I thought I had seen the shrine of Ali, Mohammed’s son in law in Najaf in Iraq.  He was murdered there in the 7th century AD and ultimately caused the split between Sunni and Shiah Muslims.  But I guess I was wrong; at least if you ask any Afghani.  It’s a little bit like standing on one of the at least five mountains in the world which all claim to be the landing place of Noah’s Ark…

Lots of legends surround this shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif, one of the larger towns in Afghanistan close to the border with Uzbekistan.  It was in the 12th century when supposedly 400 nobles had a simultaneous dream which lead to the discovery of the hidden tomb of Ali with all of his wounds as freshly visible as if they had been inflicted yesterday.  It certainly helped the economy of Mazar-e-Sharif to have discovered this religious treasure and makes the town the most important religious center for pilgrims to this day.  Especially during Noruz which is celebrated here as well as in Iran, (after the Taliban banned the festival), the town is hopping with pilgrims, festivals, games, and all.  The shrine was crowded even today, midday, in the middle of a nondescript week.  Non-Muslims cannot visit the interior of the shrine, yet I came so close!

“My gun” is never far from me; that is Shirin with his Kalashnikov.  I thought he was there to protect me, not to tell on me!  I had approached the shrine and as I am quite appropriately dressed, I answered “yes” to the question:  “Muslima?”  The guard was just about to check my bag and let me in, when “my gun” appeared to tell him otherwise.  The nerve!  I guess, as a devout Muslim, he felt I would be desecrating the shrine; I am not sure.  This way I only could take a token picture of the interior and had to leave. Once in Iran I had a similar situation.  I just walked, confidently passed the shoe rack guy who acted as a guard as well into a restricted shrine.  All of the women had to wear the chador, and I had mine on as well.  Nicola, who was with me at the time hesitated and was promptly turned away.  In any case, I had a peek through a side window which allowed a view of the shrine.  It’s the typical silver-metal grid surrounded by a glittering dome and covered with green cloth.  But it is unusually big.  Supposedly learned mullahs in white turbans sit around with their books and for a fee pray for you or give you advice.  According to Mubin, my guide, however, he is quite disgusted with these mullahs whom he witnessed given bogus advice to a clearly poor and illiterate woman.  He did not even go into the shrine, he so despises these men.

Mubin is a very enlightened and educated Muslim and has a curious and great mind.  But in one issue we had to differ today:  A curiosity around here is that there are hundreds of purely white pigeons associated with the shrine.  They live in a nearby pigeon tower.  Legend has it that the many of the doves that are fed and venerated by the pilgrims are possessed with the Holy Spirit.  They are sacred.  According to the legend, any gray or dark dove that flies in, changes colors to white within 40 days.  Mubin insisted that he had seen it with his own eyes.  As proof he pointed to a double-colored dove and said:  See, there it is!  What is there, I asked?  A two-colored dove.  If you come back in 40 days it will still be a two-colored dove.  And if you take it home it will die as a two-colored dove.  Where is the proof?  Mubin was not going to have it.  The proof was there, right in front of me.  I was just too close-minded to see.

We came to the shrine twice, once around midday and once in the evening for a change of light.  The second time as we approached the shrine, I could already hear it from afar:  Very rhythmic chanting of a men’s choir.  What is that?  It’s not Islam, was Mubin’s answer.  But the people do it.  Mubin is quite a purist.  We had a nice little discussion about what Islam is.  Is it what the book says, or is it what the people do?  About 25 men had gathered in a circle around a leader in one of the side chapels of the shrine chanting.  I had seen something comparable in Iraq also associated with Ali and his assassination which was quite bloody for him and his family.  Women and men (in separate chapels) were chanting and hitting their chests reenacting and provoking some of the pain associated with Ali’s martyrdom.  There they were Shiahs.  Here, Mubin was not sure.  He thought perhaps, these were Sufis.  I will never know.  I found it fascinating, but Mubin was rather dismayed at the corruption of his religion.

