Iran's 8th largest city and the second most sacred city after Mashhad, Qom (Ghom) is only 154 kilometres south of Tehran, on the road to Kashan and Esfahan. Qom is part of the Province of Ostan-e Markazi, the central province, with its capital at Arak. The city is one of Iran's fastest-growing cities (the population has doubled since the revolution), its skyline is being transformed by ugly new apartment blocks and there are more large infrastructure projects underway here than anywhere else in the country. The city road and traffic system designed to cope with a daily influx of pilgrims and visitors; indeed, unlike many Iranian cities and towns, the road-direction signs are clear and numerous.
The early history of Qom is unclear but from the VII century onwards, it became an important Shia centre, along with Rey and Kashan. After the death in 816 of Fatima, the sister of Imam Reza (the Eighth Imam buried in Mashhad), it became a pilgrimage site. It was rumoured this was the birthplace of that powerful political figure of Hassan al-Sabah, leader of the Ismaili sect, the Assassins.
Mongols massacred most of the town's population in 1221. In the XIV century, it was best known for its hunting, and many Iranian rulers wintered here; a shrine for Fatima was in existence, but by all accounts it was a modest complex. The Safavid shahs undertook a programme of construction and repairs to the Qom shrine, as they would do with those of Kerbela, Ardabil and Mashhad, perhaps hoping to persuade Iranians and other Shias to forego the Hajj to Mecca and Medina. The rebel Afghans exacted their revenge and even with royal Qajar patronage, Qom's population in 1872 was a mere 4,000. Today it stands at approximately one million.
Nowadays Qom remains one of Iran's most religious and conservative cities. Qom is considered holy by Shi`a Islam, as it is the site of the shrine of Fatema Masume, sister of Imam `Ali ibn Musa Rida (Persian Imam Reza, 789–816 AD). The city is the largest center for Shi'a scholarship in the world, and is a significant destination of pilgrimage. Shiite scholars and students come from across the world to study in its madrasahs (schools) and browse in its famous religious bookshops, plenty of pilgrims visit the shrine and locals are conspicuously pious and travellers should be discreet and dress conservatively, particularly around the Hazrat-e Masumeh.
One remarkable feature about Qom is the number of sweet shops, which appear to have almost overtaken the shops selling religious souvenirs. In particular, try the local speciality, called sohan, a flat, sweet biscuit made of germinated wheat flavoured with saffron and pistachios.
Qom has developed into a lively industrial centre owing in part to its proximity to Tehran. It is a regional centre for the distribution of petroleum and petroleum products, and a natural gas pipeline from Bandar Anzali and Tehran and a crude-oil pipeline from Tehran run through Qom to the Abadan refinery on the Persian Gulf. Qom gained additional prosperity when oil fields were discovered at Sarajeh near the city in 1956 and a large refinery was built between Qom and Tehran
The city can be visited in an easy day trip from Tehran or en route to Kashan. Intercity buses are the quickest, easiest and cheapest form of transport. Because access to the shrine complex, even into the first courtyard, is forbidden to non-Muslims, most foreign visitors do not stay overnight.