Bastam and Kharghan

Photo by Roman Bruehwiler.

Bastam and Kharghan is part of the Tentative list of Iran in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Bastam is known for its Islamic monuments from the Ilkhanid period and its association with the Sufi mystic Bayazid Bastami. They include mosques, mausoleums, tombs a tower and a school.

Map of Bastam and Kharghan

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 22-Jan-23 -

Bastam and Kharghan (T) by Solivagant

So here we have yet another, currently un-reviewed, Iranian T list entry situated, like “The Historical Texture of Damghan”, just off Highway 44 in NE Iran, well away from the main tourist routes in that country. The comments I made when reviewing that site apply here too and, indeed, both also share a common aspect in the form of an Iranian “Funerary Tower”. IMO, understanding the site requires a degree of familiarity with both the history of the region between the 9th and 14th C and of Shia beliefs and practices. I can’t say we adequately possessed these when we visited in april 2016, despite valiant attempts to bone up on both before we went, and. looking back, our otherwise excellent guide wasn’t able fully to enlighten us at the time either! Few of us WHS visitors are going to be knowledgeable in matters “Shiite” and “Sufic”, let alone be adherents. One can of course simply visit it as just another Islamic pilgrimage site with some nice tiles, Kufic script, muqarnas etc OR dive in as follows and try to understand more of the background (I make no claim to be an expert in these matters!) 

As the title implies, this site consists of 2 locations; of which Bastam is the more important and was the one we visited. However, it was with some annoyance that I discovered we had passed right by the other unawares in the village of Ghal'eh Now Kharaghan as we approached Bastam on the road down from Abr Forest! Although it is mentioned in the site title, the UNESCO description says absolutely nothing more about this second element and (currently) we have only the Bastam location recorded for the site. Luckily I have no great need to worry - it appears that, although the original Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Kharaqani Mausoleum dated back to the Ilkhanids, the current structure dates only from 1974  and we didn’t miss anything “important”!

What the 2 locations have in common is that each contains the Mausoleum of a Sufi “mystic” from around the 9th/10th C CE. The modern structure we didn’t visit in Kharagan is placed over the supposed grave of Abu al-Hassan al-Kharaqani whilst the other, in nearby (20 kms away) Bastam is of Bayazid Bastami. Bastami is often cited as being among the more important “teachers” to have played a role in the development and spread of the Sufi tradition after its initial emergence in late 9th C Baghdad and has been titled “King of the Gnostics” (though I have found no other reference to the claim in the UNESCO description that he was “one of the five elevated Sufis of the world”). He left no writings and spent most of his life in Bastam teaching, “thinking” and leaving “sayings” (!) for others to consider and pass on! This article states that Karaquani “appears to have been Bāyazīd’s principal spiritual heir in Iran and a frequent visitor to his tomb at Besṭām”. And his own entry in the same source  states “Many of his sayings are indeed reminiscent of the great Basṭāmī”. Whatever - there does seem some reason for linking these 2 adjacent sites of 2 closely linked Sufi thinkers – it is just a shame that the second has so little of tangible authentic value for “non believers”!

But the structures at Bastam cover far more than just the tomb of Bastami. The UNESCO site describes it as comprising a “Complex” in its own right, to which will be added “the Chief Mosque, the towered dome of Kashaneh and a part of old wall of the city”. To explore further;

The Complex of Sheikh Bayazid Bastami.
Despite its name, this contains shrines/tombs/mausolea of 3 different historical figures (plus lesser others) and it is amazing (incomprehensible?) that the UNESCO description should only mention 1 of them. The buildings are situated around a courtyard and Mrs Solivagant had to don a special Chador (provided) in order to go inside, despite being adequately dressed for “normal” Iranian sensibilities! Taking each in turn;

a. The Grave of Bayazid al-Bastami Archnet states that “Extant traces of pre-Seljuk construction indicate that work on the shrine of mystic Bayazid al-Bistami (d.874 or 877) may have begun not long after his death” The grave itself is very simple, just a low marble slab situated outside in front of the left hand conical dome in the site photo (Photo 1 - a small covering structure has been built over it since our visit). Whether Bastami’s remains are actually present - who knows? He has another (!) tomb in Kirikhan (Turkey).  and a shrine (which is sometimes claimed to be a tomb) in Chittagong (Bangla Desh) . A piece of “trivia” - maybe there is “something in the water” at Bastam which encourages religious introspection, but it is where Mullá ‘Alí Bastamí came from who, in 1843/4, became the “second who believed” (i.e. To “recognise” the Bab) and became one of his 18 original disciples in setting up the Ba’hai religion! 

