1. Mashhad

Mashhad , is the 2nd most populous city in Iran and the capital of Razavi Khorasan Province. It is located in the north-east of the country, near the borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

It has a population of 3 001 184 inhabitants (2016 census).

It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv to the east.

The city is named after the "shrine" of Imam Reza (765-818), the 8th Shia Imam. The Imam was buried in a village in Khorasan, which afterwards gained the name Mashhad , meaning the place of martyrdom.

Every year, millions of pilgrims visit the Imam Reza shrine.
The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid is also buried within the shrine.

Mashhad has been governed by different ethnic groups over the course of its history. The city enjoyed relative prosperity in the Mongol period.

Mashhad is also known colloquially as the city of Firdausi (c. 940–1020), after the Iranian poet who composed the Šāhnāme.

The city is the hometown of some of the most significant Iranian literary figures and artists, such as the poet Mehdi Akhavān Sāles (1929-1990), and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian (born 940), the traditional Iranian singer and composer.

Firdausi and Akhavān Sāles are both buried in Tus, an ancient city that is considered to be the main origin of the current city of Mashhad.

On 30 October 2009 (the anniversary of the death of Imam Reza), Iran's then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Mashhad to be "Iran's spiritual capital".

2. Etymology and Early History

Imam Reza shrine

The name Mashhad comes from Arabic, meaning a martyrium. It is also known as the place where Alī al-Reza, the 8th Imam of Shia Muslims, died (according to the Shias, was martyred). Reza's shrine was placed there.

The ancient Parthian city of Patigrabana, mentioned in the Behistun inscription (520 BCE) of the Achaemenid Emperor Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE), may have been located at the present-day Mashhad.

At the beginning of the 9th century (3rd century AH), Mashhad was a small village called Sanābād, which was situated 24 kilometres away from Tus: There was a summer palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba (died 776), the governor of Khorasan.

In 808, when Hārūn al-Rašīd (763-809), Abbasid caliph, was passing through there to quell the insurrection of Rafi ibn al-Layth in Transoxiana, he became ill and died:

He was buried under the palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba, also known as Dar al-Imarah. Due to this historical event it was known as the Mausoleum of Hārūniyyeh.

Several years later in 818 Alī al-Reza was martyred by al-Ma'mūn (786-833) and was buried beside the grave of Hārūn.

Although Mashhad is considered as the owner of cultural heritage of Tus (including its figures like Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Ghazali, Ahmad Ghazali, Firdausi, Asadi Tusi and Sheikh Tusi),

the earlier Arab geographers have correctly identified Mashhad and Tus as two separate cities, which are now located about 19 kilometres from each other.

3. Mongolian invasion: Ilkhanates

Imam Reza shrine

Although some believe that after this event, the city was called Mashhad al-Reza (the place of martyrdom of al-Reza), it seems that Mashhad, as a place-name, first appears in al-Maqdisī (c. 945- 991) i, i.e. in the last third of the 10th century.

About the middle of the 14th century, the traveller Ibn Battuta uses the expression "town of Mashhad al-Reza".

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the name Nuqan, which is still found on coins in the first half of the 14th century under the Ilkhanate, seems to have been gradually ousted by al-Mashhad or Mashhad.

Shias started visiting there for pilgrimage of his grave. By the end of the 9th century, a dome was built on the grave and many buildings and bāzārs sprang up around it.

During more than a millennium it has been devastated and reconstructed several times.

In 1161 however, the Oghuz Turks succeeded in taking the place, but they spared the sacred area in their pillaging.

It was not considered a great city until Mongol raids in 1220, which caused the destruction of many large cities in Khorasan, leaving Mashhad relatively intact in the hands of Mongolian commanders because of the cemetery of Alī Al-Reza and Hārūn al-Rashid (the latter was stolen).

Thus the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad.

The only well-known food in Mashhad, "sholeh Mashhad i” or "Sholeh", dates back to the era of the Mongolian invasion when it is thought to be cooked with any food available (the main ingredients are meat, grains and abundant spices) and be a Mongolian word.

When the traveller Ibn Battuta visited the town in 1333, he reported that it was a large town with abundant fruit trees, streams and mills. A great dome of elegant construction surmounts the noble mausoleum, the walls being decorated with coloured tiles.

4. Timurid Empire

Imam Reza shrine

It seems that the importance of Sanābād-Mashhad continually increased with the growing fame of its sanctuary and the decline of Tus, which received its death blow in 1389 from MIran Shah (1366-1408), a son of Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405).

