From a distance, you can see its golden cupola shine in the Iranian sun. Roads leading to various cities in Iran have to pass through Qom.
The ten 14th century blue and gold domed sanctuaries visible on the city’s skyline from the surrounding plains are a clear indication of the significance of Qom as a centre of Islamic worship and study.
Thousands upon thousands of students continue to come here to receive their religious education. The most important of the many religious sites in Qom is the Hazrat-e Masumeh, a mausoleum dedicated to Fatimah Masumah, sister of Imam Raza.
The shrine which was built in her memory soon became a popular site and remains so to this day. Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Revolution, chose Qom as the location from which he would direct the country’s affairs from the time of his return from exile in 1979 until his death 10 years later.
Crossing the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert in an aging Mercedes bus, we reached Qom a couple of hours later. Look around and there are clerics everywhere and most of the women wear chadors - a pleasant respite from the make-up and figure hugging manteaus which is so disturbingly obvious in Tehran.
In Iran, it’s easy to make friends. A country where the hospitality is generous and heart-felt, finding such company is easy.
Just stand somewhere near the gate and look lost!
But, I made friends inside the shrine. They were three women one from Bahrain another from Saudi Arabia and the other was from Kashan. Soon we got talking and I was invited for breakfast. Sitting in the courtyard, we had more of a traveller’s meal - tea, dates, nuts and dry fruits, with a chocolate to finish.
We were soon discussing, agreeing and disagreeing on the hot topics of the day. Apart from who would win this election (of course “Ahmedi”!), We spoke about the relative merits of democracy - “compare Iran to any other country in the Middle East and this is a democracy,” said Mrs M, a devout Iranian.
What about the likelihood of an American invasion? “If they do attack, it will make Iraq look like the easy fight,” said the two Arabs in unison. From wherever in the world we belonged, we shared the same bond of devotion with Iran.
We may not have agreed on most of the discussion, but each of us was willing to listen to the other’s point. With breakfast over and no agreement on how to cure the world’s evils, we set off for the shrine. At the entrance, the devotion was manifest as even those not entering would stop, bow and offer a small prayer.
It was good to turn around and watch. While only religious fanatics do not populate Iran as some people in the West would have you believe, religion is important. I decided to turn off my reporter’s mode and simply be in the moment. So, I stop, sit quietly and pray for world peace.