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Mashhad (مشهد) or Mashhad al-Riḍā (مشهد الرضا) is among the most important religious Shi'ite cities in Iran, which is located in northeast of the country and it is the capital of Razavi Khorasan province. It was the capital of Iran in Afsharid era. Mashhad is the second largest city of Iran after Tehran. According to national census in 2011 of Iran, Mashhad contains two million and seven hundred sixty thousand people. As the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) is located in this city, every year about thirty million foreigner and Iranian visit the city. In 2009 Mashhad was called the spiritual capital of Iran. Also ISESCO[1] chose Mashhad as the capital of Islamic culture in 2017.


The term Mashhad means the place of martyrdom. Imam al-Rida (a) was buried in Harun Cemetery of Sanabad after he was martyred by al-Ma'mun, the Abbasid caliph. Afterwards, Sanabad's name was changed to Mashhad al-Rida (place of martyrdom of Imam al-Rida (a)). Gradually people migrated from Tus to Mashhad in the time of Shah Tahmasab, the Safavid king. Mashhad is called as Mashhad-i Tus and Mashhad-i Noqan in historical sources.[2]


9th Century: Formation of the City

There is not accurate information on the time when people started to settle near the burial place of Imam al-Rida (a), however based on historical sources a group of Alavis, Sayyids and their relatives settled near Imam al-Rida's (a) burial place in the last years of the third/ninth century.[3] Gradually resting places and malls were built for pilgrims and travelers. After some time Mashhad al-Rida changed to a city near Noqan, where a large number of Shi'ites and devotees of Ahl al-Bayt (a) were living there or they came to visit the holy shrine.[4]

10th Century: Destruction by Sabuktigin

In the fourth/tenth century, Muslim religious scholars and hadith narrators were visiting Mashhad numerously, even Al-Shaykh al-Saduq traveled from Rey to Mashhad a number of times. He wrote three parts of his book, Al-Amali, near the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a).[5] As Buyids were ruling in Iran in that time, mosques and schools were built in Mashhad as well while Shi'ite faqihs and scholars were preaching theology of Ahl al-Bayt (a).[6] When Ghaznavid came to power in Iran, around 370/980 – 380/990, Sabuktigin ordered to destroy Mashhad. He was a fierce enemy of Shi'ites, besides he was also encouraged by enemies of Ahl al-Bayt (a) to suppress them. The dome of Imam al-Rida's (a) shrine was destroyed, pilgrims were banned from entering the shrine and people of Mashhad were exiled. Even the houses were demolished, which left the city abandoned for years.[7]

After the death of Sabuktigin, the holy shrine of Imam (a) was rebuilt by the order of Sultan Mahmud, the Ghaznavid king and the son of Sabuktigin. Mashhad flourished again and Friday prayers were performed in the city. The city was at peace during Ghaznavid era.[8]

11th and 12th Century: Long-last Peace and a Sudden Riot

Although Seljuk kings, ruled in the fifth/eleventh century, were following Hanafi school of thought, they respected Imam al-Rida's (a) shrine and they even went on pilgrimages there. There are narrations stating that Seljuk Emirs including Malik Shah and Sultan Ahmad Sanjar regarded Holy shrine of Imam (a) highly.[9] Based on historical reports, the roads to Mashhad became safe and bandits and enemies of Ahl al-Bayt (a) did not dare to attack or stop pilgrims of Imam al-Rida (a).[10]

A disagreement between an Alavi Shi'a and a Sunni faqih in Ashura 510/ June 1, 1116 put the city under the siege. Then Mashhad was under attack, the holy shrine was destroyed and people were killed and looted.[11] Since then the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) has not been demolished.[12] A number of historians believe the disputed between the Alavi man and the Sunni faqih was resolved, but Karramiyya followers used the situation to stimulate people.[13] The incident took place when Sultan Sanjar attacked Ghaznayn, accordingly he ordered his minister Majd al-Malik al-Qummi to rebuilt the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) and the city as well as preparing the situation for pilgrims.[14] Since then no Shi'a-Sunni conflict took place in Mashhad.[15]

