Muharram: A Holy Time in Iran

As we celebrate the arrival of the New Year, I’m reminded of our time in Iran in 2008, when we had the great fortune to experience Muharram – the first month of the Islamic calendar and a very holy time in Iran.

By coincidence, this year the month of Muharram is happening around the same time as our Christmas and New Year, so while you ring in 2010, here is a glimpse of events in Iran.

January, 2008. South of Shiraz, Iran.

It had been a cold but beautiful day of riding, under clear blue and sunny skies as we set out from the city of Shiraz.

A strong tailwind blew us down the flat, straight road, towards the snow sparkling from the tops of distant mountains. It was the first time these peaks had seen snow in 50 years and we were heading straight towards them. Along the way, we passed fruit sellers waved to us from behind mounds of juicy oranges, mosques shouted out the call to prayer and a troop of kids followed us up a mountain pass on their motorbikes, giggling with excitement at the funny site of seeing two foreigners on a bicycle. Before long, the sun was making its early winter exit below the horizon and we were hunting for a place to camp.  As the population thinned out, far off in the distance we spotted a place for our tent. It was removed from the road and the walls of what looked like an ancient fort sheltered us from view. With no villages around, let alone towns, we were sure it would be a quiet night.

Andrew and our tent, no one around for miles

And then, as darkness fell, we heard the strong beat of drums and the chanting of what sounded like dozens of people off in the distance. First from the west, then from the other side. A few moments later and a third set of voices and instruments chimed in. Were we being invaded by an army? We poked our heads out of the tent. Nothing. Just a bright moon and an empty landscape. We didn’t yet know but this was the night before Ashura – the 10th day of a mourning ceremony when Shite Muslims remember the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kerbala. Actually, we had our clue a few days earlier that something was going on when we saw these giant drums in Shiraz a few days earlier but at that time we didn’t understand their significance.

Will it get up the stairs?

The next day, as we cycled further south in Iran, we came into a town expecting to stock up on supplies. We had nothing, not even a little bread or pasta left in our bags. This is when we found out what a holy day this was. Nothing was open! Even on a Friday in Iran you can normally find a few people selling fresh fruit and vegetables. But, like everywhere in this hospitable country, soon we were surrounded by helpful locals. One emerged from the crowd to speak with us. “Come with me and we will go for an Ashura lunch,” he offered. “The food is free, for the whole community.” This feast of chicken and rice was our first real introduction to Muharram.

A family in Firuz Abad who fed us lunch

After the 10th day, things seemed to return to normal in Iran and we promptly forgot all about Ashura until we reached Qom, the holiest of Iran’s cities, some weeks later. Here, we once again found ourselves in the midst of a ceremony for Imam Hussein. The day was called Arbaeen and marked the 40th day after Imam Hussein’s death, the typical period of mourning for many Muslims. This time, there was a parade through the town centre, where devout Muslims showed their sadness by crying and beating themselves with chains. It was intense and at first we worried that perhaps as tourists we should not be there. We didn’t need to worry. We were welcomed into the crowd to share in the experience.

The chains fly high in the airThis man's back is visibly bruised

Sometimes the ceremony seemed more like a festival than a bereavement, with so many colourful floats and displays as it made its way towards Qom’s holy shrine. There were flags, men on horseback and many green and black flags – traditional colours of Islam.

This looked like a dragon to us, twirling through the crowd

Arbaeen ceremony leaving the holy shrine

This man represents Hoseyn and his baby

A baby at the Arbaeen ceremony

This parade lasted for a few hours and we thought we’d seen the last of these ceremonies but the next day we arrived in the central desert city of Yazd, where we were almost immediately whisked away by yet another friendly Iranian to see the most impressive commemoration of all in the nearby town of Taft. There in a square we saw a 12-meter nakhl – a structure that represents the coffin of Imam Hussein.

A young boy watching the ceremony

Decorated in rich fabrics and scenes from the death of Imam Hussein, the nakhl was impressive enough on its own but the mourning ceremony that followed was even more memorable. Hundreds of men gathered round the nakhl, praying and beating themselves for several minutes, before picking the entire nakhl up and running with it around the square.

And spend several minutes chanting and beating themselves

They stirred up a lot of dust doing this

The only way to truly appreciate this, is by watching it in action…

After seeing these 3 ceremonies, we have to say that being in Iran during Moharram is a very special experience. If you are lucky enough to be there during this time, do try to visit any big city to see the processions. You will be welcomed by the locals and you will leave with a deeper understanding of one of Islam’s holiest commemorations.