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Pillars to paradise: The concept of pilgrimage in Iran

By Maryam Ala Amjadi, Tehran Times

Naser Norouzzadeh Chegini is a renowned and prolific Iranian scholar and professor retired of archeology. He has previously worked as the curator of the Historic Section in the National Museum of Iran and as the director of Archeology Research Center at Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization. Chegini is also an associated member of Iranian Center for Archaeological Research and the vice-president of ICOMOS Iran. In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi he discusses the social and cultural aspects of pilgrimage in Iran. 

Eminent Iranian scholar and professor of Archeology, Naser Norouzzadeh Chegini

Below is the abridged version translated from Persian by Ala Amjadi.

Maryam Ala Amjadi: The concept of pilgrimage exists in almost all religious worldviews. Can we define pilgrimage in a way that would pertain only to Muslims, particularly Iranian Muslims?

Naser Norouzzadeh Chegini: As you said, pilgrimage is a worldwide spiritual concept and perhaps a universal need for quest that humans address. Islamic pilgrimage, however, has its very own definition although the concept existed long before the advent of Islam in Iran. In fact, after Islam came to Iran, Persians preserved the same spirit and followed the sayings of the prophet and his descendants who emphasize the value and significance of pilgrimage. It is even said that visiting the prophet’s grave is tantamount to meeting him. The prophet himself is known to have said that between his grave and paradise there exists one of the many gardens of heaven. In Islam, ziyarat (pilgrimage) is mostahab (optional) except for Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) which is a religious duty. In Iran, visiting the tombs of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war is also known as ziyarat (literally meaning visit). Pilgrimage sites in Iran are places of gathering and this creates its own repercussions. 

MAA: You mean pilgrimage in Iran is also associated with a sense of community? 

NNC: Yes, of course. Like when people visit and pay respect to the tombs of Shiite Imams, they have this sense of community and a range of social behaviors occurs as a result. These sites are somehow venues of solidarity among believers. Sometimes these gatherings take on a political color, as in the case of Beraa’at az Moshrekin (disavowal of infidels). Either way, pilgrimage is very common in Iran and one could even say it is part of everyday culture. Visiting the graves of religious figures and our forefathers is greatly emphasized in our religious texts and Iranians feel a strong sense of belonging by doing it. Of course, this aspect of pilgrimage is defined in all religions but is seen predominantly in Iran and among Shiites. 

MAA: So, can we say ‘pilgrimage’ in Iran has in a way created its own subculture?

NNC: Yes. Also it is through such behavior that a part of Iran’s cultural heritage emerges, both physical and spiritual heritage. Gatherings in these religious sites draw a lot of attention, for example to the unique architecture of shrines or other objects associated with these sites which are a part of our physical heritage. There are many Shiite pilgrimage sites in Iraq, for instance in Karbala, where Imam Hussein was martyred. There are also shrines in Damascus. In Iran, there is for example the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad, Hazrat-e- Masoumeh’s shrine in Qom and Shah Abdol-Azim in Rey. Even the tombs of some of the prophets before Islam, like Danial-e-Nabi (Daniel the Prophet) in Shush are pilgrimage points. All these places have historical value. They are also a platform where Islamic art and architecture emerges.

Pilgrims at the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq
Pilgrims at the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq

MAA: You spoke of different religious sites in various cities and countries and we know that many pilgrims travel annually to these places within and outside Iran. In fact, at a very basic level pilgrimage is a journey, a mental and physical voyage, possibly a combination of both. How would you define pilgrimage as a journey?

NNC: Like you said, pilgrimage is indeed a journey whether it happens on a physical level or in the spiritual realm. A pilgrim begins his path with a certain niyat (intention) in his heart, a purpose to get to a target point. Whether a short or long trip, the pilgrim feels he is responding to a need, from gaining mental calm and balance to shafa (healing through spiritual power and celestial sources) or shafa’at (intercession) in order to connect with God on a different level or the pilgrim may simply want to be closer to God. When you go to Hajj, you go to God’s house and on some level you feel closer. When you are at the Ka’aba (most sacred site in Islam in the direction of which Muslims pray from anywhere in the world) any direction you face is the Qibla (direction which Muslims face for daily prayer). Even when we pray as Muslims, we state our niyat before we start praying. (one should be conscious and aware of the particular prayer that is being offered, though explicit verbalization of intention is not required) We state that our intention is to get closer to God. So we prepare ourselves for a ritualistic spiritual journey to feel closer to Him. People like to stay close to religious sites because they see these places as a medium through which they can connect with God. So, a pilgrim does have demands, like those who want spiritual attainment or sometimes it is healing a physical ailment, like those who link themselves to the Foulad (steel) Window.  

