Mashhad is the second-most-populous city in Iran and the capital of Razavi Khorasan Province. It is located in the northeast of the country. It was a major oasis along the ancient Silk Road connecting with Merv to the east.
Mashhad has been governed by different ethnic groups over the course of its history. The city enjoyed relative prosperity in the Mongol period.
The older name of Mashhad is Sanabad. It was eventually renamed Mashhad during the Safavid Empire. The name Mashhad comes from Arabic, meaning martyrium. It is also known as the place where Ali ar-Ridha (Persian, Imam Reza), the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims, was martyred. Imam Reza’s shrine was placed there.
The ancient Parthian city of Patigrabanâ, mentioned in the Behistun inscription (520 BCE) of the Achaemenid Emperor Darius I, may have been located at the present-day Mashhad.
At the beginning of the 9th century (3rd century AH), Mashhad was a small village called Sanabad, which was situated 24 kilometres away from Tus. There was a summer palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba, the governor of Khurasan. In 808, when Harun al-Rashid, Abbasid caliph, was passing through to quell the insurrection of Rafi ibn al-Layth in Transoxania, he became ill and died. He was buried under the palace of Humayd ibn Qahtaba. Thus the Dar al-Imarah was known as the Mausoleum of Haruniyyeh. In 818, Ali al-Ridha was martyred by Caliph al-Ma’mun and was buried beside the grave of Harun. Although Mashhad owns the cultural heritage of Tus (including its figures like Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Ghazali, Ahmad Ghazali, Ferdowsi, Asadi Tusi, and Shaykh Tusi), earlier Arab geographers have correctly identified Mashhad and Tus as two separate cities that are now located about 19 kilometres from each other.
Although some believe that after this event, the city was called Mashhad al-Ridha (the place of martyrdom of al-Ridha), it seems that Mashhad, as a place-name, first appears in al-Maqdisi, i.e., in the last third of the 10th century. About the middle of the 14th century, the traveller Ibn Battuta uses the expression “town of Mashhad al-Rida”. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the name Nuqan, which is still found on coins in the first half of the 14th century under the Il-Khanids, seems to have been gradually replaced by al-Mashhad or Mashhad.
Shias began to make pilgrimages to his grave. By the end of the 9th century, a dome was built above the grave, and many other buildings and bazaars sprang up around it. Over the course of more than a millennium, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. In 1161, however, the Ghuzz Turks seized the city, but they spared the sacred area their pillaging. Mashhad al-Ridha was not considered a “great” city until Mongol raids in 1220, which caused the destruction of many large cities in Khurasan but leaving Mashhad relatively intact in the hands of Mongolian commanders because of the cemetery of Ali Al-Rezza and Harun al-Rashid. Thus the survivors of the massacres migrated to Mashhad. When the 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 coloured tiles. The most well-known dish cooked in Mashhad, “sholeh Mashhadi” or “Sholeh”, dates back to the era of the Mongolian invasion when it is thought to be cooked with any food available (the main ingredients are meat, grains and abundant spices) and be a Mongolian word.
It seems that the importance of Sanabad-Mashhad continually increased with the growing fame of its sanctuary and the decline of Tus, which received its death-blow in 1389 from Miran Shah, a son of Timur. When the Mongol noble who governed the place rebelled and attempted to make himself independent, Miran Shah was sent against him by his father. Tus was stormed after a siege of several months, sacked and left a heap of ruins; 10,000 inhabitants were massacred. Those who escaped the holocaust settled in the shelter of the ‘Alid sanctuary. Tus was henceforth abandoned and Mashhad took its place as the capital of the district.
