Millions of black-clad Shia pilgrims are converging on the holy city of Kerbala for the Arbaeen religious commemoration, the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 50 miles, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity.
Arbaeen, meaning forty in Arabic, marks the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the seventh-century.
Imam Hussein, the third Shia Imam, was the son of Ali and the grandson of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
Arbaeen is the living symbol of the rise of the Iraqi Shia, a highly significant development in the Middle East, but it has happened only recently. Karim, 48, a tribal leader from Najaf, who also provides free food for the pilgrims, recalls that when he first took part in an illegal Arbaeen walk under Saddam Hussein, “we had to take a roundabout route by the river [Euphrates] and try to keep hidden because, if we were caught, we would put in prison or executed”.
Shia cities, towns and villages all over Iraq empty out during a 20-day period as their people take to the roads in an elaborately organised and well protected mass movement not seen anywhere else in the world.
This year there are more red, white and black Iraqi national flags evident than before, indicating a shift towards greater identification with the Iraqi state by the Shia, traditionally marginalised by the Sunni since Ottoman times and before. When the Shia-dominated government took power in Iraq in 2005 it was the first time the Shia had held power in any country in the Arab world since the Fatimids in Egypt were overthrown by Saladin in the 12th century. It is only now that they have started to look comfortable in their new role.
All religions have their martyrs, but for the Iraqi Shia they come from the present as well as the distant past. Lamp posts fifty yards apart along the 45-mile Najaf-Kerbala road each have a different picture of a soldier or civilian killed by Isis or al-Qaeda. The same is true of other routes to the holy city.
The mood of the pilgrimage is one of intense piety and communal solidarity, though Shia clerics keep emphasising that the pilgrimage is dedicated to peace. Asked if the Iraqi security forces’ victory over Isis had an effect on the gathering, Shia clerics said there has been an improvement in morale and self-confidence. “Who does not want more security?”
Sayyid Alaa al-Moussawi, a senior Shia cleric who is head of the Office of the Shia Endowment, says that Iraq seems to be entering a period “of greater harmony with its neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran”. Iraqis see this as crucial because it is the combination of domestic insurgency with financial and military support from foreign states that has kept Iraq in a permanent state of war and emergency.
Pilgrims from all over the world head for Najaf, Iranians being much the most numerous, but they also come from Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and places where the Shia community must be tiny. Many of the pilgrims are teenagers or in their twenties. Asked what the pilgrimage meant to him, one 19-year-old visitor from London said: “It means my whole life to me. It means one small step towards heaven.”