Laid to rest in north east of Iran and at the heart of the country’s second most populace city of Mashhad, is Imam Reza’s body, the eighth Shi’a Imam. The Shrine of this holy leader is visited by millions of Muslims every year. The peak is the anniversary of his martyrdom. Each year on 26 May, millions convene at the holy Shrine to pay their respects and renew their allegiance to the house of Prophet Muhammad and his grandsons. Many of these visitors go on this pilgrimage on foot. In what is said to be a reenactment of Imam Reza’s journey from the historical city of Neyshabur, Caravans of devout followers walk the 120 kilometer path in a span of 2 to 3 days. The Pilgrim follows Vahid on his soul searching journey which has left him with an undying experience in spirituality and connectedness.
My name is Vahid Rasouli. I’m thirty years old. I married three years ago. And I’ve been working for Tehran municipality for about seven years.
A little while ago, I had a get-together with my friends. It dawned on me that every year on the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Reza (A.S) thousands of people make a pilgrimage on foot from all over the country to Mashhad. Among my friends, some had gone on such pilgrimages. Listening to their pleasant experiences, I got into the pilgrimage, hoping that it would be a good experience for me too. A friend of mine who knew a caravan in Nishabur facilitated the pilgrimage for me. So I’m going to Nishabur within a few days. From there we’ll make our pilgrimage to Imam Reza’s shrine on foot.
The distance from Tehran to Nishabur is about 770 kilometers, and from Nishabur to Mashhad around 120 kilometers. Pilgrims come to Nishabur from all over Iran to join the caravans heading for Imam Reza’s holy shrine.
Nishabur is remembered as one of the most important and biggest cities of the early Islamic period: the city is also home to many poets and cultural celebrities including Khayyam, an Iranian poet and philosopher chiefly known for his ruba?iyat.
Departing Tehran I arrived in Neishaboor late at night. My journey took about 9 hours. I spent the night at a friend’s house. The next morning, in the company of my friend, I went to the caravan's main office in a mosque.
Mr. Karimi was the head of our caravan. He’s been running the caravan for some years.
Today we’re waiting for pilgrims coming from all over the country. We’ll accommodate them all.
A bus has just arrived. Women are going to stay in Fatemieh as men will spend the night in the library. My people have come. One of them has made soup for the guests. We’ll be here in the mosque till night since people are supposed to come from different places. Hopefully we’ll start our journey tomorrow morning.
Every pilgrim brings with them blankets and warm clothing since it’s too cold way ahead. So the travel bags are mostly big and heavy, which make organizing them a daunting task.
Have you filled in the form, ma’am? How about you, ma’am?
Our caravan in Nishabur consists of about 500 pilgrims.
The entertainment of the pilgrims is done on a voluntary basis. I also lent them a hand.
We’ll be done with the bags by an hour and then we'll load them into trucks to the next station.
We’re just setting off the journey. It’ll take us three days. The distance from here to Mashhad is about 120 kilometers. According to plan, in each leg of the journey we’ll walk about 40 kilometers to reach the next station. This way, we can walk 120 kilometers in three days without getting worn out so that we'll be able enough to hold ceremonies upon our arrival.
We left Nishabur for Mashhad. We had to walk forty kilometers for the first day. On the way pilgrims were praying together. Some would prefer praying in private. Brimming with enthusiasm I found those scenes very interesting.
Walking, praying and contemplating provide us a great opportunity to evaluate ourselves, our role models and their instructions and the relationship between us and our beliefs and put them to the test. The best reason why we choose this way to express our feelings towards our role models is that we have found it highly effective.
Unfortunately, some people have a misconception about the way the Shiites express their feelings towards their Imams. They think we pray our infallible Imams in addition to God. It's not true at all. They're not our God. We just seek spiritual guidance from them in the way we pray God.
Here is the first station on the way from Neishaboor to Mashhad. The pilgrims sleep here at night; we serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner free of charge. We provide round-the-clock services to the pilgrims. Here they can take a rest or visit a doctor. Rescue teams along with firefighters are also here, in case of emergency.
If you want to know why we provide services to Imam Reza's pilgrims for free, the answer lies in the deep affection we have for them. For us, serving pilgrims is of infinite value.