Later on, during the reign of the Timurid Shahrukh Mirza, Mashhad became one of the main cities of the realm. In 1418, his wife Goharshad funded the construction of an outstanding mosque beside the shrine, which is known as the Goharshad Mosque. The mosque remains relatively intact to this date, its great size an indicator of 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. He was later captured by the Uzbeks during the reign of Shah Abbas I. In the 16th century, the town suffered considerably from the repeated raids of the Uzbeks. In 1507, it was taken by the troops of the Shaybani or Shabani Khan. After two decades, Shah Tahmasp I succeeded in repelling the enemy from the town again in 1528. But in 1544, the Uzbeks again succeeded in entering the town and plundering and murdering there. The year 1589 was a disastrous one for Mashhad. The Shaybanid ‘Abd al-Mu’min after a four months’ siege forced the town to surrender. Shah Abbas I, who lived in Mashhad from 1585 till his official ascent of the throne in Qazvin in 1587, was not able to retake Mashhad from the Uzbeks till 1598. Mashhad was retaken by the Shah Abbas after a long and hard 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 is said to have walked from Isfahan to Mashhad. During the Safavid era, Mashhad gained even more religious recognition, becoming the most important city of Greater Khorasan, as several madrasah and other structures were built beside the Imam Reza shrine. Besides its religious significance, Mashhad has played an important political role as well.
Mashad saw its greatest glory under Nader Shah, ruler of Iran from 1736 to 1747, and also a great benefactor of the shrine of Imam Reza, who made the city his capital. Nearly the whole eastern part of the kingdom of Nadir Shah passed to foreign rulers after this period. It went under the rule of the vigorous Ahmad Shah Durrani of the Afghan Durrani Empire. Ahmad defeated the Persians and took Mashhad after an eight-month siege in 1753. Ahmad Shah and his successor Timur Shah left Shah Rukh in possession of Khurasan as their vassal, making Khurasan a kind of buffer state between them and Persia. As the city’s real rulers, however, both these Durrani rulers struck coins in Mashhad. Otherwise, the reign of the blind Shah Rukh, which with repeated short interruptions lasted for nearly half a century, passed without any events of special note. It was only after the death of Timur Shah (1792) that Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, succeeded in taking Shah Rukh’s domains and putting him to death in 1795, thus ending the separation of Khurasan from the rest of Persia.
In 1911 Yusuf Khan of Herat was declared independent in Mashhad as Muhammad Ali Shah and brought together a large group of reactionaries opposed to the revolution, and keep stirring for some time. This gave Russia the excuse to intervene and on 29 March 1912 bombed the city; this bombing killed several people and pilgrims; action against a Muslim shrine caused a great shock to all Islamic countries. On 29 March 1912, the sanctuary of Imam Reza was bombed by the Russian artillery fire, causing some damage, including to the golden dome, resulting in widespread and persisting resentment in the Shiite Muslim world as well as British India. This bombing was orchestrated by Prince Aristid Mikhailovich Dabizha (a Moldovan who was the Russian Consul in Mashhad) and General Radko (a Bulgarian who was commander of the Russian Cossacks in the city). Yusuf Khan ended up captured by the Persians and was executed.
The modern development of the city accelerated under the regime of Reza Shah (1925-1941). Shah Reza Hospital was founded in 1934; the sugar factory of Abkuh in 1935; and the Faculty of Medicine of Mashhad in 1939. The city’s first power station was installed in 1936, and in 1939, the first urban transport service began with two buses. In this year the first population census was performed, with a result of 76,471 inhabitants.
In 1935, a backlash against the modernizing, anti-religious policies of Reza Shah erupted in the Mashhad shrine. Responding to a cleric who denounced the Shah’s heretical innovations, corruption, and heavy consumer taxes, many bazaars and villagers took refuge in the shrine, chanted slogans such as “The Shah is a new Yazid.” For four days local police and army refused to violate the shrine and the standoff was ended when troops from Azerbaijan arrived and broke into the shrine, killing dozens and injuring hundreds, and marking a final rupture between Shi’ite clergy and the Shah. According to some Mashhadi historians, the Goharshad Mosque uprising, which took place in 1935, is an uprising against Reza Shah’s decree banning all veils (headscarf and chador) on 8 January 1936.
Mashhad experienced population growth after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 because of relative insecurity in rural areas, the 1948 drought, and the establishment of Mashhad University in 1949. The 1956 census reflected a population of 241,989 people. The increase in population continued in the following years thanks to the increase in Iranian oil revenues, the decline of the feudal social model, the agrarian reform of 1963, the founding of the city’s airport, the creation of new factories and the development of the health system. In 1966, the population reached 409,616 inhabitants, and 667,770 in 1976. The city’s population is over 3 million now.