Muharram and Ashura in Iran
Muharram rituals are held all around the world where there are Shia Muslims. However, what you will see and experience in Iran is something beyond religious rituals. Iran offers not only a religious event, but also a part of history embedded in the heart of a tremendous national culture. Traveling to Iran in Muharram might not seem fascinating in the first place. But the first ten days of this lunar month will leave a visitor wonder-struck; particularly when it moves towards its climax: Ashura.
Travelers from all around the world are welcomed in places that local people gather to hold religious ceremonies. There are several various activities and rituals that you can either be a part of or enjoy their outlandish scenes. Visiting Iran during Muharram gives you the chance to get a different perspective on the strong bond between the people and their both religious and cultural identity. Here’s almost everything you need to know if you are interested in “how it would be to spend your time in Iran during Muharram.”
Muharram and the Story of Karbala
Every single year, as the early days of the first lunar month approaches, people head to the streets, wearing black and commemorating what happened to Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and his family and 72 followers in the Battle of Karbala. Muharram and Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, are from the most significant events in Iran. Here’s a brief history of what you need to know:
Shia Muslims believe that Imams are to succeed the reign of the Prophet Muhammad, while Sunnis reject Ali’s claim to be the true successor; therefore, the oppressive rule of Umayyad caliphs prevailed, and Imams were compelled to swear allegiance to the Umayyad caliphs one after another. However, Imam Husayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid; thus, the battle of Karbala occurred in 680 AD in the plains of the Iraqi city of Karbala.
It is something beyond the battle of two troops to the people of Iran. On one side stood the Right with the heroic bravery, honesty, and justice at the heart of its great leader, Imam Husayn, and his followers. And on the other side stood the Wrong, the army of the Umayyad caliph Yazid with hundreds of troopers standing still for the dominance of tyranny and cruelty by depriving their enemies of water supplies. Although Imam Husayn was defeated and massacred, the tragic events of all those ten days have been a great symbol of resistance and sacrifice for the greater good.
In the remembrance of this significant historical event, people of Iran experience and express their highest emotions as if they were among those 72 followers fighting against the wrong. Men beat their chests and women’s eyes fill with tears to express their pain and sorrow regarding Imam Husayn while they hear the verses of elegies reciting the gruesome act of Yazid and his troops.
About Unique Muharram Rituals All Around Iran
You are welcomed to witness a multiplicity of rituals in various forms in every city or village as you travel across Iran. In every single spot, people offer particular religious ceremonies labeled to be their own and famous in their own regions. Even the most common type of holding these rituals with mourning, chest-beating, or flagellating with chains in the streets, mosques, and prayer halls can be different in various cities. Different groups with different customs and traditions march in black outfits and move around the city holding up the Alam (the battle standard) harmoniously with the beat of drums and the sound of vocal music.
Inscribed on UNESCO‘s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, Ta’zieh is the updated version of traditional Persian theater which dates back to the pre-Islamic era when Iranians performed passion plays while mourning for Siavash (a 3rd millennium BC mythical Persian prince who also unjustly was killed). The practice of this type of theaters has continued up to now. However, they merged with the religious symbolism granted to their culture by the rise of Islam.
Nowadays, people perform Ta’zieh in all cities and villages to depict and commemorate the tragic narrative of the Battle of Karbala. The shows begin on the 1st day of Muharram and go on to the most dramatic and emotional parts on Tasu’a, the 9th day of Muharram, and Ashura. Cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Khomeini Shahr, Yazd, Natanz, and Arak are famous for their passionate Ta’zieh performances. Do not let the idea of watching a Ta’zieh slip your mind. And take into account that none of the two performances are the same; details are performed in different ways in different places. After all, it can be a significant experience feeling the rush of emotions while watching the tents on fire and the climax of the re-enactment.
