with water vases, samaavars, copper pots, and antique lamps. The ambiance is enhanced with myriads of cultural icons such as hookah pipes, a couple of meels from an old Zoorkhooneh, an aftabeh near the small pool in the center of the room, and local carpets and cushions strewn around. Classic poets such as Hafez and Khayyam adorn moldings that bear their work in circular format and asymmetrical shapes jumping from one column to the next.

A small stage displays various Persian instruments including an old daf, santoor, dombak, and even a kamaancheh.

After this it was off to the train station. Full security to get in. Then a wait in the departure hall till our train was called. Photography was prohibited, and this must have been tightly enforced, as I could not find any photos of the departure hall on the web. A pity really as it was very atmospheric, full of thousands of travellers, about two thirds being women in black chadors.

On by overnight train to Tehran

Silk Route Holiday 2013