A lot of travellers we met in Iran decided to skip Qom while rushing off to the other big cities of Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd. Yet we figured that with the country under the rule of a marginally fanatical Islamic leader since the 1979 Revolution, and with Qom being Shia Islam’s second holiest site behind Mashad (also in Iran) it was worth at least a day of our time. The city is a major pilgrimage site with people coming to visit the huge Fatima Masumeh Shrine, dedicated to the sister of the 8th Imam and daughter of the 7th. In Shia Islam the Twelve Imam’s are considered the rightly leaders of Islam and are direct male descendants of Mohammad’s daughter Fatima. All over Iran you’ll see their names on street signs, shrines and mosques.
The city is also renowned as the world’s largest center for Shia learning due to it’s many religious institutes teaching advanced religious studies. Around 50,000 international students study here with modern social sciences and Western thought taught along with more traditional religious subjects. You’ll also notice, as through all of Iran, scholars in long robes with black or white turbans. Those wearing black identify themselves as direct descents of the prophet while those wearing white do not.
Qom is easy enough to visit on a day trip from Tehran and as it was still the Nowruz holiday, hotel rooms are limited and the city is a favourite among Iranian pilgrims, this was the option we took. From the Terminal-e Jonob metro station a short walk brings you to the Jonob bus terminal where you can either a) ignore the touts and march onwards listening for somebody shouting Qom or b) wait until somebody approaches asking for your destination and they’ll direct you to the right bus (which sometimes means you pay a little extra). Within a couple of minutes of arriving we were on a bus and after cutting three laps of the station looking for more passengers were on our way.
The 150km trip took roughly an hour and a half and dropped at a large roundabout outside the city centre we opted to walk the 4km to the shrine. Passing several parks we watched the locals, with their pop-up tents pitched on concrete squares scattered beneath the trees, as they sat about brewing tea on portable gas stoves. Camping is allowed almost anywhere in Iran and especially during the holidays you’ll see tents pitched and carpets unrolled in some of the oddest places. Stopping at a small park along the way to have a picnic lunch we’d barely finished when a bandanna sporting local who’d spotted us earlier pulls up in his car and offers us a lift which we gladly accept. Pulling into the holiday traffic he and his passenger happily smile at us from the front seats as we swap a few words of conversation before he drops us right out front of the packed shrine with a nod and a wave.
Locating the tourist’s entrance we’re met by a softly spoken Ayatollah, dressed in they characteristic long robes and a black turban (indicating that he identifies as a direct descendant of Mohammad), and sent through separate entrances, Sarah emerging completely wrapped up in a borrowed floral chador. Our guide then escorts us into the first courtyard and begins what turns out to be a fascinating hour of intellectual and informative conversation from a man who has spent over 20 years of his life studying Islamic doctrine. His opinions where anything but hardline and in fact he went so far as to say he disagreed with the dress code enforced on women in the country. He once told his teacher he wanted to get a gun and go fight in Lebanon. His teacher told him to go complete his studies as his knowledge would be a greater weapon than a gun ever could. He was accepting of people who had non-Islamic beliefs and hoped Islam could move into a similar more accepting future.
Inside the Fatima Masumeh Shrine is massive. The central part is around 500 years old with adjoining courtyards dating at 50 and 120 years old. It’s said visitors to the shrine will are assured admission to heaven and pilgrims come looking for solutions to problems, illness to be cured and sins to be erased. As it was currently prayer time and the site was filled with holiday pilgrims we were unfortunately unable to enter the shrine however the exteriors of the buildings were impressive enough for us. We were welcomed by many people coming to ask where we were from before a couple of gentleman in suits approached us to speak with our guide. Asking if we’d had lunch we politely advise we’ve just eaten to which our guide says
No no you must accept this!
The gentleman worked for the shrine and offered us two tickets for lunch in the canteen beneath the shrine. Thanking them profusely our guide informs us that he’s met many dignitaries, cardinals and heads of state during his work here and he’s never seen a foreigner receive such an offer. Hence why he would not allow us to turn it down.
When our little tour is complete our guide shows us to the cnateen entrance, wishes us all the best in life, almost shakes Sarah’s hand before realising he can’t and leaves us to our own devices. Descending the stairs we follow the crowd, receive more friendly welcomes, are shown to a table in a vast hall and are promptly served a blessed meal of chicken, rice and pomegranate. Slightly full we do our best to finish every mouthful as eating a meal here is considered a real blessing.
Leaving the cafeteria after posing for a couple of photos with surrounding families, we receive more warm smiles from the locals and make our way around to check out the some surrounding buildings and the large attractive Emam Hasan Askari Mosque. One thing we’d like to note – if you’re an Australian visiting Iran you better brush up on your football World Cup knowledge, in particular the results from the 1998 qualifies (get the facts in this ESPN article). No less than five times during our time in Qom was the fact that we were Australian greeted with responses reminding us that Iran beat us 2-2 and everytime football came up in ensuing conversations we resigned ourselves to laugh and respond in Farsi
Jumping in a taxi back to the bus terminal a bus to Tehran is waiting to depart and we spend the ride reflecting on what turned out to be a very rewarding experience leaving us feeling fortunate for having chosen to visit Qom.
Thanks for reading guys! Iran is one of the most photogenic countries we’ve visited, head to Flickr to check out more of our pics.
Tips for Qom
- The non-VIP bus costs between IRR70,000-100,000 per person and was hot and sweaty.
- The bus stop in Qom is at a roundabout 4 kms out of town, a taxi shouldn’t cost more than IRR40,000 otherwise it’s flat and easy to walk.
- Qom is very conservative so you should dress appropriately and women are required to wear a chador to enter the shrine, they will lend you one. It won’t be attractive.