Disclaimer: This post was originally published in my old travel blog, Erudite Traveller in 2017.
“It’s Ashura,” my guide said, surprised and confused when I asked why there were so many people on Tehran’s streets close to midnight. She probably assumed that I knew that I will be in her country during a religious holiday. I didn’t. I wasn’t prepared to travel in Iran on Ashura.
Ashura, or the tenth day of the Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar), is considered one of the most important religious holidays for Shia Muslims. Iran is a Shia-majority country.
Not knowing it was Ashura was the equivalent of someone visiting a Western country on December 25th and not knowing it was Christmas. There was a somewhat festive sense in the air; people were out and about, speakers blasted religious recitations, free food abounded in every street corner. Except everyone was in mourning attire as Ashura commemorates a sad event. As a sign of respect, all of Iran’s museums, bazaars, and other spots of interest, were close.
Armed with this knowledge but with nothing better to do, I hiked to Golestan Palace, the old residence of the Qajar monarchs and a UNESCO World Heritage site early next morning, a Saturday, and found the gates locked. All shops in the nearby Tehran Grand Bazaar also appeared close. While dejectedly walking in an empty and deserted bazaar thinking of somewhere else to go to, a distinguished-looking older gentleman approached me and asked if I’d like coffee. He probably felt sorry for me. And also if there’s something you need to know about me, I like free stuff. So my ears perked up when I heard the magic word.
“Why, yes,” I said.
And that’s when my day turned around. Mr. Ali marched me to a small alley inside the bazaar, leading to an old tea shop. I didn’t know then that the Haj Ali Darvish Tea House is famous all over the world for being the smallest tea house and for its great coffee and tea. People from different countries who visit Tehran make sure to drop by the Haj Ali Darvish Tea House and have their picture taken in front of the famous shopfront (which I failed to do, dammit!). You can check the tea house’s Instagram account to see its international visitors.
The tea house shopfront proudly advertised it as having been in existence for more than 100 years. The owner gave me a small paper cup of very good dark coffee. In honor of Ashura, he was giving free coffee to the poor, who were the honored guests of Imam Hussein, a holiday tradition.
What was amazing was that one can’t stand empty-handed anywhere for a few seconds until somebody approaches with various donations of tea, hot chocolate drinks, potatoes, honey water, lentil soup, chocolate wafers, and bread. I never had so much lentil soup until that day.
Mr. Ali served as my Dante to the labyrinths of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, guiding into the depths of Iran’s Ashura celebration very few foreigners are privileged to experience.
Iranians, both online and offline, were eager to hear about my impressions of the country as a tourist and were very welcoming, even though I’m non-Muslim. They knew I’m not a Muslim because I told them. People constantly slid into my Instagram DMs (most were non-creepy, a few decidedly so) recommending places for me to visit or just asking me about places I’ve visited so far.
In case you find yourself in Tehran during Ashura, here are some of the things you can do to have a solemn yet enjoyable and meaningful activities during this holiday.
HOW TO SPEND A SOLEMN ASHURA IN TEHRAN FOR THE NON-MUSLIM PILGRIM
Wander inside the Tehran Grand Bazaar
While all shops were closed, sections of the Grand Bazaar remained busy with various activities related to the holiday. An alley near the bazaar entrance was assigned for the preparation of the massive amount of food for distribution to pilgrims. Giant vats of hot lentil soup were cooked, small hills of potatoes boiled, gallons of tea heated, and stacks of flat bread unwrapped for sharing with the long line of waiting people. The older men manning the entrance allowed the few foreigners who were there to enter the cooking area and observe the food preparations, talk to the cooks, and taste some of the food.
Luckily, I was one of the few foreigners hanging around the Grand Bazaar that day and Mr. Ali sort of endorsed to me to the people manning the cooking vats so that I can walk around the preparation area and taste the food ahead of those in line.
Further into the heart of the Grand Bazaar was the venue of the procession. I tried to access the inner sanctum but I was barred by the religious guards dressed in green. I was haram, forbidden, they told Mr. Ali. I cannot be allowed inside. A bowl of lentil soup materialized out of nowhere so I joined some men eating soup on the hood of a car instead.
I was content in looking at the closed shopfronts were many intricate alam – the coat of arms of Imam Hussein – were displayed. And even though I wasn’t able to have a closer on the procession, I spent my time observing how the male (women where nowhere to be found) pilgrims mentally and emotionally prepared themselves for the remembrances of the sacrifices of Imam Hussein.
Visit the Imam Khomeini Mosque
The Imam Khomeini Mosque, also known as the Old Shah Mosque, was built during the reign of the Qajars to help legitimize their new dynasty. It features a pool in the middle of a vast courtyard and beautiful tiled domes. Many famous Persian artists have contributed to the tile and calligraphy work of the mosque. The Imam Khomeini Mosque can be accessed from many points within the Grand Bazaar; there is also an access area from the street south of Golestan.
See the glass-decorated Imam Zadeh Zeid Mosque
Imam Zadeh Zeid Mosque, also within the Grand Bazaar, is intricately decorated with glass, rivaled only by the glass work found in the famous Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. Imam Zadeh means “a descendant of an Imam”, i.e., descendants of Muhammad, and entry into the grounds is a bit more strict. Women are required to wear a chador. Luckily, they are also very welcoming and they have chadors available for visitors to borrow at the entrance.
Watch a Ta’zieh
People watch in Valiasr – Tehran’s longest street