Mashhad is Iran's holiest and second-biggest city, visited each year by more than 20 million pilgrims. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv in the East. Its raison d'etre and main sight is the beautiful, massive and ever-growing Haram (shrine complex) commemorating the AD 817 martyrdom of Shia Islam's eighth Imam, Imam Reza. The pain of Imam Reza's death is still felt very personally over a millennium later and pilgrims converge here each year to pay their respects (and no small amount of money) to the Imam. Witnessing their tears is a moving experience, even if you are not a Muslim yourself. If you notice a lot of young couples, that's because the city is also a haven for honeymooners, who believe sharing it with the Imam will bless their marriage. Away from the Haram Complex, Mashhad is a good place to buy carpets, it's a natural staging post for travel to Turkmenistan or Afghanistan, and offers many interesting excursions into little-touristed Khorasan.
Mashhad is also known as the city of Ferdowsi, the Iranian poet of Shahnameh, which is considered to be the national epic of Iran. The city is the hometown of some of the most significant Iranian literary figures and artists such as Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, the famous contemporary poet, and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, the traditional Iranian singer and composer. Ferdowsi and Akhavan Sales are both buried in Tus, an ancient city that is considered to be the main origin of the current city of Mashhad.
In the past twenty years, the population of the town has grown considerably, from half a million to over two million inhabitants, including a large community of Afghan refugees-some of whom are slowly returning to Afghanistan, although many will undoubtedly remain now that they have made themselves a living in Iran. Mashhad is currently the second biggest industrial centre in the country, and this economic importance is reflected in the bustling activity that is so characteristic of its streets; it is an atmosphere very different from the quieter, more provincial religious centre of Qom.
The goal of the thousands of pilgrims who arrive each day, and indeed the main attraction in Mashhad, is the tomb of Imam Reza, in the centre of town, not far from the station, at the junction of Tabarsi and Ayatollah Shirazi avenues. The holy precinct, the haram-e motahar, is set inside a vast circular boulevard. The various constructions on the outside of this boulevard are soon to be pulled down and will be replaced by public buildings such as hospitals, and hostels for the pilgrims.
Be aware that during major pilgrim seasons, almost all accommodation and transport will be booked out months in advance. Contrastingly, at other times Mashhad offers about the best-value accommodation in Iran. Winters can be very cold, with snow on the ground for up to five months a year. Summers are contrastingly hot. April is ideal.
There are several other interesting buildings to visit in Mashhad outside the holy precinct, some of which are located just out of the town centre. To the southeast of the circular boulevard is the Great Bazaar, the bazar-e Bozorg; on the first floor are the shops of the turquoise dealers. The area around Mashhad and Neishapur is known for the quality of its turquoise and turquoise mining has been a major industry here for centuries. In the bazaar, you can watch the stones being cut and polished. If you are buying, be careful to distinguish between synthetic and real turquoise, and remember that, despite what you will be told, turquoise is not cheaper in Mashhad than on the European market.
Mashhad is a great place to buy carpets. Half hidden through deceptively small doorways, both Bazaar-e Fash (Imam Reza St; 8.30am-1.30pm & 4-8.30pm Sat-Wed, 8.30am-1pm Thu) and Saroye Saeed (Andarzgu St; 8am-2pm & 4-7pm) are multi-unit carpet markets mostly aimed at bulk dealers so prices can be excellent. Both places have interesting top-floor repair workshops and remarkably there seems to be no sales pressure.
The wobbly, wooden-ceilinged old carpet bazaar (13th Alley, Andarzgu St) is more commercial minded but slated for eventual demolition if the shrine's expansion continues. Upstairs in the 800m-long Bazar-e Reza (8am-8pm Sat-Thu), jewellery stalls proffer turquoise (mined at nearby Neishabur) but their sales pitch is often more impressive than their gems. Around Falakeh Ab, shops sell comparatively inexpensive saffron in a range of qualities: a highly portable souvenir.
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 Nadir Shah 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 kilometers north of the city where there are some inscriptions by the renowned Safavid calligrapher Reza Abbasi; and the tomb of Khajeh Abasalt, a distance of 20 kilometers from Mashhad along the road to Neishabur. (The three were all disciples of Imam Reza).
Among the other sights are the tomb of the poet Ferdowsi in Tus, 24 kilometers distance, and the summer resorts at Torghabeh, Torogh, Akhlamad, Zoshk, and Shandiz.
The Shah 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.
Although slightly less significant than pilgrimages to Mecca, Najaf or Karbala, a pilgrimage to Mashhad remains a deeply significant expression of faith for any Shiite Muslim. After wudu (ablutions), the supplicant humbly enters the Holy Shrine asking 'permission' from Imam Reza through specific prayers and recitations. Following tearful meditations and Quranic readings, the pilgrimage culminates with the recitation of the Ziyarat Nameh prayer in front of the zarih (tomb) of Imam Reza.
In the same way that hajj pilgrims are respectfully known as haji, those who have fulfilled the pilgrimage to Mashhad are entitled to attach the prefix Mashti to their names.