13th Century: Mongols' Attack

Genghis Khan, the Mongol king attacked Khorasan in 617/1220-21 and set the city on fire. He killed a large number of people and destroyed mosques and schools.[16] The ancient cities of Noqan and Tabiran near Mashhad were demolished, only the remains of Harun's buildings are remained now. However, based on sources Mashhad was safe for people and Genghis ordered to stop attacking people of Mashhad.[17] In Commentary of Nahj al-Balagha, Ibn Abi l-Hadid mentioned the incident of destruction of Mashhad and the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a). However, 'Ata al-Malik al-Juwayni in his book, Tarikh-i Jahan Gusha did not mention the destruction of the shrine of Imam al-Rida (a).

14th and 15th Century: Holy Shrine of Imam al-Rida (a)

Mashhad was expanded in Ilkhanate (656/1258 to 750/1349-50) and Timurids (771/1369-70 to 911/1505-6) eras, when this city was highly regarded by these two governments.[18] Shahrokh, the successor of Amir Timur who was ruling in Harat, used to live in Mashhad a couple of months every year. His wife, Goharshad built a magnificent mosque near the shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) which is currently called Goharshad Mosque.[19]

16th and 17th Century: Flourish and Expansion of the Holy Shrine

When Safavid came to power in early decades of the tenth/sixteenth century, Shi'ism was chosen as the official religion of Iran which consequently highlighted the importance of Mashhad as the central Shi'ite city in Iran.[20] Safavid Shahs paid huge attention to the holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) and its expansion. In that time, the dome was gilded, the city was rebuilt, agriculture, industries and commercial trades developed. Besides, the number of religious Shi'ite scholars and Rijal (biographical evaluation) experts increased and new schools were built. All these actions helped flourishing of Mashhad significantly.[21]

18th and 19th Century: From Being the Capital to Being under Attack

After the conquest of Iran and dealing with oppositions, Nader Shah the Afsharid king (1067/1656-57 to 1126/1714) chose Mashhad as the capital of his territory and started to flourish the city. He ordered to gild minarets of holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) and a water supply was built in that time as well.[22]

When Qajar dynasty (1174/1760-61 to 1304/1886-87) came to power, the capital of Iran was changed from Mashhad to Tehran. However, development of Mashhad did not halt, as malls, caravanserais were built and the holy shrine expanded.[23]

In the late years of Qajar era, Mashhad was under attack by the Russians; they put the holy shrine on fire and killed people. The oppositions looted the holy shrine and its property as well.[24]

20th Century: Expansion of Mashhad

Aerial view of the shrine and surrounding city - 1971

In Pahlavi era, Mashhad was significantly expanded. The city got bigger, streets and squares were built, means of transportation became available, airport, roads and railways were built as well.[25]

The Spiritual and Cultural Capital

Mashhad was chosen as the spiritual capital of Iran in 2009. Also ISESCO (Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) chose Mashhad as the capital of Islamic culture in 2017. ISESCO choose three cities every year as the capital of Islamic culture or the cultural capital of Islamic world.

Holy Shrine of Imam al-Rida (a)

Imam al-Rida (a) was buried in Haruniyya mausoleum by the order of Ma'mun, the Abbasid caliph.[26] Gradually the place was called Mashhad al-Rida (a).[27] It was not customary to put mausoleum on the grave of Imam al-Rida (a) until the Timurid era.[28] Before the Islamic revolution of Iran the area of Imam al-Rida's (a) holy shrine was hundred and twenty thousand square meter, which has expanded to one million square meter in 2013. It has twenty eight rawaqs (porticos) and over sixty three thousand square meter roofed area that can contain hundred and sixty thousand people for saying prayers.

