Saints’ Sanctuaries

Most of the Bakhtiaris’ saints’ sanctuaries are constructed on the tops of hills, or away from inhabited areas, with simply shaped sanctuaries and low domes and spires. Such shrines also are built on the sloping sides of mountains and hills, or just above the beds of valleys, and are placed so that they are more or less visible from afar.

Landscape of Baba Ahmad Shrine. © P. Khosronejad, 2008

Baba Ahmad Shrine © P. Khosronejad, 2008

Most such shrines and sanctuaries are unpretentious – small, plain platforms with a collection of stones and, in some cases, a tomb inside the building. Sometimes the stones used in such shrines are the vestigial residue of destroyed older structures of earlier periods, and can include motley collections of tombstone fragments. Invariably, such shrines and sacred structures are surrounded by residential camps, beside or close to the nomads’ migration routes.

Bonehvar, Lali Plain, © P. Khosronejad, 2003

Bonehvar, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 2011

Two issues seem worth identifying and exploring: first, the different types of sacred locations and shrines at isolated sites, primarily their spatial characteristics and varied histories and beliefs; second, the ways in which this religious universe is related to everyday processes in the life cycles of the Bakhtiari nomads. Many such shrines were only integrated into the rural and urban sacred landscape in the last ten years, during the fast modernization of Bakhtiari society. Over time they have occasionally become encircled by an expanding settlement. Consequently, today the veneration of such shrines among the Bakhtiari should be considered a religious ritual in which all Bakhtiari – nomadic, rural and even urban– participate. It is not surprising that, with the development and urbanization of the Bakhtiari territory, the external and internal surfaces of most shrines are now made of modern materials such as machine-made bricks or cement. Also, little by little, there is increasing interest from governmental institutions such as Sazmani-Owqaf, the Institute of Pious Foundations, in such sacred shrines because of their financial benefits.

A new Saint Shrine near Tang-i Hati, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 2008

A new Saint’s Shrine near Tang-i Hati, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 2008

As elsewhere in Iran, among Bakhtiari pastoral nomads saints’ shrines are places of pilgrimage at which pilgrims make their vows (hajat). Direct observations from the field confirm that most of the saints in the regions claimed by the Bakhtiari pastoral nomads are family members of Imam Musa Kazim, his son Imam Riza and their grandchildren. The names of Bakhtiari saints usually begin with titles such as aqa (sir), baba (father), pir (religious leader), sultan (sultan), shah (king) and shahzadih (prince). Today, the most important holy places in regions belonging to the haftlang Bakhtiari are Sultan Ibrahim, Shahzadih ‘Abdulah, Shahabulqasim, Khizri Zindih and Sari Aqasiyyid.

Shrine of Seyed Hasan, Bazoft © P. Khosronejad, 2008

Shrine of Siyid Hasan, Bazoft (Sari Aqasiyyid) © P. Khosronejad, 2012

The structural layout and physical construction of these holy places reveal great similarities. The saint is buried in a simple tomb, without a tombstone or epitaph, located in the centre of a sanctuary, which until recently would have been covered by a modern zarih. Outside the building, since the last century in the majority of cases, is a cemetery that belongs only to the clans and tribes that identify with the saint’s lineage. Today such cemeteries are divided by walled areas built around the central shrine building. One of the main questions that arises here is whether cemeteries were formed around the shrines, or the shrines were built in already extant cemeteries. Based on my direct observations in the field, I can confirm that in most cases the cemetery is more recent, with the sacred place leading to the choice of that site for burial by specific clans. Usually, beside the shrine’s structure, and located in the courtyard or not too far away, is one or more sacred trees. On these trees we can see evidence of all sorts of dakhils or offerings (votive objects of intercession) that have been hung by pilgrims to symbolize religious pacts or sacred oaths with their saints in order to obtain a desired benefit. We can see objects such as coloured materials, heads and legs of poultry or prayer papers.

Khezr-e Zindih, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 1997

Khezr-i Zindih, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 1997

Most Bakhtiari women believe that such trees contain the blood of saints, and that if they break the branches or remove the leaves, the tree will bleed. Also, it occasionally happens that there is a sacred spring not far from the saint’s shrine, which is related to one of the miracles of the particular saint. Although this is not always the case, some of these sacred places, especially those whose saints have tribal or ancestral connections with the local clans, have guardians who look after the place and live beside the shrine – or very close, perhaps in a village surrounding the saint’s tomb. These guardians, the saint’s servants or keepers (khadim), are direct members of the saint’s family and are called sayyid or shaiykh. Occasionally, a keeper possesses a shajarihnamih (family genealogy tree) that demonstrates his relationship to the buried saint, but he never reveals it to the nomads, because he believes that his secret must stay in his hands.

With Siyids of Shah working on tombstone of their ancestor © P. Khosronejad, 2011

With Siyids of Shah working on tombstone of their ancestor © P. Khosronejad, 2012

In older periods, most of the Bakhtiaris’ saints were visited by pastoral nomads seeking miracles (mo’jizih) concerning the health of domestic animals, making requests for rain (duayi talabi baran), or even asking for the protection of their lives, their herds and their belongings during their migration. Today, however, the majority of pilgrims are Bakhtiari visitors (nomad, rural, urban) who simply want to visit the saint to make a request (adayi nazr), to seek a blessing (duayi khiyr) or even to ask for God’s absolution (talabi amurzish).

Generally, the majority of nomad pilgrims are women, and one of their most important wishes is to have a son. In the life of the pastoral nomads, having a son is the most important and most prestigious of events. A man without a son is not considered a complete man by his family and his tribe. If his wife does not bear him several sons, he will doubtless marry another woman in order to have sons. Many Bakhtiari women have told me this sad but true story. These women go to their saints out of fear of their husbands and in order to have boys, in order to have an easy delivery and a healthy baby, or in order to cross the migration route without any accidents. They stay one or two days with the saints, perform their requests (nazrkardan) and turn to God for help while attaching the pieces of coloured material (often green) to the saint’s tomb, to the door to the holy place, or even to the saint’s sacred trees. They prepare votive meals (nazri) with the meat of animals sacrificed in the name of the saints and distribute it between the sayyids and the shrines’ guardians. In exchange, they expect protection, forgiveness (amurzish), and good fortune or luck (khushbakhti) from their saints.

Shah Abolqasim Shrine, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 2008

Shah Abolqasim Shrine, Lali Plain © P. Khosronejad, 2011

Also, pilgrims may visit their saints in groups and stay for a few days. In some of the saints’ buildings there are several rooms and spaces where visitors can relax or stay for the night. There is also a place outside the building to sacrifice and slaughter animals and then to prepare them as votive meals (qazayi nazri). During their visits, as a sign of respect, the pilgrims may also give money, rice, oil and sugar to the guardians of shrines. I have also seen them share votive meals with sayyids, who are the poorest of their clans. When the pilgrims are chiefs or family members of chiefs, on the other hand, it is the most important sayyid of the clan who invite them into their houses for the meal and necessary hospitalities.

With Siyid of Baba Ahmad Shrine© P. Khosronejad, 2011

With Siyid of Baba Ahmad Shrine © P. Khosronejad, 2008