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Death Caravans!

The wealth that has flowed from Iran to Karbala and Najaf over the centuries, a land that has had nothing but the dead, infertile soil and salt, and with this "nothing" has established a fabulous business that still continues.

One of the consumer goods that can be found in the house of every Iranian Shiite believer is the prayer stone (“mohr”). This consumer product is offered in the market in different shapes, quality and prices. Apart from the appearance and weight of this product, what plays an important role in its price is its ingredients. Mohr in the market is generally made of a combination of water and soil and has a variable price depending on the source of water and soil used in its construction. The soil of the areas where the Shiites believe their Imams are buried is very popular and this soil is called “Torbat”. The price of mohr is directly related to the torbat used in its construction and the imam in which the torbat is thought to be buried. Not every “torbat” is the same. The degree of sanctity and – because of this sanctity – the quality, financial value and quality superiority of each tomb is related to the position of the person who is buried nearby. In this regard, Allameh Amini says:

“Some places are superior to others, so there are effects and blessings on it; For this reason, the Kaaba and the shrine have taken on a special ruling. Among the lands that are superior to other relics and have special effects and blessings is the place that houses the honorable body of Syed al-Shohada (Supreme Martyr, Imam Hossein) (pbuh).”

Browsing the market puts the belief of “the superiority of some places over others” in the form of numbers and prices before our eyes:

A mohr made with the soil of Karbala, the area where Hossein is believed to have been buried, has the highest price and is considered a top brand. Ali or Najaf brand and Reza with Mashhad Torbat are next. In recent years, new, simple and nameless mohrs made in communist China have been added to the brands of Imams, which are sold to Iranian worshipers at the lowest price. How far is considered “Torbat”? The question arises, what specific geographical area does the ​​sanctity cover? Does the soil located one meter from the grave attributed to Imam Hossein have the same “special superiority and effects and blessings” as the soil located 50 kilometers away? Sheikh Tusi equates the distance between the soil and the burial place and the “rank of virtue” of the soil: that is, the closer the soil is to the body buried in it, the greater its virtue and value, and it is considered torbat up to five parsang (15-17.5 miles) away from the tomb. So, the Shiite preachers quote a sentence from the sixth Imam, great-great-grandson of Hossein: “Near the blessed head of Imam Hossein (pbuh), there is red soil in which any pain could be healed but death.”

Last year, the official website of Astan Quds Hosseini (institution responsible for Hossein’s shrine) published an exclusive interview with the head of one of the mohr-making workshops affiliated with that Astan in Karbala. In this report, the head of the workshop gave an interesting explanation about the production of mohrs. According to him, this workshop produces more than 5,000 mohrs daily. “The torbat from which these mohrs are made is extracted from a depth of five meters in the ground inside the holy shrine of Hossein” and the produced mohrs are divided into three categories: the first category for use inside the shrine, the second category for medical use,  made for healing of patients, and part of the production is intended for promotional gifts. Regarding the medical use and healing of the soil, the website, in the same report, quotes a religious scholar named “Sheikh Bassem Al-Helli”: “According to narrations, Karbala torbat has had a special position (compared to other soils) since the time of Adam (pbuh). The consensus of the scholars emphasizes the prohibition of eating soil, except for the tomb of Imam Hossein (pbuh). The reason for this is the number of narrations that have been quoted from the Imams (pbuh) in this regard. These narrations emphasize eating particles from the holy shrine of Imam Hossein (pbuh) for healing.

Considering the average 100 grams of pure sifted torbat for each prayer mohr, only this one workshop should harvest 200 tons of soil per year from a depth of 5 meters “inside the holy shrine of Hossein”. Given that this industry is several hundred years old and many residents of the city of Karbala are engaged in the trade of soil and mohrs, the holy shrine and the torbat area must look like one of the craters of the moon today.

