Imam Reza’s Holy Shrine is enveloped in a series of sacred precincts collectively known as the Haram-e Razavi , or Haram for short. This magical city-within-a-city sprouts dazzling clusters of domes and minarets in blue and pure gold behind vast fountain-cooled courtyards and magnificent arched arcades. It’s one of the marvels of the Islamic world whose moods and glories should be fully savoured more than once at varying times of day. Compare the orderly overload of dusk prayer-time to the fairy-tale calm of a floodlight nocturnal wander.
No bags or cameras are allowed within the complex, though curiously snapping photos with mobile phones is accepted. There are left-luggage offices near most entrances. Men and women enter through different carpet-draped portals and are politely frisked. Women must wear a chador: it’s sometimes possible to borrow one from your hotel. Dress for either sex should be conservative and clean.
Non-Muslims are allowed in most of the Haram’s outer courtyards. They are NOT allowed inside the complex’s two holiest buildings, the Holy Shrine and the Gohar Shad Mosque. Technically, non-Muslims are also excluded from the magnificent Enqelab and Azadi courtyards, but you can peep in through relevant gateways. At quieter times, those who act suitably (demure, respectful and soaking up the spiritual rather than the aesthetic) are rarely challenged and might wander through ‘by mistake’. However, be particularly careful not to upset Muslim sensibilities: remember, it’s a privilege for non-Muslims to be allowed to visit the Haram complex at all.
Friendly, multilingual staff at the Foreign Pilgrims Assistance can show you a 20-minute video about the shrine and shower you with books on all things Shiite. However, once you’ve visited this office there’s no escape from the free, friendly but over-protective guide/minder they assign you. A good starting point for non-pilgrim visits is Falakeh Ab from which several of the domes and minarets are tantalisingly visible in the middle distance. Enter through the vast, part-constructed Razavi Grand Courtyard, which should become grander once the blue, white and gold tiling has been affixed to the courtyard’s façades and concrete minarets. Curving east you’ll pass the Haram’s museums after the unfinished Imam Khomeini Courtyard site. Beyond, look northwest across the gorgeous Azadi Courtyard to glimpse the exterior of the Holy Shrine building.
Notice the Naqqareh Khaneh, a blue-tiled bandstand platform perched above a clock tower gateway. Twice daily (before dawn and dusk) a mesmerising 10-minute fanfare is performed here by drummers and a heptet of gentlemen-hornblowers in faintly comical Salvation Army-style peaked-caps. Non-Muslims aren’t supposed to transit the spectacular Enqelab Courtyard with its two gold minarets and fabulous tile-work. So to reach Jomhuri Courtyard, the setting for massed evening namaz (prayers), infidels should double back via Qods Courtyard, which features a miniature version of Jerusalem’s ‘Dome of the Rock’.
The gold-domed centrepiece of the Haram complex is the revered 17th-century Holy Shrine building. Amid tearful prayer and meditation, the emotional climax to any Mashhad pilgrimage is touching and kissing the zarih (gold latticed cage), which covers Imam Reza’s tomb in the shrine’s spectacular interior. The current zarih, the fifth, dates from 2001. Non-Muslims are excluded, but can see the previous zarih in the Haram’s main museum. You might catch a glimpse of the 50m blue dome and cavernous golden portal of the classic Timurid Azim-e Gohar Shad mosque (built 1405 to 1418). However, Non-Muslims aren’t allowed within to appreciate its splendid interior hosting the minbar (pulpit) where, according to Shiite tradition, the Mahdi (12th/’hidden’ Imam) will sit on the Day of Judgement.