Shafaqna Interviews Brother Ali-Reza Goudarzi on the Architecture of the Holy Shrines


SHAFAQNA – Brother Ali-Reza Goudarzi, student of Architecture at the University of Washington has coupled his area of interest with his love for Ahlul Bayt by studying changes in the architecture of the Holy Shrines and sharing his thoughts and observations on his Facebook page: Architecture of the Holy Shrines. We had the pleasure of interviewing and ask him where his passion and interest stems from:

Could you please tell us a little bit about your interest in the architecture of the Holy Shrines and where your interest in researching that stems from?

Ali-Reza: My interest in architecture of the Holy Shrines really began with a visit to Iraq with my father in the Summer of 2013. At the time I did not know that much about the shrines in general other than seeing some photos and knowing of their iconic golden domes! When in Iraq I was fascinated by all the construction occurring at the shrines, I was curious about how this was possible with all the visitors and why this construction never seemed to end. One of the most memorable moments for me was when I entered the Imam Hussain Shrine for the first time, I was surprised to see the courtyard had been roofed, in all the photos I had seen the shrines courtyard was always open to the sky. At this moment I realized that not all the new construction that occurred at the shrines was necessarily positive. A year or so passed and due to some health complications I took a little time off from school and tried to rediscover what I was my passion. It was in this period I began somewhat spontaneously building a model of the Al Askari Shrine, the result of this model inspired me to begin studying the shrines, and soon I began using Facebook as an outlet to share my research and what I would learn and found interesting. As I began architecture school and little by little learned of the technicalities of building I applied my knowledge to understanding the theory and construction methods behind the shrines architecture. Today my focus is the architecture of the shrines and my goal is to become learned in the historic methods and crafts that the shrines have been built from.

How important do you think the aesthetic of the shrines is to our relationship with Allah and the Ahlul Bayt?

Ali-Reza: It is very important. The aesthetic beauty you see in the Shrines is unique from any other building; it is a result of love and dedication of hundreds of years, each little detail you see in the shrines has been done by the hands of masterful craftsmen, who dedicate their time and expertise to the shrines for often no material payment. This makes the shrines a manifestation of peoples love for the holy figures buried within. These intentions have blossomed into the architectural beauty of the shrines you see. Almost every little detail in them is in some way a reference to the Divine, the climax of this is when you stand under the domed burial chamber, where the heavy pillars from the ground that support the dome transform into the light and heavenly dome in which everything comes together in a single point (the apex) symbolizing the oneness of Allah and unity of being.

What is it about the Ahlul Bayt that you think has drawn you closer to their Path so that you’ve combined your knowledge from your education with bringing to light this rather unique phenomenon?

Ali-Reza: I think it is how they have showed Islam and our path to God as being so simple and full of love. It leaves you longing to become like them, to have the same beautiful qualities and morals as them. From them and their actions you see the beauty of Islam and how beautiful a person can become if they live with love and servitude for God. I also love traditional craftsmanship and the shrines are perfect examples of this; from their magnificent masonry structures to the finest mirror work and tile work. Thanks to God I have been able to unite both of these; my study of the holy shrines has therefore become both an educational passion and a way I can bring the remembrance of God and Ahlulbayt into my biggest passion.

What is the reaction of most people towards this seemingly non-traditional interest you have?

Ali-Reza: Most people have been curious about it, everyone knows the shrines are beautiful and holds love for the sight of their iconic golden domes, but few think of them as architectural masterpieces with incredibly rich histories. Additionally this is a field which has not really been studied, my goal is to collect the rich histories of the shrines and fill in the gaps, and document it all in an accessible way for the future. Very few people have studied the shrines architecturally in the past, one man was a German orientalist named Arnold Noldeke who has wrote a book on the shrines in the year 1908 and has produced some amazing drawings of the Shrines. People within my architecture school often are surprised and ask me about the significance of the shrines and what I believe makes them so amazing. On this path I have met a few others from around the world who also hold a distinct architectural appreciation of the shrines, we all consider it our duty to raise awareness of the architectural value of the shrines so that all may appreciate them in this regard.

How do you think the architecture of the Holy Shrines has changed over the years and what implications do you think this could have?

Ali-Reza: This is one of those questions that would require an entire book to answer! The Shrines in their current forms are from the late Safavid period to early Qajar period. Over the past few hundred years various kings, governors, and wealthy men would sponsor their ornamentation and at times minor additions. But the core buildings never actually changed that much, the biggest changes were gilding the domes and minarets in most cases or small additions like adding porticos in front of the iwans. In the past 15 years though things have changed much more than they ever have, this is a direct result of the vastly increasing numbers of pilgrims each year. There are some unfortunate effects with this, and the current Shrine administrations have conducted many projects at the shrines which have subtracted from their architectural and historic value. These projects often accommodate the increasing pilgrims but do so in ways that are not in tune with the original methods and materials found in the historic parts of the shrines. The saddest thing though is in many cases historic elements of the shrines that give these structures so much character are being altered and redone, for example in recent years much of the historic gold work, tiles, and intricate mirror work at the shrines has been redone, solely because they have shown signs of age. Little do they understand that it is these little details that give the shrines so much beauty and character and every time they manipulate and redo these old relics from the shrine with something new and shiny they are taking away from the shrines architectural character.

Are there any personal experiences/thoughts you’d like to share that could be of help/inspiration?

Ali-Reza: There is one little thing I’d like to share and ask from people. Don’t just see the shrines as buildings, they are much more than that. They are gracious hosts that have sheltered the lovers of Ahlulbayt (as) for many centuries. Each Shrine has its own character and each a unique history. Next time you visit a shrine take some time to appreciate and acknowledge it, look at the details; the intricate kashi tiles, the texture of gold plates and bricks, look up into the domes and realize that this beauty you see is a product of pain staking craftsmanship dedicated to and inspired by peoples love for Ahlulbayt. I ask people to understand the value of these gracious hosts, and to care for them so that while they can continue to serve the needs of pilgrims for hundreds of years to come their historic character and architectural beauty remains intact.


Sabiha Rahim (Shafaqna)

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