When the Mongol noble who governed the place rebelled and attempted to make himself independent, MIran Shah was sent against him by his father:

Tus was stormed after a siege of several months, sacked and left a heap of ruins; 10 000 inhabitants were massacred. Those who escaped the holocaust settled in the shelter of the Alīd sanctuary. Tus was henceforth abandoned and Mashhad took its place as the capital of the district.

Later on, during the reign of the Timurid Shāh Rukh Mirza (1377-1447), Mashhad became one of the main cities of the realm:

In 1418, his wife Goharshād Begum (died 1457) funded the construction of an outstanding mosque beside the shrine, which is known as the Goharshād Mosque:

The mosque remains relatively intact to this date, its great size is an indicator to the status the city held in the 15th century.

5. Safavid dynasty

Imam Reza shrine

Shah Ismail I (1487-1524), founder of the Safavid dynasty, conquered Mashhad after the death of Husayn Bāyqarā (1438-1506) and the decline of the Timurid dynasty.

It was later captured by the Uzbeks during the reign of Shāh Abbās I (1571-1629):

In the 16th century the town suffered considerably from the repeated raids of the Uzbeks. In 1507, it was taken by the troops of the Shaybānī Khan (c. 1451 – 2 December 1510).

After two decades, Shāh Tahmasp I (1514-1576) succeeded in repelling the enemy from the town again in 1528. But in 1544, the Uzbeks again succeeded in entering the town and plundering and murdering there.

The year 1589 was a disastrous one for Mashhad :

The Shaybānīd Abd al-Mūmin after 4 months' siege forced the town to surrender.

Shāh Abbās I (1571-1629), who lived in Mashhad from 1585 till his official ascent of the throne in Qazvin in 1587, was not able to retake Mashhad from the Uzbeks till 1598.

Mashhad was retaken by the Shāh Abbās after a long and hard struggle, defeating the Uzbeks in a great battle near Herāt as well as managing to drive them beyond the Amu Darya River.

Shāh Abbās I wanted to encourage Iranians to go to Mashhad for pilgrimage. He is said to have walked from Isfahan to Mashhad.

During the Safavid era, Mashhad gained even more religious recognition, becoming the most important city of Greater Khorasan, as several madrasah and other structures were built besides the Imam Reza shrine.

Besides its religious significance, Mashhad has played an important political role as well.

6. Afsharid dynasty

Mashhad, street view

It saw its greatest glory under Nader Shāh Afshar (1688- 1747), ruler of Iran from 1736 to 1747 and also a great benefactor of the shrine of Imam Reza, who made the city his capital.

Nearly the whole eastern part of the kingdom of Nadir Shah passed in this period of Persian impotence under the rule of the vigorous Afghan Ahmad Shāh Durrānī (c. 1722-1772):

Ahmad defeated the Persians and took Mashhad after an 8 months' siege in 1753.

Ahmad Shāh and his successor Timur Shāh (1748-1793) left Shāh Rukh Afshar (c. 1734–1796) in possession of Khorasan as their vassal, making Khorasan a kind of buffer state between them and Persia.

As the real rulers, however, both these Afghan rulers struck coins in Mashhad.

Otherwise, the reign of the blind Shah Rukh, which with repeated short interruptions lasted for nearly half a century, passed without any events of special note.

It was only after the death of Timur Shāh (1793) that Āghā Mohammad Khān Qajar (1742-1797), the founder of the Qajar dynasty, succeeded in taking Shāh Rukh's domains and putting him to death in 1795, thus ending the separation of Khorasan from the rest of Persia.

7. Qajar dynasty

Some believe that Mashhad was ruled by Shāh Rukh Afshar (c. 1734–1796) and remained the capital of the Afsharid dynasty during Zand dynasty until Āghā Mohammad Khān Qajar conquered the then larger region of Khorasan in 1796.

8. Modernization under Reza Shah

The modern development of the city accelerated under the regime of Reza Shāh (1878-1944; ruled 1925-1941):

Shāh Reza Hospital (currently Imam Reza Hospital, affiliated to the Basij organization) was founded in 1934, the sugar factory of Ābkūh in 1935 and the Faculty of Medicine of Mashhad in 1939.

The first power station was installed in 1936 and in 1939 the first urban transport service began with 2 buses. In this year the first population census was performed, with a result of 76 471 inhabitants.

9. 1935 Imam Reza shrine rebellion

In 1935, a backlash against the modernizing, anti-religious policies of Reza Shāh erupted in the Mashhad shrine:

Responding to a cleric who denounced the Shāh's heretical innovations, corruption and heavy consumer taxes, many bazaaris and villagers took refuge in the shrine, chanted slogans such as "The Shāh is a new Yazīd."

