Having earned itself a place in our memory with its historic bazaars, Eastern cuisine, poets who penned timeless lines, and gilded minarets and domes, Mashhad opens new doors for those who are curious about Iran.

I take my bags and walk through the airport exit. I am greeted by my Iranian friend Navid who says, “Welcome to Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan!” As we drive to the hotel in the middle of the night, I think about how Khorasan has been home to a heritage from architecture to literature, science to art. It’s so rich! For thousands of years, those who set off from Europe to the East passed through Anatolia and stayed in Khorasan before continuing to the Far East. There were two important stops on this journey: one was Mashhad, centered around Haram-e-Razavi which is home to the mausoleum of Imam Reza, and the other was Nishapur where the Seljuk Empire was founded. Before going to sleep, I remember the poets of Khorasan and review my plan.

My first stop in the morning is the monumental tomb of Ferdowsi who recorded the thousands-year-old legendary history of Iranians in Shahnameh, an epic poem of 60,000 lines. Navid reads a couple of lines from this poem enriched with powerful descriptions and images by using the same meter for 30 years. It’s not hard to understand the poem is about heroism based on the fluctuating melody and the emphasis. I see a family with children praying beside the mausoleum in the lower floor of the tomb whose walls are decorated with relief figures with quotes from Shahnameh. I am deeply impressed by this scene I come across a lot in Iran. They learn at a young age to own their poets and to admire their poems. In Iran, almost everyone can recite the poems of Khayyam, Hafez, Saadi, and Shahriar.

Located in the historic city of Tous, Haruniyye Tomb, where Imam Ghazali taught, is a small but sturdy structure. However, the same cannot be said about the place in the city of Tous which was proven to be his tomb by the inscriptions found there. Ghazali’s tomb was found in 2007 and, after the initial excavation process, not a single stone was removed from the location. For centuries, the legendary Khorasan region, which also includes Mashhad Plain, had been a center of art and science while also having had its share of war, raids, and great earthquakes. With its many cities, Khorasan’s past glory is largely due to its location on the Silk Road.

Navid drives us through the statue-lined streets of Torqabeh, which is renowned for its cherries, and parks the car. Thirty kilometers from Mashhad, Torqabah -just like Shandiz- is favored by those who enjoy ceremonial and pleasant feasts. Upon seeing the families filling up the dining halls, I come to realize that this is also a place for socializing. My Iranian friends demonstrate their hospitality by adorning the table with mouth-watering dishes. Mâhiçe (lamb with onions, oranges, and potatoes cooked in tandoori ovens) is the king of the dishes. Şişlik is grilled ribs or cubed meat on skewers. With every meal comes a big plate of heaping rice. I am glad to see my favorite dish, abgoosht, on the table. Including the complimentary soup, our table is almost filled with dishes and plates.

After the feast, we walk by the colorful nut stores in Torqabeh’s bazaars and head towards Rıza Bazaar in Mashhad. Like many other cities in Iran, nights in Mashhad are glittering and stores are as vibrant as they are during the day. Similar to the mausoleum of Imam Reza, one can describe markets as the social centers of the city. As the sun begins to descend, the locals fill the stores selling jewelry, carpets, duvets, tableware, nuts, and spices inside Rıza Bazaar. Meanwhile, I am astonished by the abundance of saffron at spice sellers -what I see here is enough for all the feasts of the world considering that two thin saffron threads are enough to flavor a dish. I buy tiny rosebuds and dried flowers for brewing teas. We leave the bazaar, walk through Ahmadabad Street and arrive at Vakilabad Boulevard, home to big hotels. This is the modern face of the city. Then, we glance at the stores selling stylish clothes on Sayad Shirazi Street and return to my hotel, gazing at the beams of light scattered into the night by the gilded minaret and domes of Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

I wake up to a bright day the next morning. My tour today stretches from Mashhad to Nishapur. Nishapur is home to the mausoleums of Omar Khayyam (poet, thinker, mathematician and astronomer born here in the 11th century) and mystic poet Farīd ud-Dīn. I wouldn’t be wrong if I said every inch of Nishapur is turquoise. Raw turquoise stones are processed one by one at workshops and await buyers in chic showcases. On our way back, we drive through the village where Haji Bektash Veli was born and are welcomed at a Khorasan house decorated with traditional motifs.

Back in Mashhad, I visit Malek House where master craftspeople display their skills at workshops. I enjoy seeing painters and masters who work on silver, tar, glass, ceramic, copper and embroidery accompanied by the tunes of Esfahani filling the venue. Iran finds a way to present us with its great artistic heritage. All roads in Mashhad lead to the mausoleum of Imam Reza which is a huge complex with a number of structures such as the madrasa added later to host the surge of visitors, the masjid, library, museum, mosque, conference hall, and hotel. I cannot step into Haram-e-Razavi without wearing a chador, a kind of cloak worn by women in Iran. Upon entrance, you need to leave your bags and belongings at the checkpoint. First, I enter Goharshad Mosque whose glory is impossible to put into words with its ceiling decorated with small pieces of mirrors. I go outside and stroll around the beautiful courtyards. Suddenly, I hear drums. This centuries-old festive “sunset ceremony” continues until the sound of azan. This ceremony is also held on bairams, New Year, and, most importantly, when someone who has been taken ill gets better. Passages with arches or iwans enable crowds of people to flow through the space. Another surprise awaits me at Inkılap Courtyard. Hundreds of newly married couples wearing stylish clothes and white chadors walk by us. The next courtyard is where Imam Reza’s tomb is located. The minaret seen behind the giant gilded iwans and the dome above the tomb are also gilded. The mirror-clad interior of the mausoleum becomes spectacularly bright with lighting. The Persian elegies echoing from the minarets and prayers from the courtyards rise towards the sky above Mashhad.

The next day, my friends in Mashhad bid me farewell with poems. “It’s a proper way to say goodbye for people who value their poets this much,” I say to myself. “Just as poetry befits the spirit of humankind.” 

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