IMAM REZA SHRINE, MASHHAD, Iran – It’s called the Window of Steel, through which millions of Shia pilgrims try to find hope and healing. For the tourist, it can provide a fascinating – and at times heart-wrenching – peak into mankind’s universal urge to touch something greater than himself.
The Window of Steel (a.k.a Fulad Window) is a giant outdoor steel and bronze lattice wall first installed some 400 years ago outside the mausoleum of Imam Reza, as an ersatz mausoleum for those unable to enter the actual mausoleum itself.
Many of the 22 million pilgrims who each year visit the 1000-year-old Imam Reza Shrine (a.k.a. “the Haram”), the world’s largest mosque (by area) and the spiritual nucleus of Iran, come here to get healed or bring their sick and disabled relatives.
Before me two disabled men lay in stretchers placed on the ground, one under a mosquito net, surrounded by silent relatives. They might stay at the Haram for days, waiting to be healed.
There are also mostly elderly men and women in wheelchairs being pushed by their younger relatives toward the Window for a chance to touch the steel grid. Some tie pieces of cloth or plastic or paper onto the grid.
In the past, pilgrims used to tie themselves to the Window using ropes. If the pilgrim was healed, all the other pilgrims rushed to tear off a piece of the rope for themselves.
Then there are those who just pull out their mobile phones and take selfies.
The pilgrims are separated into male and female sections. The latter is at least five times more crowded. Some of the women try to enter the male section to reach the Window, only to be turned away by the attendants.
“No ma’am. I’m sorry but you have to go back,” one attendant in a black security outfit tells the pleading women.
Another, in a black turban and white robe, is far more firm. “Come on ladies, move on. You’re blocking the traffic.”
“The window is no particular meaning in itself. It’s what people attach to it in their minds that gives it meaning,” my wife, Saeideh, tells me later on.
I visited an essential element of Imam Reza Shrine, the raison d’etre of Mashhad, I realized the next day while getting a haircut.
Right above the mirror at the barbershop, there was the picture of Imam Reza’s Golden Dome, the Golden Porch and then the Window of Steel. It was the same picture I’ve seen over and over in homes and businesses all over Mashhad.