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Bringing the Pilgrims to Qom

by MARYAM ESKANDARI

25 Mar 2011 16:50Comments

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Islamic Republic's push to develop Shia holy city as a top Middle Eastern destination.

[ dispatch ] Since the early 16th century, during the Safavid dynasty, the holy city of Qom has been a significant center of Shia theological education and a locus of pilgrimage. Recently, its development has become a top priority for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the past eight years, Iran has been expanding Qom, not only as an "Islamic Education Center," in competition with other such cities such as Najaf, Iraq, but with the goal of making it one of the major destinations in the Middle East.

After the late 1700s, when the city flourished as a center of religious learning under Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, little attention was paid to its development for more than century. However, in 1915, when invading Russian forces entered the nearby city of Karaj, many residents of Tehran province moved to Qom, spurring its growth into one of the region's major metropolitan areas. Consideration was even given to shifting the Iranian capital from Tehran to Qom. Over the past six years, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a vast amount of development money has been flowing into the city.

The latest development kicked off at the beginning of the new Persian year, 1390, just this week. A new monorail system that is to connect Qom to Tehran and transport pilgrims to the holy city of Mashhad, site of the Eighth Imam's shrines, has been heavily promoted on the state-run JJTV and Press TV channels. The US$120 million monorail will encompass five stations over a span of six kilometers line in its first stage, linking Qom with the city of Kashan. Highlighting Qom's grand mosque, the Shrine of Lady Masoumeh (in the Shia faith, many believe that after making the pilgrimage of the Eighth Imam, Ali-ibn-Musa Reza, it is a good deed to visit his sister, Masoumeh, as well), the rails will either go beneath the shrine through a proposed tunnel or pass alongside it, emphasizing the city's main attraction. This stage of the project is to be finished by the end of the Persian year.

The second stage will connect Qom with the capital, facilitating the mass transit of large numbers of pilgrims. The government argues that the projects will ease traffic congestion and increase the potential for economic expansion in the holy city. However, many argue that the project is actually designed for its political, social, and religious benefits to the current government. The rail system is designed to carry 13,000 passengers when it opens in 2012, a figure that is expected to grow 47 percent by 2026. The project is a joint venture between MAPNA Group and Kayson Company.

Four additional public rehabilitation and development projects are under way in Qom's center, at a total cost of $40 million. First is the revitalization of Martyr Hemat Boulevard. The 30-meter-wide street extends 1,500 meters. A total of $1 million is going toward revamping the access route that connects Lady Masoumeh Boulevard and Martyr Seyyed Shirazi Avenue. This project is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of summer, in time for pilgrimage season.

The second project involves Martyr Evini Boulevard. This street connects the city's center to Quds Boulevard, Martyr Karimi Boulevard, and Saduq Boulevard. The Martyr Evini project, budgeted at over $5 million, covers a stretch just 50 meters long and is actually the first phase of the Imam Khomeini Large Open Field project, which will create a major open space at the heart of the city and allow for a pedestrian path to the entrance of the Shrine of Lady Masoumeh. The 146,000-square-meter area will include 4,000 parking spaces for the height of the pilgrimage season and 40,000 square meters of landscaped greenery. The green area will have several fountains to create a microclimate, essential during the hotter months in Qom, along with buildings housing various amenities, in particular those allowing for ritual purification prior to entering the shrine. At a cost of $20 million, the open space is to be finished by summer in preparation for 15 Shaban -- birthday of Shiism's 12th Imam, al-Mahdi, "the Awaited."

Finally, there is the $14 million Awaiting Bridge, dedicated to the Mahdi. This bridge is to connect Prophet Muhammad Boulevard to the Shrine of Jamkaran, on the outskirts of Qom. Iranian Shiites believe that the Mahdi once appeared and offered prayers at this mosque. When he first ran for president six years ago, Ahmadinejad campaigned on the promise that his administration would provide $40 million to help expand the tiny mosque into a massive complex that would be a glorious example of Islamic architecture. The president has kept his promise and the project is now nearing completion with the connection of the Awaiting Bridge. The 600-meter-long, 100-meter-wide span should be finished by the end of 2011.

Maryam Eskandari is an architect at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT. Follow her on Twitter @maryameskandar or her blog.

Editor's note: The article has been corrected to address misstatements of the historical chronology. It has also been corrected to reflect that visiting Masoumeh's shrine is considered a good deed, rather than a religious requirement, after making the pilgrimage of the Eighth Imam.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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