by Matthew McAllester (Middle East Correspondent)
April 25, 2001
TEHRAN - For the capital of the world's only Muslim theocracy, Tehran does not have a particularly Islamic skyline. To gaze across the rooftops of Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur or Cairo is to behold the silhouettes of dozens of domes and minarets. But in Tehran, home to a government run by Muslim clerics, it's hard to see a single mosque breaking the horizon.
Apart from the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque, that is. Planned to be the biggest in the world, its two unfinished minarets stand more than 450 feet high, soaring into the beige smog that so often blankets the monotonous skyline of Tehran.
In a bid to refashion Tehran as as an Islamic-looking city, the clerics who control Iran are building the enormous mosque in central Tehran in compliance with an injunction by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revolutionary founder of the Islamic republic, who died in 1989. In a country with a tradition of grand architectural gestures spanning more than 2,500 years, the construction of the mosque is a typically flamboyant Iranian way of reminding future generations and the rest of the world of the existence of the Islamic regime that has ruled since the revolution of 1979.
But to many Iranians, particularly the young, the revolution belonged to their parents, Islam belongs to the mullahs, and the $100-million mosque project belongs on the shelf.
"We would have preferred to have had the biggest library in the world or the biggest computer center in the world, said Yadi Ebrahimi, 30, a software engineer who was walking home just a few blocks from the site of the mosque on a recent evening. "There is no honor in having a mosque 400 years from now. We would have preferred having a company like Microsoft here.
For many of the young people of Iran -- and this is a country where 60 percent of the population of 70 million are under age 25 -- religion and its symbols are losing their attraction. As they prepare to vote for president in the June elections, most appear to hope for a president who will loosen the Islamic regime's firm grip on the country.
For now, however, mullahs, not computer moguls, run Iran and so the construction of the gargantuan place of prayer continues.
Already six years under way, with five more to go, the mosque compound, when completed, will be considerably bigger than the holy sites at Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam.
Before laying a brick, the builders removed 1 million tons of soil from the 650,000-square-meter site. Each of the two main minarets comprises 5,000 cubic meters of concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforced steel. Two hundred engineers work on the project, and at any given time there are 500 to 600 laborers on the site. The central mosque in the compound will have a diameter of 330 feet, slightly longer than a football field. There will be 6,000 toilets for the more than 1 million worshipers that the mosque complex will be able to accommodate at a time.
The sound system alone will cost $1.6 million, to give sufficient amplification to the muezzin's call to prayer.
The entire edifice is about 30 percent completed so far.
"It is an ambitious project indeed, Vahid Shariatmadari, the executive deputy engineer on the project, said with such nonchalance that one might imagine he is in charge of refitting someone's kitchen. "There are even some people who say that we are hungry, the economy is bad, why build such a big and prestigious mosque. On the other hand, it will be great glory. And this will be a multi-purpose building, not just a mosque. There will be a museum, films, exhibitions, book fairs.
Most of all, there will be prayer and pride.
"If you go to America, you have the Statue of Liberty, Shariatmadari said. "In France there's the Eiffel Tower. Egypt has the Pyramids and China has the Great Wall of China... Everyone who passes by here will realize this is the center of Islam in the city, and it will be a good reminder of the Islamic Revolution. And it will stand in history for at least 400 years, so that people of that time will know about the struggle of this time.
For the young people of Tehran, the struggles of the present are more about finding jobs than building mosques.
"I won't go to it when it's finished, not at all, said Davood Mir, 25, who is unemployed. "Religion has a part to play in my life, but anyone who wants to pray can do it at home. I think they're being extremist. It's a waste of money.
To Mir, the mosque is a symbol of a revolution that so far has not catered to the economic needs of his generation.
"If the youth here had a comfortable life, if people had that, then maybe this would be a symbol of success, he said. "But I think it's a political gesture. They want to say to the world that we are all really religious and I don't think we are.
To another young Iranian, the project has very little to do with religion and everything to do with Iran trying to project itself to the world as a powerful country, capable of building something breathtaking.
"Iranians are proud people, said Afshin, 30, who works at his family's clothing store. "They like everything big. They feel they haven't found their place in the world. People know about ancient Egypt, China and Greece but not Iran, even though in history Iran was grander than any of these countries. I won't feel proud because it's a mosque but because it's the biggest in the world, like a stadium.
"Ultimately they'll write in the Guinness Book of Records that the biggest mosque in the world is in Iran, said Afshin, who would give only his first name. "It's like the biggest sandwich that was made in France. Why did they make that sandwich? No one was going to eat it. This is all just to register a record