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Aerial view of Holy Karbala, with the Shrines of Imam Hussain and Hazrat Abbas in the background in December, 2013.
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Aerial view of Holy Karbala, with the Shrines of Imam Hussain and Hazrat Abbas in the background in December, 2013.
Karbala (Arabic: كربلاء; Karbalā’; also referred to as Karbalā' al-Muqaddasah) is a city in Iraq, located about 100 km (62 mi) southwest of Baghdad. Karbala is the capital of Karbala Governorate, and has an estimated population of 572,300 people (2003).
The city, best known as the location of the Battle of Karbala (680), is amongst the holiest cities for Shia Muslims after Mecca and Medina and the noble sanctuary in Jerusalem. It is home to the Imam Hussein Shrine. Karbala is famous as the site of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali (Imam Hussein), and commemorations are held by millions of Shias annually to remember it. Karbala is considered sacred by Shias.
Several theories address the origin of the name Karbala. The geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi expressed the traditional hypothesis: that the name is an alternate Arabic feminine version of karbalah "soft earth". Another theory suggests that the name came from the Aramaic root Karb or Qarb; meaning "Near", and Alah; meaning God. Hence, the word 'Karbala' signifies 'Near God'. Alternatively, it has been said to be derived from the Aramaic word Kora, meaning place for making bricks, for the nearby ancient city of Babil, hence Karbabil, which became Karbala by contraction.
The city is one of Iraq's wealthiest, profiting both from religious visitors and agricultural produce, especially dates. It is made up of two districts, "Old Karbala," the religious centre, and "New Karbala," the residential district containing Islamic schools and government buildings.
At the centre of the old city is the Masjid al-Hussein, the tomb of Al-Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad by his daughter Fatimah and `Ali. Hussein's tomb is a place of pilgrimage for many Shia Muslims, especially on the anniversary of the battle, the Day of Ashura. Many elderly pilgrims travel there to await death, as they believe the tomb to be one of the gates to paradise. Another focal point of the Shia pilgrimage to Karbala is al-Makhayam, traditionally believed to be the location of Hussein's camp, where the death of Hussein and his followers is publicly commemorated. Many pious Shia ask to be buried in and around Karbala' and a good portion of Karbala's economy is wrapped up in the funeral business.
The city's association with Shia Islam have made it a centre of religious place as well as worship; it has more than 100 mosques and 23 religious schools, of which possibly the most famous is that of Ibn Fahid, constructed some 440 years ago.
The city sprang up around the two shrines of Hussein ibn Ali and his brother Al-Abbas, and as such the layout of the city is centered around the shrines. In 1994, Saddam Hussein destroyed the houses between the shrines in order to create a huge concrete highway between the two.
Karbala experiences a hot desert climate (Köppen climate classification: BWh) with extremely hot, dry summers and cool winters. Almost all of the yearly precipitation is received between November and April, though no month is truly wet.
|Climate data for Karbala|
|Average high °C (°F)||15.7|
|Average low °C (°F)||5.4|
|Precipitation mm (inches)||17.6|
|Avg. precipitation days||7||5||6||5||3||0||0||0||0||4||5||7||42|
|Source: World Meteorological Organisation (UN) |
Karbala's prominence in Shia traditions is the result of the Battle of Karbala, fought on the site of the modern city on MAY 31, 680 AD (10 Muharram 61 AH). Both Imam Hussein ibn Ali and his brother Abbas ibn Ali were buried by the local Banī Asad tribe at what later became known as the Mashhad Al-Hussein. The battle itself occurred as a result of Hussein's refusal to accept the Umayyad Yazid ibn Mu'awiya as caliph. The Kufan governor, Ubaydallah ibn Ziyad, sent thousands of horsemen against Imam Hussein as he traveled to Kufa. The horsemen, under 'Umar ibn Sa'd, were ordered to deny Imam Hussein and his followers water in order to force Imam Hussein to agree to give an oath of allegiance. On 9 Muharram, Imam Hussein refused and asked to be given the night to pray. On 10 Muharram, Imam Hussein ibn Ali prayed the morning prayer and led his troops into battle along with his brother Al-Abbas. All of Hussein's followers, including all of his present sons Ali al-Akbar, Ali al-Asghar (a few months old) and his nephews Qassim, Aun and Muhammad were martyred.
In 63 AH (682 AD), Yazid ibn Mu'awiya released the surviving members of Imam Hussein's family from prison. On their way to the Mecca, they stopped at the site of the battle. There is record of Sulayman ibn Surad going on pilgrimage to the site as early as 65 AH (685 AD). The city began as a tomb and shrine to Hussein and grew as a city in order to meet the needs of pilgrims.
The city and tombs were greatly expanded by successive Muslim rulers, but suffered repeated destruction from attacking armies. The original shrine was destroyed by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil in 850 but was rebuilt in its present form around 979, only to be partly destroyed by fire in 1086 and rebuilt yet again.
Like Najaf, the city suffered from severe water shortages that were only resolved in the early 18th century by building a dam at the head of the Husseiniyya Canal. In 1737, the city replaced Isfahan in Iran as the main centre of Shia scholarship. In the mid-eighteenth century it was dominated by the dean of scholarship, Yusuf Al Bahrani, a key proponent of the Akhbari tradition of Shia thought, until his death in 1772, after which the more state-centric Usuli school became more influential. It suffered severe damage in 1802 when an invading Wahhabi army sacked the city.