MAA: What exactly is the Foulad Window?

NNC: The Foulad Window is a large brassy lattice window in the courtyard of Imam Reza’s Shrine in Mashhad and it is through this window that pilgrims can have a glimpse of his tomb. People go there and tie their terminally sick to this window and implore for healing and they have witnessed miracles, accounts of which are available. It’s in a way similar to what the Christians do when they go for faith healing to Fatima, in Portugal. 

A man grasping the Zarih (brassy lattice windows surrounding the tomb of an Imam) as he says a prayer. People also knot strips of fabric to the zarih, when they make a wish (nazr, religious vow) and open it after their prayers are granted

MAA: So can we say these holy sites are the actual manifestations of the faith of those who visit them? Why is there this need to actually see that place or touch the zarih (lattice windows)?

NNC: Human beings also need a physical reality to connect to their creator. Of course, this depends on the spiritual level of an individual.  God is everywhere we look but humans need a sense of direction to have an actual point of arrival on their path. For most people seeing the glory of God in reality of these sites where people gather for His love is necessary. You see this in the Ka’aba and mosques. It is the same in the case of visiting holy tombs. People feel connected and closer to God through them. This is why people try to make these places as glorious and as beautiful as they can because they believe these venues to be meeting places with God. The zarih is a symbol of connection. When you want to ask another person something it is more effective when you hold their hands. Similarly people get hold of the zarih and ask God to answer their prayers. 

MAA: The pilgrim also has a point of return. When he gets back he brings with himself a mental and physical suitcase of memories. There is also the custom of souvenirs for family and friends. What’s the philosophy behind this?

NNC: Every pilgrimage site is considered sacred and blessed due to presence of God and devotees of God. These places have a harim (sanctum) and this is why the interior of the shrine is called haram (the inviolate zone). Therefore the pilgrim who visits these sites is also blessed and that blessing and the spiritual attainment and connection he had hoped for is the main thing he will take back with him because he has lived and breathed in that holy place for a while. People always try to bring back memoirs from sacred places. If someone is ill or has a particular prayer, they may give the pilgrim a piece of fabric and ask him to get it blessed in the ambiance of the intended holy place. People brush these fabrics against the zarih to make that connection. People do believe in such spiritual power. Sometimes the pilgrim brings back water from these sites, like when they go to Hajj and bring back water from the well of Zamzam. There are also places which are pilgrimage sites for ladies. 

MAA: You mean places where only women can visit?

NCC: Yes, places for women only and men are prohibited from entering these sites, like the Bibi Sharbanou Shrine in Rey. Pilgrims bring souvenirs like fabric, rosary, prayer rug, even food items in order to share the blessings of that holy site. Also, people attach a kind of blessedness to the pilgrim himself because he has just returned from a holy place and with him those blessings have come into the house, the city. This is the social side of pilgrimage in Iran. The pilgrim gains a sort of social prestige. 

MAA: That’s why friends and acquaintances visit the pilgrim after his return.

NCC: True. He has gone to see God, the descendants of the prophet, so people welcome him among themselves. It’s a way of respecting the status of the pilgrim as a visitor of significant holy places, like when people go to Hajj, they gain the social title of Haji or Hajiyeh (female title) or when people go to Mashhad and Karbala, after their return they also gain a new title and they will be known as Karbalaei or Mashadi thereafter.

MAA: I have one more question. All in all, how would you define the concept of pilgrimage in contemporary Iran? Surely modern factors like urbanization and industrialization have in a way impacted this phenomenon.

NCC: Certainly like any other phenomenon, it is subject to the fluctuations of time and people have regarded it differently through different periods. The principles remain the same but a range of different behaviors emerge. Previously pilgrimage was a closed and internal act compared with today. Also the sites were enclosed within the city or lay partially dormant somewhere in the outskirts. Pilgrim behavior is no longer the same. Previously the pilgrim would stay in a small hojreh (chambers dedicated to disciples and visitors within religious sites) with very limited demands. Today there are no such facilities. There are hotels and inns and people want to be more comfortable as they demand a larger space. Also travelling by planes and trains has made the journey easy. Moreover, with advent of the Islamic Revolution these places gained more significance and consequently pilgrims increased in number. Also, today the government contributes to their maintenance and urban development in conjunction with municipal areas and these sites has increased as a result.  Generally, the concept of pilgrimage has evolved from a strictly mental, spiritual and individual journey into a social act and ritual. There is also religious tourism which by the way is a thriving industry.

