In pictures: the Islamic architecture of Karbala’s holiest shrines

For Ashura, Round City shares a series of photos that highlight the art and architecture of the Iraqi city of Karbala and its two famous mausoleums.

The day of Ashura, which translates to “the tenth”, is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, and marks a special religious occasion for Iraqis and Muslims. On this day in 680 CE – 48 years after the passing of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) – the prophet’s grandson and the third imam of Islam, Hussain Bin Ali, was massacred along with 72 of his companions on the plains of Karbala, a city in Iraq about 100 kilometres southwest of Baghdad. Erected here is a mosque and burial site, which remain one of the holiest places in Shia Islam, outside of Mecca and Medina. Yearly, millions of pilgrims visit the city of Karbala during Ashura to honour the anniversary of Imam Hussain’s death.

The Shrine of Al-Hussain Ibn Ali mirrors the shrine of his half-brother, Al-Abbas Ibn Ali, which sits on the same city axis. The space that separates them is known as Al-Sahn. Al-Abbas was massacred along with Imam Hussain in the battle of Karbala, and their bodies were buried in the same spot they were martyred. Like the Mausoleum of Imam Hussain, the Shrine of Al-Abbas Ibn Ali attracts millions of pilgrims each year, and together, these structures serve as one of Iraq’s most popular tourist hotspots. 

Read more: The Mausoleum of Imam Ali

Generally speaking, art (and artistic styling) possesses a wide area in Islamic decoration, especially in places of worship, such as mosques and shrines. Imam Hussain’s shrine is considered an ideal symbol of Islamic art and is one of the largest shrines in Iraq with a variety of decorations. The attractive golden domes that top the buildings as well as their minarets can be spotted by pilgrims from far away.

For Islamic architecture, the two components of form and function are synonymous, and these shrines serve both the purpose of a mausoleum while also remaining aesthetically pleasing. Artists elaborated extensive details in every way imaginable, from tile-work painted with vegetal decorations and geometrically shaped patterns to entrance ceilings enriched with unique muqarnas clusters. There is also a wealth of mosaic mirror walls and ceilings, as well as famous calligraphy adorning the walls.

Within a damaged Iraq plagued by decades of war, the devotion of people to these shrines and their love for those buried within points to another dimension of the Iraqi people not often seen by the rest of the world. The status of the shrines and tombs is not a form of worship but a point of physical connection to the sacred and an epicentre for devotion towards their saintly leaders and teachers.

Here, Iraqi architect and photographer Deema Al-Yahya, founder of @studeeio, provides a photo series detailing the ornate mausoleums.

This article and images are by Deema Al-Yahya, an Iraqi architect and photographer based in Amman, Jordan. A Tamayouz Award and JEA Competition winner, she is currently practicing architecture and interior design in Jordan, along with her own photography art work on @studeeio.

View more articles by Deema Al-Yahya.