After the Wahhabi invasion, the city enjoyed semi-autonomy during Ottoman rule, governed by a group of gangs and mafia variously allied with members of the 'ulama. In order to reassert their authority, the Ottoman army laid siege to the city. On January 13, 1843 Ottoman troops entered the city. Many of the city leaders fled leaving defense of the city largely to tradespeople. About 3,000 Arabs were killed in the city, and another 2,000 outside the walls (this represented about 15% of the city's normal population). The Turks lost 400 men. This prompted many students and scholars to move to Najaf, which became the main Shia religious centre. Between 1850 and 1903, Karbala enjoyed a generous influx of money through the Awadh Bequest. The Shia ruled Indian Province of Awadh, known by the British as Oudh, had always sent money and pilgrims to the holy city. The Oudh money, 10 million rupees, originated in 1825 from the Awadh Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haider. One third was to go to his wives, and the other two thirds went to holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. When his wives died in 1850, the money piled up with interest in the hands of the British East India Company. The EIC sent the money to Karbala and Najaf per the wives' wishes, in the hopes of influencing the Ulama in Britain's favor. This effort to curry favor is generally considered to have been a failure.
Karbala's development was strongly influenced by the Persians, who were the dominant community for many years (making up 75%of the city's population by the early 20th century). The Kammouna family were custodians of the shrines for many years and effectively ran the city until it fell under the control of the British Empire in 1915.
The association of the city with Shia religious traditions led to it being treated with suspicion by Iraq's Sunni rulers. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Shia religious observances in the city were greatly restricted and many non-Iraqi Shia were not permitted to travel there at all.
In March 1991, the city was badly damaged and many killed when a rebellion by local Shia was put down with great brutality by Saddam's regime. The shrines and surrounding Shia houses, cemeteries, and hospitals became riddled with machine gun fire and military shelling. By April 1991, Saddam Hussein began an intense demolition project around the shrines in order to create a concrete perimeter. This "sanitary zone" created a wide open space in between and around the shrines. The shrines were rebuilt by 1994. After the United States Military Forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the administration allowed for foreign Shia pilgrims to an unrestricted Ashura pilgrimage in decades. Tens of thousands of Shia Muslims from other countries rushed to US embassies to get visit visas to attend Ashura in Karbala. The 2004 pilgrimage was the largest for decades, with over a million people attending from all over the world but mainly Iraqis. It was marred by bomb attacks on March 2, 2004, now known as the Ashoura massacre, which killed and wounded hundreds despite tight security in the city.
A big Shia festival passed off peacefully amid fears of possible violence that brought thousands of troops and police into the city. Hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims who had come together to celebrate the Shaabaniya ritual began leaving the southern city after September 9, 2006 climax ended days of chanting, praying and feasting. Heavy presence by police and Iraqi troops seemed to have kept out suicide bombers who have disrupted previous rituals.
On April 14, 2007, a car bomb exploded about 600 ft (180 m) from the shrine, killing 47 and wounding over 150.
On January 19, 2008, 2 million Iraqi Shia pilgrims marched through Karbala city, Iraq to commemorate Ashura. 20,000 Iraqi troops and police guarded the event amid tensions due to clashes between Iraqi troops and Shia Muslims which left 263 people dead (in Basra and Nasiriya).
Shias believe that Karbala is one of the holiest places on Earth according to the following traditions (among others):
Karbalā, where your grandson and his family will be martyred, is one of the most blessed and the most sacred lands on Earth and it is one of the valleys of Paradise.
God chose the land of Karbalā as a safe and blessed sanctuary twenty-four thousand years before He created the land of the Ka‘bah and chose it as a sanctuary. Verily it (Karbalā) will shine among the gardens of Paradise like a shining star shines among the stars for the people of Earth.
Karbalaa FC is a football club based in Karbala.
There are many references in books in films to "Karbala", generally referring to Hussein(a.s) ibn Ali's(a.s) death at the Battle of Karbala. Hussein(a.s) is often depicted on a white horse impaled by arrows. Films about the events of Karbala exist in both animated and realistic form (see external links "Karbala: When the Skies Wept Blood"; "Safar-e-Karbala").
Video footage of the actual city exists in a British documentary entitled "Saddam's Killing Fields." The documentary shows the March 1991 destruction of the city by Saddam's army through the video camera of two brothers who lived in the city.
There is a university called Ahlulbait University College in the city, teaching a variety of subjects.
In the Indian subcontinent Karbala apart from meaning the city of Karbala (which is usually referred to as Karbala-e-Mualla meaning Karbala the exalted), also means local grounds where commemorative processions end and/or ta'zīya are buried during Ashoora or Arbaeen, usually such grounds will have shabeeh (copy) of Rauza or some other structures.
In South Asia where ta'zīya refer to specifically to the miniature mausoleums used in processions held in Muharram. It all started from the fact that the great distance of India from Karbala prevented Indian Shi'is being buried near the tomb of Imam Husayn or making frequent pilgrimages(ziyarat) to the tomb. This is the reason why Indian Shi'is established local karbalas on the subcontinent by bringing soil from Karbala and sprinkling it on lots designated as future cemeteries. Once the karbalas were established on the subcontinent, the next step was to bring Husayn's tomb-shrine to India. This was established by building replicas of Husayn's mausoleum called ta'zīya to be carried in Muharram processions. Thousands of ta'zīyas in various shapes and sizes are fashioned every year for the months of mourning of Muharram and Safar; and are carried in processions and may be buried at the end of Ashura or Arbain.
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