Visiting the Ayatollah in Iran. I have had some surreal travel experiences during my travels. I have visited the DMZ from an observation deck in North Korea, I have slept over in Chernobyl, and spent a couple of days exploring a country that does not even exist on the edge of Europe, Transnistria.
While visiting Iran, I added a new experience to the list. I spent time visiting the massive shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini on the outskirts of the capital, Tehran. The Ayatollah represents the face of Islam in the west. The Ayatollah was known for supporting the hostage takers during the Iranian hostage crisis, issuing a fatwah for the death of Salman Rushdie, and for coining America as the “great Satan”.
Yet, here I was in the Ayatollah’s shrine with hundreds of other Iranians paying their respect. I watched pilgrims silently praying to the Ayatollah’s body located in a sarcophagus, centrally placed under a gilded dome in the center of the vast interior. Their hands and heads silently pressed against the gold and green enclosure. An eerie alien-green light seeped through.
Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (that is a mouthful) after spending years in exile returned to Iran in 1979. He was a highly revered religious figure. Upon his return, 5 million people took to the street to welcome him back. Through some political machinations, the leader of Iran, the Shah, left the country, and Khomeini was elected as the Supreme Leader. He ushered and oversaw the revolution in Iran that dramatically changed the direction of the country, the region, and the world.
Throughout my travels in Iran I was confronted with anti-American propaganda. Billboards outside of historical sites, videos playing at mosques, posters at the airport, all wishing for a fiery downfall of the United States. Now I was darting around this giant structure, which looked like a cross between a Vegas casino and a mosque, clicking the camera on my iPhone.
Women strolled silently in deep black burkas, man prostrated themselves in prayer, and a sermon proceeded at the back of the shrine.
South of Tehran is the Mausoleum for Khomeini. Construction began in 1989, the year of his death at 87, and is still being built today. This two billion dollar monstrosity covers 5,000 acres and includes a shopping mall and has parking for 20,000 cars. Four golden minarets topping 90 meters, pierce the sky.
My group and I had arrived via our bus on a sunny, warm day. We ambled past giant fountains and multiple pilgrims camping in the parking lot. The shrine was massive. Giant, golden minarets blasted into the air. The Ayatollah sternly gazed down us as we made our way to the entrance. After a brief security check, I was in the shrine. It was that simple. I was surprised. I imagined that was going to have to negotiate a gauntlet. No passport, no questions, no wait. For the enemy of Iran, they were quite welcoming.
My shoes stored; my sock covered feet comfortably padded its way over the thick carpet. I explored the nooks and crannies of the shrine. Amazed that I was here. Visiting the Ayatollah in Iran.