For 4 days local police and army refused to violate the shrine and the standoff was ended when troops from Azerbaijan arrived and broke into the shrine, killing dozens and injuring hundreds, and marking a final rupture between Shi'ite clergy and the Shāh.

According to some Mashhad i historians, the Goharshād Mosque uprising, which took place in 1935, is an uprising against Reza Shāh's decree banning all veils (headscarf and chador) on 8 January 1936.

10. 1941–1979 reforms

Mashhad, Ab Square

Mashhad experienced population growth after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 because of relative insecurity in rural areas, the 1948 drought, and the establishment of Mashhad University in 1949.

At the same time, public transport vehicles increased to 77 buses and 200 taxis and the railway link with the capital Tehran was established in 1957.

The 1956 census reflected a population of 241 989 people.

The increase in population continued in the following years thanks to the increase in Iranian oil revenues, the decline of the feudal social model, the agrarian reform of 1963, the founding of the city's airport, the creation of new factories and the development of the health system.

In 1966, the population reached 409 616 inhabitants, and 667 770 in 1976. The extension of the city was expanded from 16 to 33 square kilometres.

In 1965 an important urban renewal development project for the surroundings of the shrine of Imam Reza was proposed by the famous Iranian architect and urban designer Dariush Borbor (born 1934) to replace the dilapidated slum conditions which surrounded the historic monuments.

The project was officially approved in 1968. In 1977 the surrounding areas were demolished to make way for the implementation of this project. In order to relocate the demolished businesses, a new Bāzār was designed and constructed in Meydan-e Ab square by Dariush Borbor.

After the revolution the urban renewal project was abandoned.

11. 1994 Imam Reza shrine bombing

On June 20, 1994, a bomb exploded in a prayer hall of the shrine of the Imam Reza. The bomb that killed at least 25 people on June 20 in Mashhad exploded on Āshūrā.

The Baloch terrorist, Ramzī Yūsuf (born 1968), a Sunni Muslim turned Wahhabi, one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, was found to be behind the plot.

However, official state media blamed Mehdi Nahvī, a supposed member of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MKO), a fundamentally Marxist organization, in order to prevent sectarian violence.

12. Geography

The city is located in the valley of the Kashafrud River near Turkmenistan, between the 2 mountain ranges of Binalood and Hezar Masjed Mountains.

The city benefits from the proximity of the mountains, having cool winters, pleasant springs, mild summers, and beautiful autumns. It is only about 250 km from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

The city is the administrative centre of Mashhad County (or the Shahrestan of Mashhad ) as well as the somewhat smaller district (Bakhsh) of Mashhad.

The city itself, excluding parts of the surrounding Bakhsh and Shahrestan, is divided into 13 smaller administrative units, with a total population of more than 3 million.

13. Climate

Mashhad features a steppe climate with hot summers and cool winters.

The city only sees about 250 millimetres of precipitation per year, some of which occasionally falls in the form of snow.

Mashhad also has wetter and drier periods with the bulk of the annual precipitation falling between the months of December and May.

Summers are typically hot and dry, with high temperatures sometimes exceeding 35 °C.

Winters are typically cool to cold and somewhat damper, with overnight lows routinely dropping below freezing.

Mashhad enjoys on average just above 2900 hours of sunshine per year.

14. Demographics

There are also over 20 million pilgrims who visit the city every year.

15. Ethnic Groups

Mashhad, street view

The vast majority of Mashhad i people are ethnic Persians, who form the majority of the city's population.

Other ethnic groups include Kurdish and Turkmen people who have immigrated recently to the city from the North Khorasan province.

There is also a significant community of non-Arabic speakers of Arabian descent who have retained a distinct Arabian culture, cuisine and religious practices.

The people from Mashhad who look East Asian are Iranians of Hazaras, Turkmen, or Uyghur ancestry or indeed a combination of all other ethnic groups, including Persians, as racial mixing has been widely practiced in this region.

Among the non-Iranians, there are many immigrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

16. Afghan Population

As neighbouring areas with cultural ties, there has been a long history of population movements between Khorasan and Afghanistan:

Like the other areas in Khorasan province where there is an Afghan community due to the influx of Afghan refugees coming from Afghanistan in recent years,

the demographic explosion of Mashhad continued with the addition of some 296 000 Afghans Refugees to Mashhad, following the communist revolution of 1978.

