~~ A Land of Faces~~
When you visit Iran there are faces looking down at you wherever you go on the streets and in the hotels and restaurants. In a land obsessed with martyrdom, every street corner and every roundabout seems to be decorated with images of the martyrs - mostly those who died during the Revolution or the Iran-Iraq war. But one or two faces stand out from the others and become instantly recognisable and the most prominent amongst these is undoubtedly the face of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini was the man considered to have been the architect of the Iranian Revolution. It's suggested you can date any picture of him by his look - from early pictures where he's darkly scowling and looking like an old-testament prophet, to the later post-death portraits where he's portrayed as more of a kindly old grandfatherly figure.
~~Khomeini - the very potted history~~
This is a review about his tomb so I'm going to use that as justification to not over-egg the pudding on covering his history. Love him or hate him it's impossible to deny Khomeini's impact on the history of the region and the wider world. When the old Shah took flight in 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris just a couple of weeks later. Crowds lined the streets to give him an ecstatic welcome and support his changes to a more Islamic way of life.
The following year Saddam Hussein invaded Iran kicking off the long, bloody and ultimately pretty pointless Iran-Iraq war. Key events of Khomeini's rule included the American Embassy siege that ran for 444 days, the fatwah on Salman Rushdie for 'The Satanic Verses' (surely one of history's most extreme book reviews), and the US shooting down of an IranAir jet with 250 passengers on board. More importantly for the people of Iran, his rule brought about a harsh and strictly controlled way of life - dress codes, rules about what you could and couldn't do, and wide-ranging restrictions on personally freedoms.
~~A death stranger than life~~
His death in June 1989 led to some of the most bizarre scenes I can ever recall seeing on TV. The funeral procession through the streets of Tehran caused mass hysteria, his body being dragged into the seething crowds, hungry to pull just a scrap of cloth from his shroud as holy relics. I remember watching the events live on TV and thinking that his body was probably the first recognisably REAL corpse I'd ever seen on television. And now, nearly 20 years after his death, the cult of Khomeini continues to draw crowds to one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in this land of bizarre tourist attractions - the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini.
~~Finding the Mausoleum~~
The Mausoleum is in the south of the city, just off the road to the holy city of Qom and not far from the new airport. It's very much a 'work in progress' and with an alleged budget of $2 billion to spend, there must still be a long way to go. They are building a complex that will cover 5000 acres and include not just the mausoleum, but also a university, a seminary, lots of shops, a multiplex cinema and a strip club (OK, I made up the bit about the cinema and the club but you get the idea). It will be the largest Moslem shrine anywhere in the world - but I can't help wondering if it's going to take longer to finish than the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And having seen how the other shrines in Iran don't tend to stint on decoration, it will take a very long time to cover one this big in suitably gaudy sparkly bling and lots of nice tiling.
We arrived on the first afternoon of our tour of Iran, following an overnight flight and a brief nap at the hotel and a quick lunch. Nothing can really prepare you for how strange this place is. I lived near to Manchester's Trafford Centre whilst it was being built and we used to joke about it looking like a mosque. Well the strange thing is that the Khomeini's mausoleum looks not entirely unlike the Trafford Centre (without the indoor ski-centre, obviously). When you arrive there's a massive car and coach park that attests to just what a major draw this place is on high days and holy days. Allegedly there's parking for 20,000 cars and I can believe it. If you could imagine turning up at your country's largest shopping mall and finding the car park empty, that's a bit like the scene when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a very quiet day.
We parked the bus and found just a few other vehicles and a smattering of strange little tents. Apparently it's quite the done thing to take a pilgrimage to see the mausoleum and to spend the night in your tent in the car park - a bit like Glastonbury without the mud.
~~ Getting in and what you'll find ~~
There are two entrances to the mausoleum, one for ladies, and the other for gents. We split up accordingly and took off our shoes and handed them over to the shoe-man who gave us the biggest smile and welcome. When we returned, not only did he remember us (OK, we weren't exactly hard to spot as outsiders) but he knew which shoes went with which person. Imagine being able to do that - not the most useful of skills I'll admit but we were impressed.
Passing through the ladies-only curtain, we were given a rub-down search and our bags were X-rayed and then we were sent on our way with yet more smiles and welcomes. I don't really know what I was expecting but it wasn't what I found. The main building was enormous and almost empty - lots of concrete and metal pillars and zillions of glass chandeliers. It had all the atmosphere of a 1970s shopping centre crossed with a cattle market. I've seen aircraft hangers with more of a buzz about them. The whole place looked like a slightly-tidied-up building site.
Some readers may be old enough to remember the 'onyx-age' - a period of my childhood when the world went crazy for heavy onyx ashtrays and other onyx tat. Well imagine acres of onyx flooring and you are getting close to the sense of OTT-ness about this place. Obviously expensive but frankly very tacky.
The main action is around the glass-sided room that holds the tombs of Khomeini and his son. I went into the ladies enclosure to see what was going on, feeling a bit concerned to be intruding on something of such religious importance to the other people there. However, as we later discovered throughout Iran, nobody minds you being there and most people just want to make sure you get the best view. Up close to the tomb-room, we watched ladies praying and pushing money and letters through openings in the walls and windows.
Looking up to the ceiling above the tombs, there are stained glass windows decorated with 72 tulips which symbolise the 72 martyrs who fought and died with Khomeini in Kerbala. Please forgive me but I don't know anything about that particular event and I'm lacking the imagination to make something up. Other symbolism includes the four towers each of which is 91m high, reflecting the age at which Khomeini died.
After we left the main building we went for a wander but weren't really sure what we were looking at. Most of the people we passed smiled and many welcomed us to their country. The braver (younger) ones asked us where we came from and discussed Manchester United which is exactly what happens everywhere you go in the world these days. Apparently Khomeini said before he died that he didn't want his tomb to be a sombre or sad place and he asked for shops and restaurants to be there so that visitors could enjoy themselves during their visit. Let's be honest, it's not exactly the London Eye, but I have to say that everyone DID seem to be having a good time on their day trip to visit the father of post-revolution Iran. And whilst it's not architecturally brilliant, is far from finished and is frankly not beautiful in any way I can think of, it's undeniably an interesting experience to get in amongst the locals at a place that means so much to them.