When Fatima Masumeh, the sister of the eight Shiite Imam Reza died while on her way to visit her brother in the 9th century, it was clear she deserved a special resting place. At first, this was a rather simple construction made of bamboo, but over the centuries, the shrine developed into a vast complex to which more and more decorative elements were added over time. Besides Fatima, the complex is now the resting place for other notables as well, like Shah Abbas II and Shah Sultan Hussayn. It is one of the holiest places of Iran, and as such a pilgrimage site for many both from Iran and elsewhere. The ladies in our group are given identical chadors, and once they are out of their separate room, it is hard to tell them apart. We are accompanied by a compulsory guide on our visit to the complex.
He turns out to be a very polite, friendly and reasonable person, patiently explaining the story of the complex, painting a surprisingly liberal picture of Islam to us, in an open and respectful way, void of any hostility towards people of other convictions. We stop regularly, to listen to what he has to say, and to have the opportunity to take in the atmosphere around us. I cannot help but think back of my first visit, 17 years earlier, when this place seemed so different. Back then, I had felt a complete outsider, I was not sure if I was welcome, the atmosphere was oppressive, and people all dressed up in dark clothes, flying banners, with larger-than-life pictures of ayatollah Khomeini looming large over the crowd. Now, people seem much more joyful, they come talk to us, pose for pictures, smile. At the same tie, it is evident that this is a holy place.
Once we pass the old courtyard where we find a rectangular pool with fountain in the middle, surrounded by rich tilework on the walls and minarets that tower high above us, we proceed to the second courtyard, where we find a shining Gold iwan, a brilliant vault above the entrance to the shrine of Fatima proper for men. According to our guide, we would even have been able to visit the shrine were it not for the size of our group; another surprise and sign that things are changing here in this conservative Shia stronghold in Iran, from where ayatollah Khomeini once started his rise to power. We enter the new courtyard, a vast open space, and see the Mirror iwan, which marks the entrance to the shrine of Fatima for women. The mirror-studded vault makes for a dazzling display, contrasting with the black chadors in which the women below are dressed. From a corner of the courtyard, we look at the shining golden dome, added in the early 19th century by Fath Ali Shah and the crown of the mausoleum. This is a great spot from which to appreciate the slender and richly decorated minarets, most covered in blue and green tiles, some in gold. By the time we thank and say goodbye to our host, I have all but erased my old memories of Hazrat-e Masumeh and replaced them with much lighter and more welcoming ones.
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