In many cases, they are no longer refugees but should be mentioned as locals (Iran's Ministry of Interior estimates that the total number of Afghans in Iran is now around 3 million.

Afghan refugees originate up to 90% from the provinces of Herāt, Farah and Nimruz Province, speak in Darī Farsi and familiar with the culture in Mashhad.

Even before the political frontier between Iran and Afghanistan, the Persian-speaking inhabitants from the provinces of Herāt and Farah in Afghanistan had had kinship, as well as ethnical, religious, or economic relations with the Iranian province of Khorasan (especially Mashhad, where people speak a dialect akin with Harāt dialect).

The Afghan immigrants have several neighbourhoods around the city, especially in a new quarter to the northeast of Mashhad. This new Afghan quarter evokes the traditional relations of Mashhad with the Herāt region and Central Asia.

One of the districts inhabited by Afghan immigrants is Golshahr.

17. Religion

Today, the holy Imam Reza shrine and its museum hold one of the most extensive cultural and artistic treasuries of Iran, in particular manuscript books and paintings. Several important theological schools are associated with the shrine of the 8th Imam.

The 2nd largest holy city in the world, Mashhad attracts more than 20 million tourists and pilgrims every year, many of whom come to pay homage to the Imam Reza shrine (the 8th Shi'ite Imam).

It has been a magnet for travellers since medieval times.

Thus, even as those who complete the pilgrimage to Mecca receive the title of Haji, those who make the pilgrimage to Mashhad —and especially to the Imam Reza shrine—are known as Mashtee, a term employed also of its inhabitants.

Although mainly inhabited by Muslims, there were in the past some religious minorities in Mashhad, mainly Jews who were forcibly converted to Islam in 1839 after the Allahdad ("God’s Justice") incident took place for Mashhad i Jews in 1839:

They became known as Jadid al-Islam ("Newcomers in Islam"). On the outside, they adapted to the Islamic way of life, but often secretly kept their faith and traditions.

18. Economy

Bāzār-e-Raza, a popular market with spice shops and boutiques designed by the famous Iranian architect, Dariush Borbor in 1976.

Mashhad is Iran's 2nd largest automobile production hub. The city's economy is based mainly on dry fruits, salted nuts, saffron, Iranian sweets, precious stones like agates, turquoise,

intricately designed silver jewellery studded with rubies and emeralds, 18 carat gold jewellery, perfumes, religious souvenirs, trench coats, scarves, termeh, carpets and rugs.

According to the writings and documents, the oldest existing carpet attributed to the city belongs to the reign of Shāh Abbās I of Persia.

Also, there is a type of carpet, classified as Mashhad Turkbaf, which, as its name suggests, is made with Turkish knot by craftsmen who emigrated from Tabriz to Mashhad in the 19th century.

Among the major industries in the city, there is nutrition industries, clothing, leather, textiles, chemicals, steel and non-metallic mineral industries, construction materials factories, handicraft industry and metal industries.

With more than 55% of hotels in Iran, Mashhad is the hub of tourism in Iran :

In the geography of tourism, religious places known as the most powerful hub to attract travellers around the world, every year 20-30 million pilgrims from Iran and more than 2 million pilgrims and tourists from around the world come to Mashhad.

Mashhad is one of the main producers of leather products in the region.

However, unemployment, poverty, drug addiction, theft and sexual exploitation are the most important social problems of the city.

The divorce rate in Mashhad has increased by 35% in 2014.
Khorasan and Mashhad ranked the 2nd in violence across the country in 2013.

19. Astan Quds Razavi

At the same time, the city has kept its character as a goal of pilgrimage, dominated by the strength of the economic and political authority of the Astan Quds Razavi, the administration of the Shrine, probably the most important in the Muslim world and the largest active charitable trust in Iran.

The Astan Quds Razavi is a major player in the economy of the city of Mashhad.

The land occupied by the shrine has grown fourfold since 1979 according to the head of the foundation's international relations department.

The Shrine of Imam Reza is vaster than Vatican City.

The foundation owns most of the real estate in Mashhad and rents out shop space to bazaaris and hoteliers. The main resource of the institution is endowments, estimated to have annual revenue of $210 billion.

20. Language

The language mainly spoken in Mashhad is Persian with a Mashhad i accent, which can at times, prove itself as a sort of dialect.

The Mashhad i Persian dialect is somewhat different from the standard Persian dialect in some of its tones and stresses. For instance, the Mashhad i dialect shares vocabulary and phonology with Darī Persian.