Here is a mosque in a village named Fakhr-e Davoud. Up to here, the pilgrims have walked 40 kilometers. We’re going to stay the night here. We’ll continue our journey towards Imam Reza's shrine tomorrow morning.
Holding religious ceremonies are of paramount importance in these spiritual journeys. The heads of caravans did their best to hold these ceremonies on time.
If you are said that you have to get on the bus but it's time for praying you have to give priority to praying. Praying is an essential duty while pilgrimage is just a recommended ceremony. No matter what's going to happen on the way, we have to perform our daily prayers on time.
It’s the second morning of our journey. We’re cleaning and sweeping the mosque. The pilgrims have just left here. We’ll join them when we’re done.
When pilgrims leave a place some of them remain to tidy up that place and give back the key to the caretaker. Then they join the caravan.
We left Fakhr-e Davoud, a village near Khoushab towards Mashhad. Mashhad is the capital of Razavi Khorasan Province where Imam Reza’s Shrine is placed there. The distance from the village to Mashhad is about 80 kilometers.
We support all the caravans coming from different cities by our rescue teams stationed every seven kilometers. We provide them emergency services with the help of doctors and rescuers that work here voluntarily.
We’re here to help and provide services to Imam Reza’s pilgrims. We usually treat those suffering from blisters or stiff muscles so that they can walk the rest of the way. I hope they pay homage to the Imam on our behalves.
Here is the Javadol-Aemmeh station. The caravans all have come here for lunch. Our caravan has just arrived. Now they're inside the station to have lunch. After lunch we’re going to move towards the shrine.
The Javadol Aemmeh station was established here eleven years ago to entertain the pilgrims of Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashahd. The number of Imam Reza’s pilgrims on foot increases every year. We received around 65,000 pilgrims last year. As for this year, just yesterday we had around 18,000 pilgrims.
No one goes on such a journey for pleasure. Given that the journey may be exiting but no pilgrim goes on such a long journey just for it. Once I had to put back the pilgrimage due to snow. I was in charge of the pilgrims. Then I got a message from a person who had taken a three days' leave to go on a pilgrimage on foot. The man was complaining why I didn’t let them continue the pilgrimage. He asked me not to worry about the weather.
I know some people who changed completely in these journeys. Now they're waiting the whole year for the holy month of Moharram to go on pilgrimage to Mashhad.
You've certainly heard that if you take just one step God will takes ten steps for you. But it's easier said than done; it's very difficult to take that one step. In the modern age of technology how irrational it seems to go on a pilgrimage on foot braving the elements etc., isn't it? That's a question. Perhaps many people have asked you the same question mockingly or searchingly. You needn't bother yourself by walking such a long distance. What's all this bothering in aid of? To put it in a nutshell, these people never dare follow their hearts. In the battle between head and heart they just follow the former but in the kingdom of love it's heart that rules. Imam Hossein followed his heart as well as head when he decided to leave Mecca for Kufa. You know what? The reason why we go on a pilgrimage is to introduce a new role model to the world. The French role model, for example, is that soldier who lost his foot to save his comrades' lives. The French decided to put the soldier's boots in a museum. We're also trying to say that Imam Reza is a role model for us who sacrificed his life to guide mankind.
Here's a room inside Robat Khakestary caravanserai for those pilgrims whose feet are blistered or injured. Doctors or Red Crescent medical group are here to treat the patients by massaging their feet or dressing their wounds. And these saline solution tubs are for those suffering from blisters. Those who feel sick receive an injection over there.
In our religious texts, giving massage is highly recommended. According to an Imam if you give massage to a dead person it’s not surprising if he revives. By giving massage to the pilgrims we try to ease their pains and relax their stiff muscles.
After three days of walking we finally got to Mashhad. When we arrived the streets were crowded with thousands of people from other caravans.
Three days of travelling on foot was a good opportunity for contemplating and praying; and also to rethink my goals in life; that what I'm going to do for the rest of my life?; And where's my ultimate destination?
And an unforgettable memory: when the Red Crescent crew were helping the pilgrims during the journey I asked them to let me get on their chopper to see the pilgrims and Imam Reza’s shrine from above. They agreed to my request. The view was amazing; an unforgettable scene etched in my memory for ever.