I was recollecting with one of my colleague our visit to the ancient city of Babylon and the holy city of Karbala almost a year ago. That discussion encouraged me to write on our visit to Karbala also. We left Baghdad early as we decided to visit Karbala first, that day being a Friday. Karbala is situated at around 100 kilometers from Baghdad.

THE SIGNIFICANCE

Karbala is an ancient city, it was known since the Babylonian age. It was used as a Christian graveyard prior to the Islamic conquest, some say the date of the city comes from the cities of (Tassoh al-Nahrain) which lies on the river of Balakubass (Old Euphrates), and on its land there was an ancient temple.

The city, best known as the location of the Battle of Karbala, or the Mosques of Imam Hussain and Abbas, is considered a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims in the same way as Mecca and Medina.

THE ETYMOLOGY

The word Karbala’s origin is thought of as a two syllable Assyrian word, the first syllable is (Karb) meaning (sanctuary) and (ala) meaning (God), the two syllables form the word (God’s sanctuary), other historians believe the origin may be Persian formed from the word Karr meaning work and bala meaning higher, is one of the city’s names, perhaps the name (Karbala) is derived from the Arabic word (Kurba) meaning soft earth for Karbala has plain lands which made it easy for different kinds of planting, the word (Karbal) also means a kind of fruit, probably it was named after it.

THE BATTLE OF KARBALA

The Battle of Karbala was fought in the month of October, 680 CE between the army of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I and a small army led by Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, at Karbala. The Battle ensued on October 10 during which Hussain was killed along with most of his relatives and companions, while his surviving family members were taken prisoner.

The Battle is particularly central to Shia Muslim belief. The battle is commemorated during an annual ten-day period during the Islamic month of Muharram by Shia Muslims, culminating on tenth day of the month, known as the Day of Ashura. On this day, Shia Muslims mourn, hold public processions, organize religious gathering, beat their chests and in some cases self-flagellate.

THE SACRED AREA

To commemorate the battle a beautiful shrine was built with a large gold dome and three minarets. The shrine is particularly important for Shi’a on the Day of Ashura, when the Shi’a honour Hussein’s sacrifice and many Shi’a pilgrims travel to Karbala. Architecturally, the mosque is typical of the Iraq and Iran region; it has large iwan arches decorating an encircling wall, forming a large courtyard below a gold dome decorated with blue and green tiles.

We reached the holy city of Karbala and parked our car at the parking place. As we walked towards the shrines, we could see the golden domes. After security checking, we walked inside the shrine area. It’s the place where it is believed Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was beheaded.

The area on which the mosque complex is built is thought to be the site of the Battle of Karbala, in which not only Hussein, but 72 followers and members of his family, including his infant son, were slaughtered.

Shrine of Imam Hussein, Karbala
Shrine of Imam Hussein, Karbala

The tomb of Imam Hussein is in the centre of the mosque. Inside the mosque covered by mosaics, the pilgrims were rushing to touch the silver edge of the casing covering the tomb, kissing the marble, praying, and some were shedding tears.

For Shias, the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas represent the greatest tribute to martyrdom. Across from the Imam Hussain shrine stands the great mausoleum of his half-brother Abbas.

Shrine of Abbas Alamdar, Karbala
Shrine of Abbas ibn Ali, Karbala

Shia Muslims consider pilgrimages to Hussain’s tomb to be a source of divine blessings and rewards. Tens of millions of Shi’ite Muslims visit the site twice a year, rivalling Mecca as a place of pilgrimage.

On the holy land of Karbala

After paying our obeissance at the shrines, we went for lunch at a restaurant in the market just outside the shrine area. After having our lunch, we went for our visit to the ancient city of Babylon in Hilla. Ziyarat Maqbool!

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