Likewise, the dialect of Herāt in Western Afghanistan is quite similar to the Persian dialect in Mashhad and is akin to the Persian dialects of Khorasan Province, notably those of Mashhad.

Hazaragi is another dialect spoken by Hazaras people who live as a diaspora community in Mashhad.

Today, the Mashhad i dialect is rarely spoken by young people of Mashhad, most of them perceive it as a humiliation. This is thought to be related to the non-positive performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

21. Religious Seminaries

Long a centre of secular and religious learning, Mashhad has been a centre for the Islamic arts and sciences as well as piety and pilgrimage.

Mashhad was an educational centre, with a considerable number of Islamic schools (madrasas, the majority of them, however, dating from the later Safavid period.

Mashhad Hawza is one of the largest seminaries of traditional Islamic school of higher learning in Mashhad, which was headed by Abbas Vaez-Tabasi (1935 – 4 March 2016) (who was Chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi board from 1979) after the revolution

and in which Iranian politicians and clerics such as Alī Khamenei, Ahmad Alamolhoda, Abolghasem Khazali, Mohammad Reyshahri, Morteza Motahhari, Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, Mahmoud Halabi (the founder of Hojjatieh) learned Islamic studies.

The number of seminary schools in Mashhad is now 39 and there are an estimated 2300 seminarians in the city.

The Firdausi University of Mashhad, named after the great Iranian poet, is located here and is regarded as the 3rd institution in attracting foreign students, mainly from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Central Asian republics.

The Madrassa of Ayatollah Al-Khoei, originally built in the 17th century and recently replaced with modern facilities, is the city's foremost traditional centre for religious learning.

The Razavi University of Islamic Sciences, founded in 1984, stands at the centre of town, within the shrine complex.

The prestige of traditional religious education at Mashhad attracts students internationally.

Mashhad is also home to one of the oldest libraries of the Middle-East called the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi with a history of over 6 centuries:

There are some 6 million historical documents in the foundation's central library. A museum is also home to over 70 000 rare manuscripts from various historical eras

The Astan Quds Razavi Central Museum, which is part of the Astan-e Quds Razavi Complex, contains Islamic art and historical artefacts.

In 1976, a new edifice was designed and constructed by the well-known Iranian architect Dariush Borbor to house the museum and the ancient manuscripts.

Mashhad active galleries include: Mirak Gallery, Parse Gallery, Rezvan Gallery, Soroush Gallery, and the Narvan Gallery.

22. Capital of Islamic Culture

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named Mashhad 2017's "cultural capital of the Muslim world" in Asia on 24 January 2017.

23. Main sites

Apart from Imam Reza shrine, there are a number of large parks, the tombs of historical celebrities in nearby Tus and Nishapur, the tomb of Nader Shāh (1688- 1747) and Kooh Sangi park.

The Koohestan Park-e-Shadi Complex includes a zoo, where many wild animals are kept and which attracts many visitors to Mashhad.

It is also home to the Mashhad Airbase (formerly Imam Reza airbase), jointly a military installation housing Mirage aircraft, and a civilian international airport.

Some points of interest lie outside the city:

=> the tomb of Khajeh Morad, along the road to Tehran;

=> the tomb of Khajeh Rabi located 6 kilometres north of the city where there are some inscriptions by the renowned Safavid calligrapher Reza Abbasi (c.1565 – 1635);

=> the tomb of Khajeh Abasalt Heravi, a distance of 20 kilometres from Mashhad along the road to Nishapur.

(The 3 were all disciples of Imam Reza).

Among the other sights are the tomb of the poet Firdausi in Tus, 24 kilometres distance, and the summer resorts at Torqabeh, Torogh, Akhlamad, Zoshk, and Shāndīz.

The Shāh Public Bath, built during the Safavid era in 1648, is an outstanding example of the architecture of that period. It was recently restored, and is to be turned into a museum.

24. Airport

Mashhad is served by the Mashhad International Airport, which handles domestic flights to Iranian cities and international flights, mostly to neighbouring Arab countries.

The airport is the country's 2nd busiest after Tehran Mehrabad Airport and above the famous Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.

It is connected to 57 destinations and has frequent flights to 30 cities within Iran and 27 destinations in the Central Asia, the Middle East, East Asia and Europe.

25. Rail

Mashhad is connected to 3 major rail lines:

1) Tehran-Mashhad,
2) Mashhad -Bafgh (running south), and
3) Mashhad -Sarakhs at the border with Turkmenistan.

Some freight trains continue from Sarakhs towards Uzbekistan and to Kazakhstan, but have to change bogies because of the difference in Rail gauge.