A good starting point for nonpilgrim visits is Falakeh Ab from which several of the domes and minarets are tantalisingly visible in the middle distance. Enter through the vast, part-constructed Razavi Grand Court yard, which should become grander once the blue, white and gold tiling has been affixed to the courtyard’s façades and conconcrete minarets. Curving east you’ll pass the Haram’s museums after the unfinished Imam Khomeini Courtyard site. Beyond, look northwest across the gorgeous Azadi Courtyard to glimpse the exterior of the Holy Shrine building.
Neishabur’s main attraction remains Khayyam’s Tomb. Its present form is a distinctive 1970s-modernist affair with diamond-shaped lozenges of calligraphictiling (Khayyam’s words, naturally) set in a curved, airy net of criss-crossed marble. Don’t be surprised to find random Iranians bombarding you with recitations of Khayyam’s verses as you ponder the monument.
The octagonal tomb tower of Sheikh Attar sits in another pretty garden, 1km west (a popular horse-and-carriage ride).
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Nader Shah is considered something of a historical tyrant. But here he’s a local hero for briefly returning Khorasan to the centre of a vast Central Asian empire. Nader’s horseback statue crowns his otherwise rather dour 1950s grey-granite mausoleum which was designed to emulate the lines of a tent. A small museum displays guns, a rhino-hide shield and four-pointed hats that must have made Afshar-dynasty courtiers look like jesters.
This small but abrupt rocky hill rises near Mashhad’s southern ring road Sweeping views show just how huge Mashhad has become. Tastefully set rock steps lead up from a large ‘recreation complex’ featuring ponds, over-priced ice creams and lots of souvenir shops selling soapstone dizi pots and awful porcelain figurines. Horsecart rides do NOT take you up the mountain as they might imply but on a pointless eight-minute trot down some side streets.
Imam Reza’s Holy Shrine is enveloped in a series of sacred precincts collectively known as the Haram-e Razavi, or Haram for short. This magical city-within- a-city sprouts dazzling clusters of domes and minarets in blue and pure gold behind vast fountain-cooled courtyards and magnificent arched arcades. It’s one of the marvels of the Islamic world whose moods and glories should be fully savoured more than once at varying times of day. Compare the orderly overload of dusk prayer-time to the fairy-tale calm of a floodlight nocturnal wander.
Bequests and donations from the faithful fill the Haram’s fascinatingly eclectic museums. The Main Museum kicks off with chunks of now-superseded shrine-décor interspersed with contemporary sporting medals presented by pious athletes. The basement stamp collection includes a 1983 commemorative featuring the ‘Takeover of the US Spy Den’. The 1st-floor Visual Arts Gallery offers you the opportunity to shower money (or hats) down onto the top of the Holy Shrine’s fourth zarih tomb encasement. Amid seashells and naturalist landscape-paintings of Surrey, notice Mahmood Farshchian’s modern classic Afernoon of Ashura. It’s a grief-stricken depiction of Imam Hossein’s horse returning empty to camp after the Imam’s martyrdom. That’s an image you’ll find repeated as both carpet and giant wood-inlay works in the separate Carpet Museum.
Just as Stratford-upon-Avon in England is synonymous with Shakespeare, so Tus is inextricably linked with Persia’s 11th century epic poet Abulqasim Ferdosi. Domestic tourists flock to the Ferdosi Mausoleum, set in its own park and topped by a classically styled stone cenotaph. The current mausoleum only dates from 1964 but there’s been a tomb of sorts here since Ferdosi’s death in AD 1020. Beneath the main monument a series of reliefs represent Ferdosi’s works. A nicely presented but limited Tus Museum, within the mausoleum’s gardens, displays gory paintings, exhibits ‘warlike equipment and sells postcards. In the rear section of the park, the Razan gate shows how incredibly thick Tus’s original mud-brick city walls once were. Tus had been Khorasan’s foremost city before being so comprehensively sacked by Tamerlane’s forces that it was effectively abandoned.
This beautifully proportioned, blue-domed mausoleum commemorates an apostle of the prophet Mohammad. Coming to pay respects here was said to have been Imam Reza’s ‘main consolation’ in coming all the way out to Khorasan. The tower took its present form after a 1612 rebuild, which added a band of interior Kufic inscriptions by master-calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi. The jolly floral motifs around it date from a Qajar redecoration.