IMAM REZA SHRINE, MASHHAD, Iran – Beneath giant chandeliers and surrounded by bewilderingly intricate mirror artwork and calligraphy sits this nation’s equivalent of the Wailing Wall.
Dar-al Hojjeh is an immense underground hall adjacent to the burial chamber of Imam Reza (Persian: امام رضا), whose 1000-year-old shrine is Iran’s spiritual nucleus and the world’s largest mosque by dimension.
It’s a busy place, humming with the whispers and cries of countless worshiper, and yet it permeates with such soothing energy that even a sworn agnostic can have a spiritual experience of sorts.
Under green lights signifying the grave’s proximity, there are men and women, segregated by sex, leaning upon and praying onto a marble wall, behind which the eighth imam of the Shia Islam is buried.
Behind them, among dozens of arched beams, more worshipers sit reading prayer books, chatting or just quietly staring ahead, with babies and exhausted children sleeping among them. The hall, covered wall to wall with Persian rugs, is at least 100 meters wide on one side.
I’m here with my guide Ahmad partly to watch this amazing spectacle and partly to escape the July heat outside.
We’re also holding an impromptu discussion on religion.
“How could billions be wrong?” Ahmad asks intently. “Can everyone of them be wrong?”
I remind him that erroneous ubiquitous beliefs, i.e. the former universal certainty of a flat earth, have never been uncommon.
But then I add: “Actually, those arguments are not that interesting to me at this moment.
“What’s more fascinating to me right now is that my eyes are slowly tearing up and I have absolutely no explanation for it.”
Ahmad’s eyes sharpen and his lips break into a knowing smile. He says I’m having “an accident reminder of the universal truth.” His other explanation is more convincing: everyone is affected by the convergence of so much positive energy, so much “sincere pleading for something real and pure.”
“Do you hear that? That’s the sound of pure supplication. … To the eye, they are just crying to a wall. But there is grave just three meters behind the wall. People come here to drop their masks and reach for something beyond themselves.
“Inside this personal space, what some call superstition, something happens that really does bring peace.
“That’s all religion is – mankind’s desire to seek comfort. Whenever mankind makes religion something else, it’s no longer religion; it’s tyranny.”
Many are teary-eyed; some cupping their faces with both hands. But the mood is surprisingly convivial, even comical at times. A small boy turns off the vacuum cleaner of a janitor and runs away. The man looks around bewildered and then sees the boy partially hiding behind his parents. “Okay, then you come and vacuum,” he tells the boy. Witnesses break into laughter.
There’s a woman in a wheelchair with the Koran spread open on her legs. A man, apparently her husband, sits next to her trying to draw away her attention. She tries to concentrate on reading but occasionally turns and breaks into giggles.
Nearby a father is sitting square-legged silently reading. Two small boys are sleeping with their heads leaning on each of his knees.
The meter-thick arches holding up the gigantic room are also covered with mirror work allowing one to inspect the detail. For maximum effect, each tiny triangular, about two or three centimeters on each side, sits at an angle opposite to the next.
It’s a reminder of Iranians’ obsession with detailed, miniature artwork and capacity to produce mindbogglingly beautiful architecture, of which there’s virtually none in modern buildings in Iran.
There’s a different sort of a wailing wall above us outside, the golden Window of Steel that draws Shia pilgrims from around the world, many in wheelchairs and stretchers.