Mashhad (Persian: مشهد ; listen (help·info)) is the second most populous city in Iran and is the capital of Razavi Khorasan Province. It is located in north east of the country close to the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Its population was 2,772,287 at the 2011 population census. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv in the East.
Mashhad is the hometown of some of the most significant Iranian literary figures and artists such as Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, the famous contemporary poet and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, the traditional Iranian singer and composer. Mashhad is also known as the city of Ferdowsi, the Iranian poet of Shahnameh, which is considered to be the national epic of Iran. Ferdowsi and Akhavan Sales are both buried in Tus, an ancient city that is considered to be the main origin of the current city of Mashhad.
The name Mashhad comes from Arabic, meaning the place of martyrdom the place where Ali ar-Ridha – the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims – was martyred and so his shrine was placed there.
At the beginning of the 9th century (3rd century AH) Mashhad was a small village called Sanabad situated 24 km away from Tus. There was a summer palace of “Hamid ibn Qahtabi”, the governor of Khorasan. In 808 when Harun al-Rashid, Abbasid caliph, was passing through there to settle down the insurrection of “Rafi ibn Leith” in Transoxania, he became ill and died. He was buried under the palace of Hamid ibn Qahtabi. Several years later in 818 Imam Ali al-Reza was martyred by Al-Ma’mun and was buried beside the grave of Harun.
After this event this place was called as Mashhad al-Rida (the place of martyrdom of Ali al-Rida). Shias started visiting there for pilgrimage of his grave. By the end of the 9th century a dome was built on the grave and many buildings and Bazaars sprang up around it. During more than a millennium it has been devastated and reconstructed several times.
It was not considered a great city until Mongol raids in 1220 which caused the destruction of many large cities in the Greater Khorasan territories, leaving Mashhad relatively intact. Thus the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad. When the famous world traveller Ibn Battuta visited the town in 1333, he reported that it was a large town with abundant fruit trees, streams and mills. A great dome of elegant construction surmounts the noble mausoleum, the walls being decorated with colored tiles.
Later on, during the Shahrokh era, it became one of the main cities of the Timurid dynasty. In 1418 his wife Goharshad funded the construction of an outstanding mosque beside the shrine, which is known as Goharshad Mosque. The mosque remains relatively intact to this date, its great size an indicator to the status the city held in the 15th century.
Shah Ismail I, founder of the Safavid dynasty, conquered Mashhad after the death of Husayn Bayqarah and the decline of the Timurid dynasty. Mashhad was later captured by the Uzbeks during the reign of Shah Abbas I, only to be retaken by the Shah Abbas in the year of 1597 after a long and severe struggle, defeating the Uzbeks in a great battle near Herat as well as managing to drive them beyond the Oxus River.
Shah Abbas I wanted to encourage Iranians to go to Mashhad for pilgrimage, he himself is known to have walked from Isfahan to Mashhad. During the Safavid era Mashhad gained even more religious recognition, becoming the most important city of the Greater Khorasan as several Madrasah and other structures were built beside the shrine of the Imam Reza.
Besides its religious significance, Mashhad has played an important political role as well. It saw its greatest glory under Nadir Shah, ruler of Iran from 1736 to 1747 and also a great benefactor of the shrine of the Imam Reza, making the city his capital. Mashhad was ruled by Shahrukh Afshar and remained the capital of the Afsharid dynasty during Zand dynasty until Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar conquered the then larger region of Khorasan in 1796.
In 1912, the sanctuary of the Imam Reza was bombed by the Russian forces, causing widespread and persisting resentment in the Shiite Muslim world.