AQR (Astan-e Quds Razavi) an autonomous charitable foundation is in charge of administration of the Holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a). It is a cultural, religious and economic organization which has a large number of waqf (donated) lands; it is regarded as the biggest waqf and charity organization in Islamic world. Its museums contain ancient Qurans, hand written books, precious properties and magnificent paintings. AQR also possesses lands, gardens and buildings. Its economic department includes about forty profitable industrial, mining, agricultural, construction and service companies.

Seminary of Mashhad

Mashhad has an old seminary school. Based on sources, scientific works in holy shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) started centuries before Safavid era. Grand scholars including Ibn Babawayh, al-Shaykh al-Tusi, Abu 'Ali Fadl b. Hasan al-Tabarsi, Abu al-Barakat Muhammad b. Isma'il al-Mashhadi, Ibn Abi Jumhur and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi were living in Mashhad and they had scientific classes and discussions. In Safavid era, religious scholars started to migrate from Jabal 'Amil to Mashhad including Husayn b. 'Abd al-Samad al-Harithi, Al-Shaykh Hurr al-'Amili and Al-Shaykh Lutf Allah al-Maysi. As Safavid kings paid considerable attention to religious education, promotion of religious teachings, building religious schools in Khorasan, scientific gatherings and discussion increased and seminary of Mashhad flourished.

In Qajar era, development of seminary of Mashhad continued. Its significance increased highly after the Goharshad incident in Pahlavi era, migration of two grand scholars, Mirza Ahmad Khorasani, the son of Akhund Khorasani and Husayn Qumi from Najaf and Shaykh Murtada Ashtiyani. Fiqh and Rijal improved highly as well.

The seminary of Mashhad was led by notable scholars such as Husayn Qumi and Mirza Ahmad Khorasani in Pahlavi era. They also involved in different political and social actions of government which opposed religious beliefs of society. After the fall of Reza Shah, seminary of Mashhad revived through efforts made by grand scholars including Ahmad Kifayi, Shaykh Murtada Ashtiyani and Mahdi Isfahani. In addition, migration of Ayatullah Milani to Mashhad led to scientific and religious development of seminary of Mashhad; he tried to organize internal affairs of the seminary. It played crucial role in social movements and events including Nationalization of oil industry, the uprising of the fifteenth of June 1963, opposing land reform and exile of Imam al-Khumayni as well as Islamic Revolution in Iran.


  1. Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization
  2. Mīrmuḥammadī, "Pazhūhishī dar makānhā-yi mulaqqab bi mashhad", p. 66.
  3. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 42.
  4. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 42-43.
  5. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 44.
  6. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 44-45.
  7. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 48.
  8. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 50.
  9. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 51-52.
  10. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 51-52.
  11. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 52-53.
  12. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 59.
  13. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 54.
  14. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 55.
  15. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 61.
  16. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 57.
  17. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 58.
  18. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 60-61.
  19. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 61.
  20. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 61.
  21. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 62-63.
  22. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 65.
  23. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 65.
  24. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 65-66.
  25. ʿAṭārudī, Farhang-i khurāsān, vol. 1, p. 66.
  26. Jaʿfarīyān, Aṭlas-i Shīʿa, p. 93.
  27. Jaʿfarīyān, Aṭlas-i Shīʿa, p. 97.
  28. Jaʿfarīyān, Aṭlas-i Shīʿa, p. 97.


  • ʿAṭārudī, ʿAzīz Allāh al-. Farhang-i khurāsān. Tehran: Intishārāt-i ʿAṭārud, 1381 Sh.
  • Jaʿfarīyān, Rasūl. Aṭlas-i Shīʿa. Tehran: Intishārāt-i Sāzmān-i Jughrāfīyāyī-yi Nīrūhā-yi Muṣallaḥ, 1387 Sh.
  • Mīrmuḥammadī, Ḥamīdriḍā. 1374 Sh. "Pazhūhishī dar makānhā-yi mulaqqab bi mashhad dar Iran". Faṣlnāma-yi Mishkāt 48:62-70.