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Following Imam Reza’s burial here, the small village of Sanabad began to attract Shiite pilgrims and soon became known as Mashhad (place of martyrdom). Tus remained a more significant town until 1389 when Timur sacked the whole area. But thereafter it was Mashhad that eventually limped back to life as the new capital of Khorasan. The shrine was enlarged in the early 15th century by Timur’s son, Shah Rokh, and his extraordinary wife, Gohar Shad, for whom the Haram’s main mosque is named. Once the Safavids had established Shiism as the state creed, Mashhad became Iran’s pre-eminent pilgrimage site and Shah Abbas I rebuilt the Holy Shrine’s new core around 1612. Politically, Mashhad reached its zenith under Nader Shah whose empire was focused on Khorasan. Even though Nader was a Sunni of missionary zeal, he continued to sponsor the Haram.

In 1928, nonreligious buildings within 180m of the Holy Shrine were flattened to make way for the Haram’s biggest enlargement to date. Prior to the 1979 revolution this religious ‘island’ was further expanded to 320m and construction has continued apace ever since. When historians look back on the era of the Islamic Republic, they will point to the Haram as its greatest architectural achievement. Meanwhile, the charitable foundation that manages the shrine, Astan-e Qods e Razavi (www.aqrazavi.org), has become a business conglomerate, managing enterprises from baking to carpets, and minerals to transport. But most of the money comes from donations, bequests and the selling of grave-sites: to be buried near the Imam is a great honour and suitably expensive.

During the Iran–Iraq War, Mashhad’s population ballooned as it was the furthest Iranian city from the front line. Many stayed on and the metropolis is now Iran’s second biggest, a huge, unwieldy and rather polluted sprawl.