3 days in Iraq: Karbala and Najaf

It is late afternoon as we drive into Karbala. I immediately feel I’m in a different world, as if I have entered another era, centuries away from modern Baghdad.

Karbala and Najaf (where we are headed next) hold immense significance for Iraq’s cultural heritage; they are both cities steeped in history and spirituality. They are also religious centres, and the most important cities in the world for Shia Muslims. The focus in both is on pilgrimage and devotion, for two of the first imams of Islam.

Karbala is all about Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, whilst Najaf is about Imam Ali, Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law – the very first imam. (Imam means leader or role model, the head of the Muslim community.)

Full disclosure up front: organised religion is not for me. I see faith as a highly personal and private choice. You choose which deity, if any, you want to believe in. It is not something to be pushed on others. The moment it becomes a public affair, when rules or uniforms of any kind are enforced in its name, it becomes oppressive.

Mixed emotions in Karbala and Najaf

In Karbala, men wander around, comfortably dressed in pretty much anything they want. The women – all of them, no exceptions – wear loose, tent-like head-to-toe robes, abayas, covering everything except the face. Some cover the face, as well.

On the one hand, I am a bit uncomfortable in this domain of worship and devotion. And I’ll admit I have to fight a wave of irritation, anger even, because I have to conform to an unreasonable dress code, based solely on what type of body I happen to inhabit.

On the other hand, I am weirdly intrigued by people’s need to worship. Where does it come from? What drives it?

So yes, this part of the journey challenges my world view. But I am here to observe, to learn. And to observe, I must blend in.

To blend in I have to become, well… kinda invisible.

Karbala: epicentre of tragedy

1,350 years ago, the Umayyad Caliphate ruled most of the Arab world. This dynasty was originally secular.

In 680 CE, Al-Ḥusayn ibn’Alī, grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, fought a battle with the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I, which ended with the massacre of Husayn and his followers. Winning the Battle of Karbala, meant the position of the Umayyad dynasty was secured.

For the followers of Husayn – the Shia Muslims – this was perhaps the most tragic event in Islamic history, and a painful memory even today. To commemorate this calamity, Shia Muslims instituted Ashura, an annual holy day of mourning, reflection, and a reminder of the sacrifices made by Husayn.

Imam Husayn Shrine

The mosque and grave of Husayn was built near the site where he died and became a martyr.

From the outside, Husayn’s shrine looks stunning in all its golden glory.

We happen to be here on Arba’een, which takes place 40 days after Ashura (Arba’een means 40 in Arabic).

Arba’een is observed through mourning and acts of charity, and for many, an 80 km walk from Najaf to Karbala. Millions of pilgrims travel from all over the world to celebrate Arba’een. So when Ellen, Melissa, Lina and I walk in through the women’s entrance on this balmy September night, we join what seems like thousands of others. Though ‘walk’ is perhaps not the correct term … more like being pushed and shoved – forwards, backwards, sideways.

Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, banned the Arba’een ceremonies. Not that that stopped the pilgrims; they still came to Karbala, no less than 2 million of them in 2003, Saddam’s final year. But ten years after he was overthrown, that number had increased tenfold, and it seems to have remained at around 20 million annually since. No wonder it feels crowded.

Inside Husayn’s shrine, even more stunning and shining

Najaf: all about Ali, the first imam

It is Day 3, our last day in Iraq. We are up bright and early(ish) once again, and head for Najaf. Unlike the pilgrims who opt for the 80-km walk, we have a car to take us between Karbala and Najaf. Phew! It’s 45°C.

I could just as well have headlined this part Najaf: city of knowledge – and so very many burials. Here is why: Najaf is often referred to as the city of wisdom. Through history, it has been a centre of Islamic learning. The main protagonist here is Ali Ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and the first imam of the Shia branch of Islam. Because Ali is buried here in Najaf, it in considered the third holiest site of Islam. Only Mecca and Medina get more pilgrims.

Holiest of holy is of course Ali’s shrine, and we are about to visit this mosque. I am hoping it is less crowded than Karbala last night. But first, we have a graveyard to see, and not just any graveyard.

Wadi-al-Salaam: the world’s largest cemetery

Wadi-al-Salaam (meaning Valley of Peace) cemetery is 6 km2 (ca. 2.3 square miles), and is the eternal home of more than 6 million bodies, many buried 50 deep.

According to legend, this was Abraham’s land. The Abraham of biblical/Quran/Torah fame.

Graves and mausolea as far as the eye can see

The story goes Imam Ali himself said ‘every believer’s soul comes here after death,’ since this is part of heaven. Every year, more than 50,000 new bodies arrive from all over the world. There really is no alternative for the devout Shia. Here, close to Ali’s shrine, is the only place to be buried, even though it is costly. The nearer the shrine, the more expensive the grave.

It is a bit of a trek between the car park and the shrine:

Alternative transport options in the noonday sun

Entering the holy area, we walk through the women’s entrance for a quick pat down and a look through our bags.

Inside the holy area

Inside the enclosed area around the shrine, we pass numerous funerary processions. It is all a bit chaotic. Burials are a daily happening, we learn – and has been ever since Ali’s time. During the American War in Iraq, 200–250 bodies were buried here in Najaf every day.

The bodies are washed and wrapped, and prayers said at the shrine. Then, the body is carried around the shrine 3 times.

The shrine of Ali Ibn Abi Talib

Silence before the storm: a rare quiet corner by Imam Ali’s shrine

There is more pushing and shoving at the women’s entrance to the shrine. The queue is anything but orderly. I cannot help but think of the tragic crowd crush that killed 159 young people in Seoul less than a year ago. The masses make me uncomfortable, so I decide to sit this one out.


Fortunately, there is plenty to see outside. People are lounging on the ground, mostly women with young children. Sensible choice. Demanding enough to look after yourself in that crowd, let alone be responsible for children.

chatting, relaxing, eating, sleeping, playing…

I seem to be the only pale face around, and soon people come over – some to make sure my hair is properly covered, others just to chat. I meet pilgrims from Iran – and also from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, here for Arba’een.

Water stations provide a welcome drink along the way

Najaf souk: Nadir Shah Market

Before returning to Baghdad, we have a look through Najaf’s lively souk.

There are women’s and men’s security entrances to the souk, as well.

There is street food, cakes, delicious fruit juices, jewellery, perfume and clothes for sale – and people to watch.

The abaya

Did I ever find peace with wearing an abaya?

Apparently, my hair refuses to abide by restrictions.

Hate is a term I rarely use. Oh, there are things that irritate me, make me uncomfortable or sad or angry. But there is very little I hate in this world. And I’m not going to use that word here either. I will say, though, that I dislike – fiercely dislike even – conforming to rules set by others when those rules are unreasonable. And being forced to wear an abaya (or worse), is to my mind wildly unreasonable – and unfair.

As for being invisible, well, there are possibly times when being invisible could be advantageous. But on the whole – and I suppose I learnt this about myself in Karbala – I strongly dislike being invisible.

Will I do it again? Will I visit other religious sites that require invisibility, or conforming to arbitrary rules, despite the strong aversion?

Without a doubt, yes. I will take the temporary discomfort. Curiosity will always win.

All photos by Melissa G. Mitruen, Ellen Sjølie, David Røgler, Lina Røgler, and myself.


3 Days in Iraq part I: Baghdad

3 Days in Iraq part II: Exploring Babylon