At both visits, we spent about an hour of people watching.  You see everything here, from families to groups of men or women, from people carrying gifts for the shrine to beggars.  Two people carried in curiously cooperatively sheep.  I wonder if they sedated them.  Aside from the shrine there is little else to do in town.  We had one of the typical rice lunches and at night I ate one of my obligatory ice creams.  I just can’t eat two full meals.  Instead of going to yet another bazaar, I called it a day in order to catch up with three days worth of blog writing.  It’s just as well.  I am at a hotel, the guesthouse Barg-e-Sabz (Green Leaves) which has no air conditioning.  My room last night started out at 29 degrees Celsius, cooled down to a merciful 25 overnight and by this morning already had warmed up to 32 (90 Fahrenheit) for starters…  Outside is only worse as the sun is beating down mercilessly.

At the hotel at least, I can take off my socks, my scarf, and my two layers of clothes and am protected from the dust and the sun.  Tomorrow will be one of two days of excursions in the area.  I might as well rest up.

Good night.

6 comments so far

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  1. In believe that Shea have they hitting their chest to fell the pain, because they think Allah will forgive their sin by make themselves sad or even hurt for Muslim Imams.
    however this is a believe that they carry it out from centuries and I don’t think they even think about it that it’s make since or not.
    About the hotel I suggest you to looking for hotels or gust hose that have a AC, believe me if you little try you can find many of them.
    Please discuss the subject with those that they have a knowledge about something, not just because they are one, people every where believe to something but they always can not prove what they believe or what they believe it’s right or wrong.
    Alijan Semo Kandahar, Afghanistan

  2. It would be fascinating to hear more about your discussion of Islam with Mubin. And, in general, being in a backward but religious Moslem country like Afghanistan, there is an unusual opportunity for you to talk with Moslems about Islam. By the way, the official name of Afghanistan is The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. What do the people think of that? How are they different from the Taliban in terms of their beliefs and desire for Sharia law? By the way, I think that Sufis can be either Shiites or Sunnis. Sufism is not really a sect of Islam but rather a more spiritualized practice of either Shiite Islam or Sunni Islam. The veneration of Ali is strictly a Shiite practice. Sunnis don’t do that. Is Mubin a Sunni? If so, what does he think of Shiites? and why?

  3. These pictures show a definite improvement but I’m beginning to wonder whether I made the correct decision in turning down a chance to visit the painted churches of Romania with a group of Hungarian singing teachers for Geoff Hann’s Hinterland trip to Afghanistan next month. It’s too late to back out now: unless the plug is pulled of course, in which case he will put some of the money towards another of his trips later in the year.

    I think I’d best cheer myself up by sorting the photos and writing up my lovely visit to the ancient and ecumenical Christian shrine of Walsingham last Monday. It was the day of the annual pilgrimage and downpours alternated with spindly sunshine in a typically English fashion. I only tramped about five miles across the fields to the village (my excuse being that my dog has such short legs) but I hope that was enough to work off a bit off the Jubilee cake.

    I may not be a particularly devout Christian but I’m not going to claim to be a Muslim just to get into a shrine. Or to save you embarrassment. Come to think of it, I do remember that time when we were in Pakistan though………………….

  4. You have some beautiful pictures – an artist’s touch with the camera. Perhaps this day has taken some of the sting away from missing Bamiyan but I shudder at the thought of a return trip through the tunnels and the mud. You certainly have a stronger stomach than I do.

  5. What an incredible moment you caught in the face of that beggar…lost is some deep and melancholy thought . Makes me wonder how the faces under the burqas look? I am 99% sure they are lost in their own melancholy. I think of them as shadow figures…living but not partaking fully of life. They remind me of the young women in my opthamologist’s office…shadow figures who come into the low light of the exam room with the doctor, sit at the computer and say absolutely nothing…just type in what he says. I said something quite funny at one appointment, and while the doctor laughed, the young woman did not even smile…she just stared at the computer screen…she in her “invisible burqa”, not able to participate or enjoy what life has to offer.

  6. It makes my head spin to wonder if believing that doves living in a shirne are turned to white by the Holy Spirit is in any way comparable to believing that if one dies a martry there will be 13 (or is it 130) virgins waiting for him.
    Beautiful blue color in that shrine…and your skirt matches…by accident or design?
    I do understand…yet I don’t understand…Shirin blowing your cover and making it impossible for you to enter the shrine.
    A culture of contridictions!!!! Period.