Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires each embraced half of the then known world when they climaxed. And even when Iran was under the reign of Seleucids, Arabs, Seljuks, or Mongols, the Iranians imprinted their lifestyle and culture on the non-welcome invaders, who in any sense immensely benefited. So, the austere new religion Islam, which replaced Iran’s state religion Zoroastrianism, was fundamentally reorganized, and, as I see it as an outsider, filled with life. The rapid and shocking decline of the Sasanid Empire at the end of a century-long fight with Byzantium, and the unexpected takeover by Arabs and their culture of the deserts (in fact, they probably only filled a vacuum) had a deep impact on the souls of Iranians which can be felt even today. So, they made something new out of Islam. It is a backward, (re-)creation of legends and saints, which may much better fit the taste of a highly civilized nation than the Puritanism of orthodox Islam. Form follows function, the two dimensions of architecture, and Iranians are experts in it. Shi’a Islam developed here in Iran and seems to scare nowadays more than ever the people in the mainland of Islam, Arabia. People who do not understand the function of a religion in daily life in general (and do not know anything about the more than bloody history of the Imams, in particular) might perceive only irrational issues in it. But isn’t that a characteristic of all religions?
Iranians are masters in telling legends and stories about saints and pious normal people. When in Mashhad, I heard numerous tales about miraculous healings of fatally ill people visiting the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza; stories of the wondrous appearance of Imam Hossein. And legends of God-fearing normal people who lived a normal life in what is called in the West the Middle Ages, at a time when Persia might have been more advanced than any other country.
The province of Khorasan is a lush country with fertile farmland and orchards, a rather lovely countryside in the east of the great deserts Kavir and Lut. On New Year’s Eve 2006 our bus took us to the former Capital of Khorasan, Nishapur; for me mainly the home of the great mystic Fariduddin Attar and the great mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam.
My hosts were not so interested in an ancient caravanserai of the Silk Road. But they stopped in Qadamgah near the village of Mahmudabad, where a shrine holds the footprint of Imam Reza, and a spring supplies fresh water which is said to have sanatory effects. All of us filled our plastic containers.
Further in Nishapur, the Iraqi Seyyed who guided the group of Kuwaiti pilgrims and provided them with the historical backgrounds of the sites, made finally in Mohammed Mahrugh’s mausoleum an attempt to convert me to Islam. But that was even too embarrassing for the Kuwaitis, who later apologized. To be honest, I didn’t mind, had I already expected that for some time.
In the same garden, the quite modernistic monument over Omar Khayyam's tombstone attracted my interest far more. Known in the west mainly for his Rubayyat, Iranians revere him as one of their greatest mathematicians and astronomers.
The sad story of Bibi Shatita, as the Kuwaitis called her, is really touching and may be particularly revealing when learning more about the deep piety of the normal people in Khorasan. It took some time to find an interesting link in the internet which explains in considerable detail what the Seyyed told us in her own small Emamzadeh in Nishapur. The story entwines around the seventh Shi’a Imam, Musa al-Kasim, who lived in the second half of the 8th century in Madinah (before Harun Al-Rasheed detained and later poisened him in Baghdad). When collecting money and goods for the Imam, the pious, old, and very poor Shatita in Nishapur could afford only a small piece of cloth and a Dirham. But besides foretelling that she would soon die, the Imam very much acknowledged her gift and even appeared on a camel at her funeral in Khorasan.