b. The Mausoleum of Imamzadeh Muhammad ibn Ja'far al-Sadiq. This is situated inside under the left hand conical dome in the site photo. Muhammad ibn Ja’far was a son of the 6th Shia Imam (according to the “Twelver” beliefs) and died in 818. This parentage made him an “Imamzadeh”. This peculiarly Shia title is applied to someone who was a direct descendent of a Shia Imam (and, by transference, to the building holding their tomb). Such persons had direct line contact with an Imam who had been “appointed by God to be Muhammad's successors…….are inspired by God, are without sin and are infallible, which means that they can interpret the teachings of the Qur'an without making any errors”. In Shiism this direct link with an Imam gives those successors and their tombs special powers. It is not clear how, when or why (or indeed even really “whether” – other sources state “According to some books, the person buried in this tomb is the son of Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS) or his grandson”) the “body” of Jafar “arrived” in Bastami. Wiki states about the event (Al-Dibaj being a nickname just to complicate matters further with all these names! ) - “Al-Dibaj died in 203 A.H. / 818 C.E. and was buried near Bastam, Iran. The Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun himself was present until the burial was over and said the final prayer on the bier”. But, since his death preceded Bastami’s, that would mean there was no other shrine there at the time - so why choose that location? The current building is undoubtedly Ilkhanid in period, dating from around 12th/14th C CE. Apparently the transfer of revered human remains to different (“better”, “more holy”) places seems to have been a tradition in Iran at least so final burial at Bastam didn’t require that the death was nearby or at the same time as that burial. Consider e.g the Tomb of Abbas the Great in Kashan – he died in Mazandaran, but wanted to be buried close to an Imamzadeh.

c. Tomb of Ghazan Khan “Ghazan” (1271 - 1304) was the 7th Ilkhanate ruler, but the first to convert to Islam. He died in Qazvin so, he too, has some “explaining” to do as to why his tomb should be in Bastam!!! Suggestions are that he was particularly interested in Sufism and the Sufis undoubtedly played a part in the conversion of the Mongol rulers to Islam - itself a significant historical “event”.  . Another “slight” problem is that Ghazan Khan built a large mausoleum for himself in Tabriz (in an area of that city still named after him) - now unfortunately almost completely destroyed. Ghazan had the Right hand conical dome structure in the site photo built to take Bastami’s tomb which was to be moved there. This never happened following a bad omen dream. Ghazan’s tomb (if it is such) is inside the crypt of the mosque behind the Imamazadeh Mausoleum.

The “Towered dome of Kashaneh”. (Photo 2) This is situated around 200m south of the Complex, is also an Ilkhanid structure from c1313 CE and is particularly noted both for its Kufic writing (name of architect) and for the fact that it is, according to Wiki, externally, a “Triacontagon”.  A minor problem is that Archnet  and the Nomination file for Gonbad-e Qabus state that it has only “25 flanges”! IMO, the plan in the Nomination file, clearly shows 30. Whatever, although the tower’s name seems to be a corruption of “Ghazan” it is thought actually to have been built in the time of Ghazan’s brother Oljaytu - he whose Mausoleum is the Soltaniyeh WHS. Like Gonbad-e Qabus its exact purpose is unclear. We only visited from the outside and our driver/guide (with whom we have kept in touch) doesn't know if it is possible to enter and climb the internal staircase shown in the Gonbad nomination (nothing on the Web indicates that it is)

So – could these tombs within the Complex contain the genuine remains of these 3 figures? One scenario could be that the Bastami tomb was the earliest and that the other 2 “came” by some means to Bastam during the Ilkhanid period, around 400 years later, because of that existing Sufic shrine. Whether what was built there covered any “genuine” remains is another matter. In any case the real “importance” of the complex lies not in the authenticity of the remains within the tombs but in the stories it tells of the importance within Iranian history of, inter alia; Sufism, the place of Imamazadeh in Shiism, the Ilkhanid conversion and architecture, the role of pilgrimage (historically and today)……

As recently as June 2022 Tehran Times has reported that plans are afoot to gain inscription for Bastam & Khargan . As we well know such plans are legion and often either don’t mature or take far. far longer; but note the anticipated cost ($1 million!) and the clear claim that the site includes the graves of all 3 personages whatever the difficulties of explaining them.

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Full Name
Bastam and Kharghan
Religious structure - Islamic
2007 Added to Tentative List

Unesco Website: Bastam and Kharghan

The site has 2 locations

Bastam and Kharghan: Bastam (T)
Bastam and Kharghan: Kharghan (T)
WHS 1997-2023