Apart from turning the useless and low quality soil of deserts of Karbala and Najaf, where no plants are grown, into a valuable and lucrative commodity, selling and exporting it as a medical and food medicine to Shiite cities and countries, Shiite scholars go one step further. They have sold the soil of these areas to their followers as a “guarantee paradise”. Dailami, in Irshad al-Qulub, says: “According to many narrations (hadiths) received from the Ahl al-Bayt (as) (Shia Imams), one of the characteristics of the Najaf torbat is that whoever is buried in that tomb, the torment of the grave and the questioning or ‘Nakir&Monker’* will be removed from him.” Allameh Amini, quoted at the beginning of this article, also talks about the blessings of the soil of Karbala and its superiority over other soils only because it is claimed that the body of an Imam, Hossein, was buried somewhere nearby: “The tomb where Imam Ali (pbuh) before the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (pbuh) took a handful of soil, inhaled it and cried so much that the earth was wet from the tears of his highness.”

Then he said: “Seventy thousand people will be gathered from this land and will enter Paradise without reckoning.”

In the 18th century, exactly in December 1765, the German mathematician, cartographer and researcher, Carsten Niebuhr, who had traveled east on a mission from the Danish royals, arrived in Basra on his way back to Copenhagen after India and Iran. Niebuhr traveled from Basra to Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Mosul, and other cities and areas within present-day Iraq. In Karbala, he describes the difference between the rituals of prayer between Shiites and Sunnis:

“[The Shiites], in order to make their prayers more powerful and intense, place pieces of clay from where Hussein is allegedly killed, on the ground at the point where they place their foreheads when they fall to the ground. Because their worship is supposed to look as if they are praying on the land of their great Imam. After the prayer, they take a rosary beads, which is also made of the same soil, and repeat the words with it until their prayers are over. Finally, they comb their beards. The clay mohr and rosaries mentioned which are corroded quickly due to repeated use, always have buyers and are produced in a workshop in “Mashhad Hossein” that has been run by a family for many years, a family that considers itself from “Mohammad lineage”, and believes in the Shiite sect. In return for such a concession, the family must pay a large tax to the Pasha in Baghdad every year. The produced mohrs are sold in a small booth inside the shrine. I commissioned my servant mullah to buy me a package of these mohrs. He brought me some of them in different sizes and shapes, from which I drew these:

The result of Niebuhr’s travels were valuable reports and maps of the geography, history, culture and traditions of the people of Shiite cities and centers. Carsten Niebuhr’s travelogue translated into Persian; But only the part that relates to the cities and regions of present-day Iran, with a lot of censorship and audits. Even though Niebuhr’s maps and reports become one of the oldest and most accurate historical documents related to the Shiite world. Regarding the sanctity of the graves and the dream business of Najaf and Karbala people, which is selling one of the worst and least valuable soils in the world, Carsten Niebuhr reports when he arrives in Najaf:

The city of “Mashhad Ali” takes its name from a magnificent mosque built in honor of Ali, the fourth caliph of the Muslims, and is visited by Shiites from all over, as well as followers of other Muhammadi sects from Mecca and other Muslim cities. Shiites try to visit this holy city even after their death! As the bodies of the dead are brought here not only from Al-Hillah, Baghdad, Lamlum and other neighboring cities, but also from the land of Persia; Even from India. In Zubair and old Basra, I heard that a dead, who had been lying in the ground for a year, had been exhumed to be brought to this city to be buried. This is a significant source of income for the city. On the way from Diwaniyah to Mashhad Ali, I saw with my own eyes 4 dead and from Al-Hillah 5 dead who were being taken to Najaf for burial. In response to the question of whether it is possible to count on 7 corpses brought here from other places on a daily basis, I was told 7 is nothing. With this account, more than 2,000 bodies are brought here annually from foreign cities and countries. Whoever pays a large sum of money will receive a grave near his Imam’s Mosque. The one who spends moderately can be buried inside the city fence, and the one who does not want to spend more than 4 to 8 coins will be given somewhere outside the city. I do not think they will bury the dead inside the mosque. At least in other Mohammadi mosques, no graves can be seen except the grave of the founder of the mosque or in some cases his wives and children. In general, Mohammadis do not like their cemeteries to be inside the city wall

