Tourist & Resident Guide to Iran

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cave of the Martyrs

For the last few months I've been wondering what the green halogen lights leading up the mountainside were for. Alien landing site? Late night mining operations? There was nothing obvious from down below but one day I noticed a new street sign pointing up the hill. The white on brown colour scheme denoting something of cultural interest.

A thin layer of crisp snow lay on the ground the morning I decided to make my way up. I followed the icy dirt path in unsuitable shoes. Paw tracks showed me that the local strays had been up and down before dawn. A long, white goods container had been deposited on a level area half way up. Green-painted frame borders with "Kahf al-Shohada" (Cave of the Martyrs), brushed on in vivid blood-red spoke of the grief-fuelled nationalism so fundamental to current power structures. Open air martyr-worship in a country where the politico-religious establishment has a strict monopoly on public expression.

Further up was a slightly wider but equally anticlimatic plateau. More red, white and green. Iranian flags, makeshift spotlighting planted in the ground at incongruous angles. I heard the creak of a hinge and shuffling behind me and a lanky, young Basij boy, crewcut, unshaven, with regulation Palestinian check scarf, emerged from apparently nowhere. An inner voice told me my presence was not wanted. I swung my camera behind my arm offered a guilt-ridden "good morning." Political repression clearly having left its mark on my conscience.

The great irony being that though this makeshift monument was intended as a form of public relations, the Basij themselves would be exceedingly sensitive to anyone here taking pictures of it for wider consumption. But the earnest young lad just returned my greeting and went on his way and he was safely out of sight before I ventured a look in the direction from where he had appeared. A workmanlike iron gate, banners with religious slogans hanging limp either side and above it. An entrance to a cell adapted from a natural cave in the mountainside.

Inside, fading bouquets, petals strewn over three stone slabs laid on the ground. Graves of fallen heroes? An ascetic hermit's cell set aside for solitary mourning and devoted tears.

A few metres away, a low semicircle of sandbags, arranged like a machine-gun bunker, marked off the dead-end path. It guarded a crudely hung nylon banner. On it, a photograph showing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, standing in reflective mood at the entrance to that very cave.

My cousin later told me of how his father rose early one morning for a mountain walk and witnessed the Supreme Leader emerging from "Kahf al-Shohada" under the cover of the half-light. No fanfare, minimal entourage, perhaps a very personal pilgrimage - but not without leaving photographic evidence to establish the site's status in Basij mythology.

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