Pilgrims flood Iraq's Karbala for Arbaeen despite coronavirus fears
Tens of thousands of worshippers have been flooding into Iraq's holy city of Karbala despite the coronavirus pandemic for the Shia Muslim pilgrimage of Arbaeen, one of the world's biggest religious gatherings.
Arbaeen marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for the seventh century killing of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, by followers of Caliph Yazid, and falls on Thursday.
His killing, a seminal moment in Islam's Sunni-Shia schism, was mourned this year at the end of August during Ashura ceremonies in Shia-majority Iraq and other countries with Shia communities. But unlike previous years, Iraq had closed its borders to non-residents, allowing only residents to take part in Ashura.
Iraq's borders opened for Arbaeen, but with restrictions on Arbaeen arrivals, in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The virus has hit Iraq hard, with more than 375,000 people infected and almost 9,500 deaths.
In 2019, an estimated 14 million Shia pilgrims flooded Iraq to attend Arbaeen, including about two million from neighbouring Iran.
Arbaeen, the world′s largest pilgrimage
Every year, large numbers of Iranian Shias travel to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq to take part in Arbaeen, the ceremony which marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Shia imam and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Changiz M. Varzi charted their journey
For Shia Muslims, Hussein is a symbol of rebellion against oppression. They believe he gave his life to keep true Islam alive
Iranian pilgrims on the outskirts of Mehran head towards the border with Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the number of Iranians making the pilgrimage to the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala to participate in Arbaeen has been steadily increasing
Every year a number of Iranian Shias are caught trying to cross the Iraqi border illegally to participate in Arbaeen. Two young pilgrims prevented from crossing the border at Mehran, owing to a lack of passports, decided to remain there for the duration of the pilgrimage and polish the shoes of other pilgrims free of charge
At Al-Kut, 160 kilometres south-east of Baghdad, Iraqis prepare free food for the Iranian pilgrims heading to Najaf, the Shia world′s spiritual capital and home to the shrine of Imam Ali
Shia pilgrims from around the world overnight in a roofed outdoor area separating the bazaar in Najaf from the shrine of Imam Ali
A group of Iranians walk the 80 kilometres between Najaf and Karbala to mourn at the shrine of Hussein Ibn Ali on the last day of Arbaeen. In 680 AD, Hussein Ibn Ali was killed in a battle against the caliph of the day. Shia Muslims believe that Hussein was the person who should have been chosen as caliph
On the road between Najaf and Karbala, Iraqi Shia set up thousands of special shelters, called moukeb, to feed pilgrims and provide them with a place to rest and stay over night
Practically every 500 metres, there is an Iraqi family serving Middle Eastern dishes, sweet tea, Arabic coffee and Iraqi dates to pilgrims
As well as food and drink, thousands of banners with religious message are erected along the pilgrims′ route to Karbala. This banner tells the story of Muslim Ibn Aqil, whose sons were killed during the battle of Karbala
Iranian and Iraqi officials also erect banners with political messages. The Arabic sentence on the banner reads ″the Yemeni Karbala″
An estimated 17 million pilgrims from across the world flock to the city of Karbala. During the last days of ceremony, which this year fell in the second week of November, all the streets in Karbala were closed to vehicles
As the black-clad Shia pilgrims enter the city, they face the shrine of Hussein Ibn Ali and recite the specific Arbaeen dua (supplication)
Arbaeen is known as the biggest annual gathering of Shia Muslims worldwide. Since 2014, this commemoration of Ibn Ali′s martyrdom has become a strong symbol of the fight against the extremists of Islamic State
This year, however, only 1,500 pilgrims per country are being allowed to fly into Iraq, while Iran has been authorised to send an additional 2,500 overland.
"Every day, between six and 10 planes land and more are coming in the days ahead," said Issa al-Shemmari, airport director in Najaf, another holy city south of Karbala.
In keeping with tradition, Iraqis have been walking to Karbala for Arbaeen from all over the country.
On roads to the city, "mawakib" tents have been erected to provide pilgrims with free food, drink and accommodation.
"We ate along the way and were able to disinfect ourselves," pilgrim Ali Hadi told journalists, on arrival in Karbala from the southern city of Basra.
Only few of the pilgrims around him wore mouth and nose coverings despite constant appeals from authorities and social distancing was being widely ignored.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia on Sunday, mask-clad Muslims circled Islam's holiest site in Mecca along socially distanced paths, as authorities partially resumed the year-round umrah pilgrimage with extensive health precautions. (AFP)