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The town that minds Iran

Qom is a city located in central Iran, 150 km south of Tehran and 250 km north of Isfahan. It is said to hold the soul of Iran. The place is famous and revered for its golden-domed holy tomb, but is now best known for its religious austerity.

The most notable religious school, the Islamic Seminary, has had great influence on the culture of both the city itself and indeed the whole country. It was here that Ayatollah Khomeini got his education, and more mullahs are being churned out from the many religious schools here every year. The students are called talebah, which does have a striking resemblance to Afghanistan's great terror, the Taleban. This is not a coincidence, since the words simply mean "student".

Other Iranians joke about the inhabitants of Qom, saying that flying over it it's hard to tell whether you're passing a popcorn maker or a tyre factory, as everybody there is wearing black or white turbans. When students demonstrate for democracy in Tehran, opposing protests in favour of the clerocracy are staged in Qom. The city was in many ways the starting point for the Iranian revolution, creating the right atmosphere and the popular support. But to be fair, there is more to the city than strict fundamentalism.

History

Qom was known from the beginnings of history, and archaelogical evidence says that the area has been inhabited from the fifth millennium BC. The town itself was reputedly founded in the ninth century by the Pishdadi King Thahmoures, and was referred to in Sassanid times as a recreational centre and the origin of excellent saffron. The city's name is an abbreviation Kumeh, which is an abbreviation of the pre-Islamic name Kumandan, and it is also called Ghom, Qhom, Qum, Kum, Kumm, and so on.

Several kings of the Safavid dynasty are entombed here, and in the outskirts of the city the ruins of ancient temples can still be seen. However, shortly after Prophet Mohammad's revelations, a jihadic tribe of Arabs called the Ashari conquered the city, and it became ruled by Muslims. Later the city was razed and plundered twice: by Mongols under Tamerlane in the 14th century, and by Afghans in the 18th.

One of Qom's more notorious sons is Hasan-e Sabbah, who founded the Assassin sect of, well, Assassins. He is said to have been born there in about 1060, before later swaying people with his revolutionary ideas. Does it remind you of someone?

When Russian forces invaded the country in 1915, inhabitants of Tehran fled to Qom, and it was suggested moving the capital there as well. However, the plan fell to pieces as the British and Russian diplomats brought pressure on the current Shah, Ahmad.

Shi'ite centre

The most important building in the city is the tomb of Hazrat E-Massoumeh, also called Fatima. She was the sister of Reza, the eighth imam, and after his shrine in Mashdad, her resting place is the most important site of the Shi'ite Muslims. Indeed, the shrine is so holy that non-Muslims must not enter it, at least not unaccompanied by a Believer.

The Imam's sister died in 816, but her mausoleum was constructed in the 17th century when it became a pilgrim destination. Destroyed by the invading horde of Afghans in 1722, it was rebuilt and redecorated a century later. It is now a striking building in the centre of the city.

Not far away from the sacred tomb, another cemetary reminisces the more recent deaths of Iranian soldiers who were fighting Iraq back when Iran was the one true enemy of the free world.

Magic carpets of Qom

Carpets of Qom have striking patterns of great beauty, and are usually put on walls instead of floors. They are made out of the thinnest silk, are small and delicate, and costly. Traditionally, the main colours are red, blue, and ivory.

Qom Province

As is common in Iran, the largest city gives name to its province, and in Qom's case it is easy: There is only one city in the area. There are 256 villages, however, and their agricultural produce includes grain, cotton, fruits, nuts and opium. Petroleum deposits have also been found in the area.

The province borders Tehran and Saveh in the north, Delijan, Kashan and Mahallat in the south, Ashtian, Tafresh, and the great salt lake Dasht-e Kavir in the east. The climate is deserted or semi-arid, and the population is about 880,000.

The most famous specialty of the area is Sohan, a sweet brown pastry of exquisite taste. Who said only rigidity came out of Qom? There are also pleasures to be had, here as elsewhere.

Sources: Extensive googling.

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