The holy sites of the city of Karbala in Iraq are closely tied to those of Najaf, geographically, religiously and historically. Located about halfway between Najaf and Baghdad in Iraq’s Shi’ite corridor, its two great mosques contain the tombs of Hussayn, the third Imam, and his brother Abbas. Because of its close proximity and relationship to the Masjid Imam Ali in Najaf, the two cities are often visited in a single pilgrimage by devout Shi’ites. Together they are among the most important Shi’ite shrines, though opinions differ on exactly which one is the more important site. Either way, the Masjid Imam Hussayn is one of the busiest Muslim shrines in the world, especially now that the visitor restrictions imposed during the regime of Saddam Hussein have been lifted.
The city of Karbala was only somewhat bigger than Najaf at the time it made its entry onto the world stage. After the assasination of Ali, the 4th Caliph, the Islamic world descended into chaos as the supporters of Ali, the Shi’ites, and the Ummayads began a bitter struggle for political and religious supremacy. Hussayn, the son of Ali, refused to accept the legitimacy of the Umayyad Caliph Muawiya, who seized the throne after Ali’s death. He established a rival hierarchy with himself as Imam, an act which resulted in a great schism in the Muslim world which has endured to the present day.
For the most part, the war was fought in Mesopotamia between the Umayyads based in Syria, and the Shiites based in Persia. After Muawiya’s death, Hussayn decided to press his claim against Muawiya’s son Yazid and led a force to challenge him. However, Yazid had a much larger army at his disposal, and Hussayn was outmatched. The Imam was caught and surrounded near the town of Karbala, where he and his men were massacred. While this put an end to any real chance the Shi’ites had at staking their claim to the Caliphate, it did not dim their spirit. The position of Imam was perpetuated in the safer territories to the east.
Nevertheless, after Hussayn and his brother were buried in Karbala, the town became a religious rallying point for the Shi’ites. A shrine was constructed to accommodate the visiting pilgrims, and the town soon became a thriving city and religious center. However, its proximity to the Abbasid capital at Baghdad made it a prime target for Sunni partisans, and both Karbala and its mosque were sacked on more than one occasion over the years. Like Najaf, Karbala spent many centuries under the control of several Sunni empires and rulers, making it difficult at times for Shi’ites to visit. This state of affairs continued on and off until Karbala’s liberation from the regime of Saddam Hussein during the second Gulf War.
Karbala has had a rocky existence over the last few decades. Even after the liberation of Iraq, or perhaps because of it, Karbala and its mosque have been beset with difficulties. While Shi’ites are once again permitted to make unrestricted pilgrimages to the Masjid Imam Hussayn, the secular violence that has flared up between Sunnis and Shi’ites has wracked the region. This is due in part to the fact that after the first Gulf War, Karbala was the site of brutal reprisals against the Shi’ites. Although things have quieted down significantly in the last few years, it is highly unlikely that Karbala has seen the last of its difficulties, and certainly not the last of its hordes of pilgrims.
The Masjid Imam Hussayn is Karbala’s primary religious institution and pilgrimage destination. First constructed in the 7th century AD, the original structure actually predates that of its counterpart in Najaf. It has been rebuilt and expanded numerous times, and most of the present structure dates back to the 11th century. While somewhat smaller than the Masjid Imam Ali, it is just as spectacularly decorated, with golden minarets and a gold-covered dome. Hussayn’s body lies in a sarcophogas inlaid and intricately decorated with brass, bronze and precious stones.
Karbala’s other great pilgrimage site, connected to the Masjid Imam Hussayn by a vast open plaza, is the nearby Masjid Abbas. Its beauty is surpassed by Hussayn’s shrine only in the precious materials used in the latter. In place of gold, the Masjid Abbas features a wealth of superb tilework, although there is also a generous use of gold amid the tiles and on the dome. Abbas’ mausoleum is just as impressive as his brother’s, and is decorated with precious metals and stones and guarded by a silver screen.
These two spectacular mosques are located in the city center of Karbala, approximately 50 miles south of Baghdad. Due the ongoing conflict in the region no further visitor information was available as of this writing. Presumably the mosque is open (at least in part) for visiting pilgrims, though it is likely heavily restricted to non-Shi’ites and completely off limits to non-Muslims. Web: www.tourism-iraq.com (official tourism website of Iraq).
Like Najaf, Karbala is home to many cemeteries full of hopeful corpses seeking early entry to Heaven. The oldest graveyards may actually be of Christian origin. There are also a number of Monuments to the Battle of Karbala near the two mosques, marking important sites associated with the massacre.