Numerous Sunni scholars assured me that no one knew with certainty where Ali, the son-in-law of their Prophet, was buried; And it is not at all unlikely that his relatives tried to hide his burial place from his enemies. Shiites, however, show his grave here in this mosque. Ali is said to have ordered that his body be placed on the back of a camel after his death and buried in a place where the animal would stop after being driven out of Kufa. It is a strange command from a gifted man, as Ali’s character is usually described. However, in any case, this grave caused a city to be built around it. The city is located in arid and grassless areas such as Suez and Jeddah. There is no water in it at all. The water needed for washing and cooking is transported here through an underground canal, and drinking water is brought in with a donkey after a few hours of walking. On one side of the city, the soil is so calcareous that it is enough to bake it with the bread of cattle to get a good mortar for construction. Because lime is abundant here and wood is very expensive and rare, all the houses in the city are made of baked clay and lime, and their roofs are dome-shaped and therefore very durable. On the other side of town is a low-lying desert covered with salt. The Arabs call it the Sea or the Albahr Nadjaf (Sea of Najaf), and they swear that this is the ‘Albahr Saweh,’ (Sea of Saveh) the one that they say when Mohammad was born, it dried up!”

In Niebuhr’s travelogue, every reader can easily understand that religious myths and legends have all been passed down and transferred from here to there and attributed to different places and people on different occasions on needed basis, among the merchants of religion. As in this short section, we came across some very familiar examples: the legend of choosing a suitable place by camels and also the legend of Saveh Sea.

Another thing that any reader, especially an Iranian, will realize is the wealth that has flowed from Iran to Karbala and Najaf over the centuries, a land that has had nothing but the dead, infertile soil and salt, and with this “nothing” has established a fabulous business that still continues. Niebuhr speaks of Shiite corpse carriers which cost a fortune to bury in one of the region’s least valuable soils. An accurate and vivid picture of the carnage of the Iranian Shiites and the plundering of their wealth by Arab bandits on their way to Karbala and Najaf, or by the custodians of the cemeteries of these places, has found a clear and unique reflection in 19th century literature: “Death Caravans” by Karl May which unfortunately, there is no Persian translation of it, like Niebuhr’s travelogue, and therefore on the occasion of Arbaeen and the wealth that is abducted from Iran by the caravans of pilgrims on this occasion, we read part of it:

“Pleasure? This pleasure was certainly very dubious! Shiites believe that the body of a Muslim who is buried in Karbala or Najaf will go to heaven straight away without any obstacles. For this reason, it is the greatest wish of every Shiite of the Twelve Imams to be buried in one of these two places. Because transporting corpses in caravans is very expensive, this is only possible for the rich. The poor man, however, if he wants to be buried in such a holy place, says goodbye to all his relatives and goes to the grave of Ali or Hossein passing through the mountains, plains and cities with begging and charity, and waits there until he dies.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites visit these places every year, but as the tenth day of Muharram, the day of Hossein’s death, approaches, the wave of emigration intensifies. Then the caravans of the bodies of the Shiites of Persia, Afghanistan, Baluch, India, etc. flow from the plateau of Iran; They carry the corpses on all sides and even bring them by boat across the Euphrates. Corpses are often ready to travel months before departure; The caravan has a long way to go and it goes slowly; In the southern desert, fire is falling from the sky on the caravan route due to the intense heat, but this road is ahead and must be walked. And because of this, one can easily imagine the stench and disgusting smell that such a caravan makes. The dead are buried in light coffins that are shattered by heat, or covered with felts that rotted carcasses have torn them; And so it is no wonder that the ghost of the plague appears behind the weak legs of these death caravans. Anyone who encounters them withdraws from them at a great distance. Only hyenas and Bedouins secretly chase them. The hyenas are attracted by the stench of the carcasses, and the Bedouins are taken by the treasure that the caravans carry with them to hand over to the cemetery owners at the end of the journey. Diamond-decorated dishes, pearl-plated cloths, precious weapons and tools, large quantities of gold coins and precious jewels, etc. are brought to Karbala and Najaf, where they all disappear into underground treasures. To deceive the bandits, the caravans hide their treasures in coffin-like boxes, but this trick no longer works against the Arab bandit tribes. During the robbery, the bandits first of all open all the coffins, and by doing so, they will surely find the treasures that were in front of them. The scene that follows these attacks is a harrowing depiction of animals whose blood has been shed, people who have been killed, scattered body parts of corpses, and broken coffins; And the lonely passenger tilts his horse’s head away from this scene to avoid the stench and plague.”

Nakir & Monkar: 2 angels who come to the dead on his first night in grave, asking him questions about his beliefs,…

Translation of this article by Sahar.

Cover: Albert Richter (Shiites taking their dead to Karbala)

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