Discovering Iran — the land of Islamic history

Pakistan's western neighbour offers a window into hundreds of years of Islamic history, as well as serene spiritual moments at the holy sites in Qom and Mashhad.
Published July 27, 2023

A journey to Iran is an immersive experience. Linked by culture, religion, geography and history to Pakistan, our western neighbour offers a window into hundreds of years of Islamic history, as well as serene spiritual moments at the holy sites in Qom and Mashhad.

In the Western world, Iran — rather unfairly — gets a bad rap due to major geopolitical differences in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though Westerners do continue to visit the country. For Pakistanis, however, there are no barriers standing in the way to visiting Iran, either for ziarat [religious pilgrimage] or general tourism purposes.

Though there are no Pakistan-specific numbers, according to the Tehran Times over four million foreign tourists visited Iran in 2022. It would not be wrong to assume a significant proportion of these were Pakistanis.

There are two practical ways to enter Iran — by land and by air. The land route is naturally much more affordable. Buses run from Karachi to Gwadar, from where it is a little over 80km to Gabd-Rimdan, the border crossing between Balochistan and the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan.

Gabd-Rimdan has only recently been opened for passenger traffic, which is a boon for those travelling to Iran from Sindh/Balochistan, otherwise the more famous land border crossing, Taftan-Mirjaveh, is further north in Balochistan.

A word of caution, however, as the land journey may not be the most suitable option for all. It may, in fact, be viable for solo travellers and younger people, but for families — especially those travelling with young children — it presents numerous challenges. Primarily, as narrated by those who have travelled via the land route, the border crossing is quite remote and facilities are very basic — especially if one chooses to travel during the summer school holidays, the heat in this part of the region can be unforgiving.

This brings us to the air option. Iran Air offers a direct weekly flight between Karachi and Tehran, while Mahan Air, a private Iranian carrier, offers a similar weekly service between Lahore and Tehran. If booked in advance, these can be cost-effective options while one can save much travel time (while crossing over using the land route, one has to make a further arduous journey, by bus, to Tehran, Mashhad, Qom etc). Most of the Gulf carriers also fly to Iran, though they may offer more expensive fares, while one will have to change planes in Dubai, Doha, Muscat etc.

As for visas, these can be easily secured through travel agents, especially those specialising in religious travel. The cost in June 2023 was between Rs7,000-Rs8,000 per visa, while the processing time is usually one week. Basic documents need to be submitted, such as CNIC copies, proof of employment etc, and compared to many other states, particularly Western countries, getting an Iranian visa is a relatively painless process.

Khushamdaid Tehran

Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, which opened two decades ago, cannot be compared to the major hubs of the Gulf. It is a relatively small but functional modern airport — comparable to aviation hubs in Pakistan’s metros — with basic facilities.

The airport is located quite far from downtown Tehran, and a metro train linking the airport with the city is still under construction. Therefore, your only option to get to the city is to hire a taxi.

This can be done through the official taxi stand, by haggling with one of the taxi drivers who will start accosting you as soon as you reach the exits, or by hailing a Snapp (the Iranian equivalent of Uber/Careem, but more on that later).

We chose to hire a taxi to Qom directly as advised by a fellow Pakistani passenger, though one feels the taxi driver charged way too much. A better option is to get a taxi into Tehran, spend a day or two in the capital, and then get a bus/train to whichever city you want.

The road to Qom

The landscape along the highway from Tehran to Qom is grey and rocky, with occasional specks of green, not too different from what one would find in Balochistan.

It takes between an hour to about an hour and a half to get to Qom from Tehran airport. As soon as one enters the precincts of Qom, all roads, it seems, lead to the magnificent roza (shrine) of Bibi Fatima Masuma, daughter of Imam Musa Kazim and sister of Imam Ali Raza — a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the eighth imam of Twelver Shia Islam.

Bibi Masuma’s roza is the centrepiece of Qom, and the reason for its fame, with pilgrims and students from all over the world congregating at this hub of Islamic scholarship and culture.

 Hazrat Bibi Fatima Masuma’s roza in Qom. — All photos by author
Hazrat Bibi Fatima Masuma’s roza in Qom. — All photos by author

Qom, long a centre of scholarship, today attracts students from across the world to its Hauza Ilmiya [seminary]. The Hauza was revitalised about a century ago by Shaikh Abdul Karim Hairi. Moreover, as Saddam Hussein and the Baathists were trying to decimate the [Hauza seminary at Najaf al-Ashraf in Iraq, the Qom seminary prospered under the Islamic Revolution.

In Qom, specifically within the precincts of Bibi Masuma’s shrine, the traditional meets the modern. Here, students quietly gather around a turbaned ustad [teacher] for lessons, just as they have done for centuries, though interactive displays using the latest technology also offer lessons in Quran and Hadith.

 Hazrat Bibi Fatima Masuma’s roza in Qom.
Hazrat Bibi Fatima Masuma’s roza in Qom.

Another must-see ziarat in Qom is the mosque of Jamkaran. Located on the outskirts of the city, the sprawling mosque complex, associated with Imam Mahdi, is another spiritual retreat for contemplation and reflection.

The next stop on the itinerary was Mashhad, the resting place of Imam Ali Raza.

The nearly 13-hour journey to Mashhad was on board one of the private Iranian train services. One has to say that Iranian trains take the cake where comfort and luxury is concerned. Their service and comfort level is on a par with the best train services in developed states, and Pakistan Railways could learn a thing or two from our western neighbour about how to run trains.

