They were there to remember what to many was a divine loss – and recall the most frenzied funeral in Iran's living memory.
Gorban-Ali Baqrzadeh's grief back then carried him 25 miles, barefoot.
He arrived to a scene of millions of black-clad Iranians beating their chests, throwing dirt on themselves, and passing out in the extreme heat – despite fire-trucks dousing the churning masses.
Dozens died in the melee, thousands were injured, and in the crush even Ayatollah Khomeini's body had to be retrieved, prepared again, and brought back by helicopter.
"We cried," recalls Mr. Baqrzadeh, his beard now white, but his devotion undiminished. "We cried a lot for this person who was an exceptional, very religious person, who was so close to God, and worked for the success of Islam."
The 1979 revolution wrought by Khomeini, he says, "was a light that shone across all the world, under the flag of Islam. He was the savior of the oppressed."
Presidential campaign intrudes
Baqrzadeh was among the thousands here Thursday, some walking for days to reenact their grief two decades ago. But this time – with the June 12 presidential election looming – the event took on a decidedly political air.
It was as much an anniversary as a show-of-force by supporters of Iran's fiery archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Soldiers search the men entering the shrine, and stand on scaffolding to announce that no green scarves or ribbons – the campaign color of Mr. Ahmadinejad's top opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi – would be permitted inside.
Campaign posters of Mr. Mousavi have been defaced while portraits of Iran's current and past "supreme leaders" on the same posters are untouched.
Baqrzadeh says that he's "100 percent" for Ahmadinejad, as other anniversary pilgrims who gather tightly around nod their agreement. "My heart says so, too, because [Ahmadinejad] has the outlook of the Imam [Khomeini]. He has a spiritual way, and continues the way of the Leader and understands the oppressed."
The Iranians at this commemoration were largely from the populist president's natural constituency of Iran's legions of pious poor. They are veterans of the Iraq-Iran war, and among the firmest believers, still, in Iran's revolution.
There were some Mousavi supporters present too, but they were quickly surrounded when they stopped to speak.
"We don't like the way [Ahmadinejad] looks," says Amir, an 18-year-old student with gel in his hair and a green headband. "All the young people are for Mousavi because we want freedom."
That "freedom" was a key slogan of the 1979 revolution, and one that the more conservative crowd at the shrine Thursday said was abundant in the Islamic Republic, as far as they were concerned.
"For Imam Khomeini, freedom was not control or oppression," says Mehdi Daheshi, who's studying to be an auto-mechanic and was only a toddler when Khomeini died. "The Imam said the word that came from the Koran, and this belief is in the heart of the people."
"I wish I could have been there helping Imam, been by his side and sacrificed for his goals," says Mr. Daheshi, who wears a pale pink shirt in contrast to the dark hues all around. "Khomeini wanted to show freedom to the people of the world, and as time passes, the number of countries that think about this [independence from the West] are growing."
Many at the shrine say their memories were seared with the events of the funeral. "Words were inadequate to describe the event," writes Baqer Moin in his 1999 book "Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah."
"For many of the mourners Khomeini was a living Imam … the embodiment of their religious belief," writes Mr. Moin. "Khomeini's hearse was almost lost in the enormous crush which seemed beyond control. Tehran television stopped transmitting live coverage of events."
Ismail Ali Doust, a war veteran, was there. "Twenty years ago it was a very spiritual feeling. When he passed away, it was like my father passing," recalls Mr. Doust, who has a scar on his forehead from regular prayer.
He adds that everyone he knows is voting for Ahmadinejad.
One vote only, boys
When Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, arrived by helicopter on Thursday and spoke at the shrine, he was introduced with the chant: "The hand of God is on our head; the Leader is with us."
Ayatollah Khamenei praised the "freedom-seekers" of Iran, and the work of Khomeini to "rejuvenate Islam," and to raise the power of Iran and dignity of Iranians.
But Khamenei, aware of the political dimension of Thursday's event, told the crowd that he had "one vote, and only one vote," and he would not play favorites in the presidential election.
He asked the men chanting that Ahmadinejad "gives energy to the heart of the Leader," that they obey the rules against politicking there. And in apparent reference to Mousavi's comments against Ahmadinejad's foreign policy during a presidential debate the previous night, Khamenei said: "I do not accept the sayings of those who imagine that our nation has become belittled in the world because of its commitment to its principles ... this path will continue until final victory."
"Most of the people here are from the lower, uneducated part of society," says Gholam Ali-Rostani, a math teacher from northern Iran whose left arm is covered with scar tissue from a shrapnel wound during the Iran-Iraq War. He supports Mousavi, but is not sure his man can win.
"The intelligent people who can think, they don't vote for Ahmadinejad," says Mr. Ali-Rostani. Then casting his eyes upon the devout pilgrims in every direction, he adds: "With this support Ahmadinejad could win, because the main pillars of the revolution are with him."