MAA: So in a way, the pilgrim today is also a common traveller?

NNC: Yes, normally people do go for the sole purpose of spiritual attainment, supplication and prayer and we cannot generalize this statement, but also many of them don’t forget to shop for souvenirs on the sideline or carry out other social rituals before and after their journey. It’s a part of Iranian culture. Even when people go on a normal trip, it is customary to get souvenirs for family and friends.   

Most Renowned 

Mashhad, city of pilgrims

Situated in the Northeast of Iran and the capital of Khorasan Razavi Province, the city of Mashhad is the second largest city and considered the holiest Shiite pilgrimage sites in Iran. The city is the resting place of Imam Reza (AS), the 8th Imam of Shiite Muslims who was martyred with poisonous grapes by Abbasid caliph, Al-Ma’mun while he accompanied the caliph in Persia in 818 C.E. The shrine which was later built to commemorate the Imam is actually a complex which contains his mausoleum. Known as the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest by capacity, the shrine is annually visited by about 20 million pilgrims from within and one million pilgrims from outside the country (2008 statistics) which has resulted in the ever increasing demographic development of the city and its surrounding suburbs. Some pilgrims walk on foot to Mashhad from their hometowns. There are many hotels and inns near the site where pilgrims can stay during their visit. Known as the center of tourism in Iran, the complex envelops the famous Goharshad Mosque, a museum, a library, four seminaries, a cemetery, the Razavi University of Islamic Sciences, a dining hall for pilgrims, vast prayer halls, and other buildings. 


1- The Persian term for pilgrimage is the borrowed Arabic word ‘ziyarat’ which literally means ‘visit’. In Islamic culture, it generally means visiting or a pilgrimage to the places pertaining to the Prophet of Islam, his family members and descendants. Many Sufi saints and Islamic scholars are also in this category. Sites of pilgrimage include mosques, graves, battlefields, mountains, and caves.
2- In Iran, visiting the tombs of martyrs of the Iraq imposed war against Iran is also known as ‘ziyarat’ as martyrs and martyrdom are honored and regarded with respect. In fact many streets and highways in the country are named after the martyrs of the revolution and war. 
3- Pilgrimage sites are known as ‘ziyaratgaah’, most of which are listed by Iran Cultural Heritage Organization due to their historical and cultural significance.
4- Imamzadeh is the word for pilgrimage sites where the tombs of Shiite Imams and their descendants are buried. 
5- The threshold or the doorstep to the holy site and its sanctum is known by the Persian word dargah (literally meaning ‘threshold’). The closest word for dargah in English is perhaps altar, but it signifies a metaphorical and metaphysical meaning rather than an actual one. In this case, the dargah represents a door to the spiritual realm. In fact, ‘praying to the dargah of an Imam’ is a common term which actually means praying to that particular Imam as a medium to the spiritual realm and God.  
6- Imamzadeh Saleh in Tehran, Imamzadeh Tahir and Shah-Abdol-Azim shrine in Rey, Jamkaran Mosque and Imamzadeh Qasem in Qom, Shah Cheragh shrine complex in Shiraz, Darb-e-Imam Shrine in Isfahan and Imam Reza shrine in Mashad are some of the many popular pilgrimage sites in Iran.
7- In Shiite culture ‘ziyarat’ does not necessarily mean going on an actual pilgrimage. Sometimes the word is used to define a form of supplication and prayer whereby believers send salutations to the prophet of Islam and his family. These prayers are known as ‘ziyaratnaameh’. One could say believers metaphorically ‘visit’ and greet the prophet and his descendants through these prayers. 

Bizarre Buzz!

Edible farewell: Behind-the-steps soup

Whether they are held at public venues like mosques or at private residences, religious ceremonies in Iran more than often include food offerings. One such ritual is the ash-e-posht-e-paa (literally meaning, behind-the-feet soup) gathering which is held one or three days after a pilgrim or traveller leaves home. Aash is a thick Persian soup made of different grains, legumes, herbs (parsley, spinach, dill, spring onion ends, coriander and dried mint) and it is served hot topped with fried onions and garlic stirred in turmeric and saffron and Kashk (whey-like dairy product). Of course, there are regional variations of the dish. The gathering is particularly held when a family member leaves home for the purpose of pilgrimage like Hajj. The aash is served to friends, extended family members and is also distributed among neighbors and often the poor and the needy. The host is greeted and wished with sentences like ‘may he (traveller) not be missed’ and ‘may he return in good health’ and people wish the traveller a safe and prosperous journey.  Aash-e-posht-e-paa is also hosted by families when sons leave home to join the military service.

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