Urban Politics of Sacred Space in Contemporary Iran

By Alexander Shams
Submitted to Session P6514 (Living with the Dead: Cemeteries, Shrines, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, 2021 Annual Meeting
Iran; Iraq;
19th-21st Centuries; Identity/Representation; Modern; Modernization; Transnationalism; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Shrines are an important part of religious life in Iran. In recent decades, the tombs of Muslim holy figures and descendants of the Prophet have become more central to religious, social, political, and economic life than ever before. Shi’i Muslim shrines across the country have been expanded and renovated, often dramatically, through a state-led program. Renovations of these tombs has led to major changes in the cities around them. It has attracted large numbers of religious pilgrims. This includes tens of millions from across Iran as well as millions from neighboring countries, rebuilding historic transnational connections. It has also fueled urban gentrification and the transformation of neighborhoods around shrines. This paper examines how the reshaping of Iranian cities to reflect this sacred geography reflects wider social transformations, analyzing how shrines have become linked to public debates about the role of religion in public life and collective memory. Through analysis of the aesthetic and architectural techniques deployed through renovations, funded by both the state and popular donations, the paper examines how the material transformation of sacred structures and the methods used to restore them reflect particular temporal and spatial imaginaries and conceptions of the relationship between the sacred, the profane, and the political. By analyzing debates about the “authenticity” of ancient holy tombs as well as the emergence of contemporary saints and war martyrs, this paper analyzes how sacred and secular temporalities can intersect and diverge. Drawing on two years of fieldwork, it explores how shrine renovation has changed ritual practice at shrines and the relationship of sacred spaces to contemporary urban life.