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Everywhere you step in, some stalls will offer you sweet drinks, fresh tea, or local food for free. It has become fixed in Persian culture for people to promise to distribute food among people and particularly the poor as a pledge (Nazr) to Imam Husayn. Since Shia Muslims believe that this food is devoted to God and Imam Husayn, they believe that partaking of this food has healing privileges. What would be better than hearing the voice of hospitable people of Iran inviting you to their houses and mosques where they provide you with Nazri? Gheymeh, a thick stew of cooked lamb with split peas served with rice, is among one of the most common dishes in Muharram.
Nakhl Gardani (carrying the palm)
Nakhl Gardani is one of the ritual traditions that people in many cities in Iran follow. In this ceremony, people hold and carry a large glorious wooden structure on their shoulders in Ashura. It’s the symbol of Imam Husayn’s beheaded body carried on a stretcher made of palm leaves in Ashura. People decorate Nakhl with black and green fabrics, swords, and flags that signify its connection to the Battle of Karbala. Hundreds of foreign and native tourists go to Yazd to watch its distinguished Nakhl Gardani every single year. In the famous Nakhl Gardani ritual in Yazd, hundreds of men use their muscles to carry the giant wooden structure around the Amir Chakhmaq Square.
Just think of the glimmering light of the candles all over the place you walk by with kids and people sitting sorrowfully and gazing at them. Sham-e Ghariban refers to the evening and night of Ashura and literally means “the night of the forsaken.” People lament for the orphan children whose tents went on fire by the enemies and were left in the darkness. It has become a tradition to burn a tent in the 10th day of mourning in this month and light candles for the deserted children in moonshine while listening to the sermons.
Gel Mali (rubbing mud on the body)
The kind-hearted people of Lorestan province are very well known for their distinct religious rituals for Imam Husayn. Rubbing mud and dust on the head and shoulders signifies desperation and grief for the death of a loved one in their culture. Therefore, people prepare pools of mud in the main squares in the city of Khorramabad three days earlier than Ashura and when the ceremonies begin. Men put mud on their heads and bodies. As the sermons and chanting begin, people start chest-beating while they’re washed with mud. This unique ritual goes on for three days.
Mash’al Gardani (carrying the torches)
One other mourning ritual that is common among the Arab Neighborhoods or cities like Tehran (districts like Dolat Abad and Shahr-e-Rey), Qom, Mashhad, and Ardakan is Mash’al Gardani. Men carry a structure with torches installed on it and turn it around while holding it upon their shoulders. This religious ritual includes chanting of elegies and chest-beating. The sight of the flames and the rhythmic dance of their lights in the air while men spin them from above is spectacular in the darkness of the night.
Tasht-Gozari (the Basin of Water)
The city of Ardabil is famous for its unique mourning ceremony called Tasht-Gozari. In this ceremony, a big basin of bronze or copper that is full of water moves around the mosques or praying halls while it’s on the shoulders of the grieving men. Everyone gets the chance to drink a little bit of water from it. This ceremony is among one of the most ancient ones in Iran and refers to the difficulties Imam Husayn and his followers had been through while they were deprived of water. Azari-language chanting and elegies accompany this special mourning ceremony and make it an unbelievably soothing experience.
English Muharram Rituals in Tehran!
Here’s an opportunity for you if you like to experience the commemoration of Imam Husayn in English. There are groups of people congregations in Eyvan-e Shams Hall located in Tehran that hold ordinary religious ceremonies in English. Here, you get to connect more easily with other people and sense what they feel about the tragedy of Karbala.
Some general facts about Iran Muharram 2020
- Now you know that traveling to Iran during Muharram and Ashura can be an unforgettable journey in the depth of religious and cultural layers of Iran’s society. So, do not hesitate to pack your luggage for this exciting journey.
- Take into account that almost all tourist attractions will be closed on Tasu’a and Ashura, but it is easy to find open restaurants and grocery stores.
- These days most people wear black or dark colors as a sign of their grief. You are free to wear any color you like; however, it’d be better to avoid red and bright colors in order to show your respect and thoughtfulness.