Arriving in Mashhad, the vastness and grandeur of Imam Raza’s Haram, known officially as the Astana Razavi Qods, is difficult to describe in words, but in many ways mirrors the spiritual beauty of Madinah Munawwara.

Massive construction work is underway at the roza, as pilgrims pack the area around the Imam’s zareeh [tomb chamber] to offer their Salaam. It was a pleasing sight to see hands by the side as well as folded during daily prayers in both Qom and Mashhad, reflecting a communal harmony that needs to be replicated across the Muslim world.

One can just sit for hours in reflection in this deeply spiritual place, unmoved and undisturbed by the noise of the world outside. Apart from the Imam’s Roza, the over 600-year-old Masjid Goharshad, located on the grounds of the Astana, is simply awe-inspiring.

 The Jamkaran mosque on the outskirts of Qom.
The Jamkaran mosque on the outskirts of Qom.

The mosque, built by Shahrukh Mirza, son of Emir Taimur, and reportedly commissioned by his wife Goharshad Khatun, is currently undergoing restoration.

The tile work is exquisite, and particularly its iconic blue dome, is a splendid example of Islamic architecture and craftsmanship. In fact most mosques and shrines in Iran are aesthetic masterpieces, combining celestial motifs and stunning arabesques with the finest of human craftsmanship.

Be prepared

A trip to Iran can be a journey of a lifetime. However, one needs to do some homework before going west. For one, unless you know rudimentary Farsi — basic Arabic also works in Qom and Mashhad due to the influx of Arab pilgrims — you will have a difficult time navigating Iran.

Most Iranians don’t speak English, period. In fact, even at many kiosks at Tehran airport and at railway and bus stations, the local representatives could only communicate in Farsi. Therefore, either download a good translation app, or brush up on your Farsi. For those who speak chaste Urdu, picking up Farsi, if spoken slowly, is not too difficult; however, most Iranians speak very fast, as do most native speakers, and it is hard to catch their drift.

Secondly, Iran is quite expensive for Pakistanis, while the dual currency system can be perplexing. Figuring out the dual Iranian currency of tumans/rials takes some getting used to, considering the seemingly endless series of zeroes the foreigner has to figure out. For example, 500,000 Iranian rials are equal to 50 tumans, and most prices are quoted in tumans. So you’ll be doing maths, and lots of it, even while buying snacks, lunch or souvenirs.

 The iconic gold dome of Imam Raza’s <em>roza</em>.
The iconic gold dome of Imam Raza’s roza.

Moreover, one needs to prepare a budget and bring plenty of cash as foreign (including Pakistani) debit/credit cards do not work due to Western sanctions. It is difficult to exchange Iranian currency in Pakistan, but if you take any major international currency (USD, Euro, UAE dirham etc), you will be able to easily exchange it in Iran. Though the official money exchange kiosk at Tehran airport is manned by extremely unfriendly staff (who routinely shoo away foreigners for some bizarre reason), unofficial ‘mobile’ money changers can be found everywhere in Iran, including at Tehran airport, and in the streets of Qom and Mashhad. Just make sure they are giving you a decent rate.

Communication in Iran is another issue, as your Pakistani SIM will not work. There is Wi-Fi at certain places, but this often requires a local number in order to receive the password. Hence, a better option is to purchase a local Iranian SIM. But be warned: WhatsApp, YouTube and many other apps don’t work, and local mobile shops will install a VPN on your phone, but for a price. Once you get an Iranian SIM, however, do download the Snapp app. The ride-hailing app offers much better prices than regular taxis (quoted in rials), and you’ll save a bunch.

 Imam Raza’s <em>roza</em> illuminated on the occasion of Eidul Azha.
Imam Raza’s roza illuminated on the occasion of Eidul Azha.

As far as safety and security go, while basic precautions should be followed at all times, you can use your phone in public places and even carry cash without without fear. For a Karachiite, this was a pleasant surprise, as armed muggers are unfortunately an ugly part of life in this city. Public spaces are also relatively safe for women.

Hotels, especially in the shrine cities, can be expensive, and not worth the money you spend. For instance, you may end up paying for four-star service, and actually get a two-star accommodation. A better option would be to check out different ‘hotel apartments’. These are basic operations and will usually constitute a room with an attached bathroom and kitchen, and in my opinion, they offer a better deal than most Iranian hotels if you don’t mind no-frills accommodation.

Where food is concerned, while some Pakistanis complain of the lack of spices in Iranian food, for those fond of Middle Eastern cuisine (Arabic, Turkish), Iranian food will be deliciously familiar.

Several varieties of chicken/lamb/beef kebabs with saffron rice are the de facto national dish, while cheese, yoghurt, doogh (a salty lassi-like drink) and fruit are also major parts of the Persian diet. The fruit, especially cherries, is delectable. Those used to doodh patti will be disappointed as the Iranians prefer their chai ‘Sulaimani’ style, much as the Arabs do. If this is not your thing, coffee is a better option.

While leaving Iran, one felt there was much left undiscovered about this fascinating country. One visit is definitely not enough to cover Iran’s vast geographical expanse and its cultural diversity.

If you are not much of a risk-taker, you can play it safe and book a package deal through a travel agent. But this means you’ll be tied to the schedule of the qafla [tour group]. But if you do your homework and pack enough cash, take the plunge and discover this undiscovered land on your own.

Header image: The Jamkaran mosque on the outskirts of Qom. — All photos by author