Monday, October 8, 2012

A Shrine in the Desert: Qom’s Golden Lady

Shrine of Fatimeh Masoumeh in
Qom, Iran

By Heidi Noroozy

The information director of the Holy Shrine of Fatimeh Masoumeh in Qom nearly fell off his chair in astonishment at my husband’s request.

“You want to know about the history of this place?” He narrowed his eyes skeptically.

“That’s right.”

“No Iranian has ever asked me that before. Most people come here to pray and then leave again. They don’t care about the building.”

“Can you arrange for a guide?” my husband persisted. “One who speaks English, if you can manage it.”

The director spotted me hovering near the door—my pale, American face peeking out from under a badly draped chador—and he immediately understood. He grabbed his coat, led us into the courtyard outside his office and spent the next hour delivering a lecture on the history and architecture of Iran’s second most important pilgrimage site. The top honor goes to the Holy Shrine of Reza, the eighth Shi’ite Imam (or leader of the faith), in the city of Mashhad.

Qom is the final resting place of Imam Reza’s sister, Masoumeh, also known as Fatimeh, who died and was buried here in 816 A.D. She’d been on her way to visit her brother in Khorasan, a province on Iran’s northeastern border, when she stopped to rest in Saveh, where enemies slipped poison into her food. Too ill to continue her journey, Masoumeh was brought to nearby Qom, where she languished for another 17 days in the home of a prominent citizen before succumbing to the poison.

The shrine’s current structure dates back to the Safavid Dynasty (1501−1736). Over the centuries it has grown into a sprawling complex of four courtyards, six minarets, three balconies, three mosques, four porticos (i.e., covered buildings attached to the burial chamber), one gold dome, and another made entirely of stone. On the day we visited, the scent of roses perfumed the air because the gleaming marble walls had been recently washed with rosewater, a sacred tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times.

Twenty years ago, the authorities determined that the original gold plate covering the central dome was too thin and fragile, so they replaced it with thicker sheets attached to copper bricks. The project required 400 kilos (881 pounds) of gold and cost 25 billion rials (around US$2 million).

Two of the minarets are much shorter than the rest. They were toppled in an earthquake 250 years ago and were rebuilt at half the height to prevent them from collapsing in the next natural disaster.

View of the Mirror Balcony
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the authorities made several changes aimed at eliminating traces of the previous monarchies. They sealed up royal burial chambers and removed a huge stone beam beneath the Mirror Balcony, the entrance to the women’s sanctuary. This project was a major and highly risky engineering feat that required jacking up the entire structure and replacing the enormous block with another. They did this because the carvings on the original beam featured angels with flowing hair and bare breasts, a common motif in the 19th century Qajar period but offensive to the more conservative 20th century mullahs. Part of the original beam was relocated inside the women’s sanctuary, visible to women but hidden from male eyes.

Only one overt reference to the shrine’s royal past remains—a plaque high up on the clock tower in the Atiq Hayat, or the Old Courtyard, which bears an inscription proclaiming the greatness of the Qajar monarchs. The architects charged with renovations determined that the plaque could not be removed without destroying the historic clock, and so it remains in place.

At the heart of the shrine lies the burial chamber known as the zarih. It houses Masoumeh’s coffin, draped in richly embroidered cloths and encased in a huge glass and silver cage. The hall around it is divided into two sections, one for men and the other for women. Through the thick, green-tinted glass panels, the people on the other side look like shadowy figures moving slowly back and forth.

There are rules in the shrine. Women must wear chadors, even in the private sanctuary where no men are present. Everyone is supposed to speak quietly and act with proper respect for the sacred site. And you take your shoes off at the entrance to avoid soiling the lush carpets covering the marble floors.

The shrine has rule enforcers to lay down the law. They are men and women who wander through the crowds, holding long blue poles that look like enormous feather dusters. At first, I thought they were supposed to tap violators with the feathery fronds, but I never saw them actually touching anyone. Instead, their reprimands were low key. A couple of times, a woman enforcer came to me and whispered in my ear, “sister, you are showing too much hair.”

Burial chamber (zarih)
She failed to mention another wardrobe malfunction: the fact that my chador was on inside out. Apparently, wearing the garment this way is a sign that the wearer is looking for a husband. The helpful woman who pointed out my error was being kind in that Persian way of not saying precisely what you mean. In fact, a woman with her chador reversed is offering herself in sigheh, a temporary marriage contract that can last as little as an hour or as long as a lifetime.

My rescuer helped me turn the chador around, and then she asked for a favor in return. Would I offer a prayer to Masoumeh on behalf of her husband, who was dying of cancer? Because I was a first-timer to the shrine, she explained, my prayers would rise above the cacophony of desperate petitions and reach the ears of the saint. How could I refuse?

By the time we left the shrine in the late afternoon, I’d said prayers on behalf of 10 different women, all of whom had terminally ill husbands, parents, or children. While the grace and glitter of the shrine’s architecture are memorable enough, the human stories of suffering and hope I heard throughout the day will remain in my mind far longer.


  1. This sounds like a truly beautiful place! You're so lucky to have gotten a private history tour.

  2. Fascinating report, Heidi, about one of the many things I will never see. I loved the contrast of the ancient details or ornate construction with contemporary wardrobe malfunctions. Ironically just yesterday I emailed a short story for which I researched the Persians in Mer around 650AD. Thanks for the historical detour.

  3. Thanks,Beth and Georgia. I really was lucky to get that history lesson.

    And Georgia, where did you submit your story? I'd love to read it. My knowledge of Iran in mainly contemporary, but I love learning about history.

  4. What a beautiful visit. This is exactly why I love to travel.

  5. Beautiful, right down to the poignant cultural exchange.

  6. I have visited there it is a great holy place...i visited there in 2002 with my family and spend only one month and i saw whole Iran.People of Iran are very hospitality.I visited there again.Thank you veeeery much for sharing this great shrine pic.
    Desert safari

    1. I'm glad you were able to experience the famous Persian hospitality. Your trips must have been very memorable, as mine always are. Thanks for stopping by,