Islam has a prominent place in Iranian society. One of the most important festivals in Shia Islam is Āshura (عاشورا), which is on the 10th of the Islamic month of Moharram. On the 10th of October 680 AD (corresponding to the 10th of Moharram 61 AH) Hussein Ibn Ali, a grandson of Mohammed, was killed at the Battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq.
To commemorate this important date, events are held throughout Iran and in Shia communities worldwide – especially in Karbala. This post is about Āshura in Tajrish, Tehran.
هر روز عاشورا است و هر جا کربلا
Every day is Āshura and every land is KarbalaA well-known and popular Shia saying.
In the early part of the day, just outside the bazaar, a ta’zieh (similar to a Passion Play in Christianity) is being shown. The man dressed in green as a warrior takes on the role of naql, or narrator. He relates the story which every Shia knows – the murder of Hussein Ibn Ali. The man with the trumpet plays and punctuates the narration with sounds.
The bazaar at Tajrish, early
The centre of the bazaar is decorated especially for Āshura. The flags usually show selected verses from the Koran. Men tend more to wear black shirts on this day, although it is not compulsory. There are stalls set up all around offering tea and biscuits. Even on a day of mourning Iranians are hospitable. It is still early in the day and it is possible to walk through the bazaar without difficulty.
From several mosques located near Tajrish, processions form up and march to converge on Tajrish Square. The large decorated apparatus which is being carried is called an a’lam’at (علمت), which roughly translates as symbol or sign or emblem. The procession is called a’lam’at ke’shi (علمت کشی). I will use the word emblem from now on. These emblems are very heavy and only the strongest men can lift and carry it for a few steps, at which point somebody else takes over.
Si’neh Za’ni and Zan’jir Za’ni
Literal translations: si’neh za’ni – chest beating, zan’jir za’ni – chain beating.
Following the procession of the alamats, some processionists symbolically beat themselves over their shoulders with small chains. Others use a hand, usually the right, to rhythmically beat their chest. Meanwhile some men are lamenting on loudspeakers.
In the past, and perhaps today too in some communities, some of the zanjir zani participants would cut themselves from the beating of the chains. I think that is prohibited in Iran (and possibly in Islam generally). Certainly I have not seen any bleeding amongst these participants.
Arrival in Tajrish Square
Processions from other directions arrive in Tajrish Square. Just as inside the bazaar, stalls are set up on the sides offering tea and biscuits. It starts to get very crowded here.
There are a few points to note in the photographs: flags showing Hussein’s injured horse; flags with the words ‘ya ab’ol fazl’ meaning ‘father of virtue, a sobriquet for Hussein Ibn Ali; flags with the words ‘ya Hussein’ meaning ‘Oh Hussein’;the emblems, some showing Karbala today; an earth stain (possibly actual earth from Karbala) on the shoulder of a processionist.
The bazaar at Tajrish, later
When the processions arrive the bazaar fills up very quickly. Every passageway, and there are many, becomes crammed. The paraders are awaiting a clergyman to deliver a lesson. Getting in and out is not easy.
Events continue into the night, with smaller ceremonies everywhere. People set up small stalls by the side of roads offering tea. I went to a small Hosseiniyeh in Velenjak which I will write about another time.