The following is a description of Karbala as recollected by Gavin Young from his book "IRAQ Land of Two Rivers."

View Images of Imam Abbas Mosque.
View Images of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali's Mosque.

Karbala is a city in Southern Iraq which houses the tomb of the best-loved martyr, Abbas, who died here with Hussain ibn Ali in the Karbala massacre of AD 680. Karbala is not only the Mecca and Medina, as it were of Iraq, but also the scene of possibly the most moving incident in Islamic religious history.

The death in AD 680 of Hussain ibn Ali and seventy-two companions in battle with the four thousand archers and cavalrymen of the Ommayad Caliph, Yezid, shook the Muslim world with reverberations that can still be felt after fourteen hundred years. That battle followed the murder nineteen years earlier of Hussain's father, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, in the doorway of his recently completed mosque at the new Muslim city, Kufa. So, from the moment the roadway turns into sight of Karbala you are moving within a region haunted by the ghosts of the religious martyrs who lie buried here and who for millions of Muslims have sanctified it forever with their blood. It is a region in which anyone, especially non-Muslims, would do well to tread softly.

The story is short and poignant. Civil war had flared when the Caliphate, for the first time though not for the last, became the center of a murderous controversy following the murder of the Caliph Othman, the third Caliph, in AD 656. For the next six years, the much respected and feared Ommayyad Muawiya, 'in his capital Damascus, negotiated and intrigued against the gentle Ali to secure for himself the 'papacy' ofI Islam until, finally, Ali was assassinated in Kufa, the capital he had set against Damascus. The great Muawiya died, as Caliph, in AD 680 and his son, the frivolous Yezid, was acclaimed Caliph in his place in Damascus. Many in Medina, however, favored Hussain, Ali's son and grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, a pious and serious man, rather like his father. Soon letters arrived in Medina from Kufa, Ali's former capital, urging Hussain to take up the Caliphate where Ali had left it. None too sure of himself, Hussain set off across the desert accompanied only by his family and retainers- seventy-two persons in all. But while Hussain was still struggling over the sands, Yezid rushed a Governor called Ubaidullah to Kufa, who lost no time in rounding up Hussain's partisans. Thus it was that when Hussain's seventy-two brave souls at last approached Kufa, they found themselves not only unsupported by any local uprising but cut off from the river by a far larger force of cavalry and archers. Ubaidullah demanded unconditional surrender.

Hussain's outnumbered band fought valiantly. But outnumbered, it was doomed. His followers made their determination not to yield doubly sure by digging a ditch behind them and filling it with fire to cut off their own retreat. Yet soon Ubaidullah's methodical arrows began to fall and, one by one, Hussain's companions, unable to strike a blow at the enemy in most cases, died as he stood at their head, his sword in one hand and the Koran in the other. There was nothing any of them could do; the odds were irresistible. They died bravely; and the last to fall was Hussain, the bravest of all. Thirty-three Ommayyad lance- or sword-thrusts dispatched him. The bodies of the slain lie under the dust on the desert's edge near Karbala.

Within Karbala is a small shrine with a turquoise-flied dome; it is dedicated to Hussain's cousin, Owan, who fell with him in the holocaust. Presently the dome of Abbas glints like a golden onion over the date-fronds, gardens close in about you, modern lighting appears and a street with pavements and a roundabout. Then another street with pillared sidewalks, narrower, bustling with motor-traffic and donkey-carts and two-horse victorias driven by men in dishdashas and cloths round their heads. At another roundabout, a boulevard opens up running straight to another golden dome, this one flanked by two minarets completely sheathed in gold- the tomb of the leader of the seventy-two, Ali's son, Hussain the martyr. His red silk martyr's flag stirs softly at the dome's gleaming peak.

A non-Muslim may not enter the heart of the shrine itself, but with the co-operation of the religious officials standing about the outer gate, he or she can pass into the courtyard that surrounds it.

Escorted by a genial, elderly attendant in a brown light wool cloak and a red tarboush (fez) wrapped around with a green cloth, I went from the street through Hussain's high doorway under the clock and its gold-framed bell. Standing in a slate-gray tiled floor (apparently a recent present from the President of Iraq), I could see the golden shafts of the minarets soaring out of a facade generally and intricately dark blue, yellow and white. Below, a great deal of scaffolding covered much new tiling and a line of pillars that looked like marble. 'Italian marble,' my religious guide said, proudly. 'And new tiling. Paid for by the President of the Republic, who gave us- yes- a quarter of a million dinars towards it.' The tiles are made in backstreet 'factories' in Karbala, which are worth visiting. Apart from Hussain, five other victims of the Karbala massacre are buried in his shrine. As we stood there, men came through the gate from the street carrying on their shoulders three coffins roughly draped with patterned cloths and bore them into the shrine. After a little while they re-appeared and took their burdens out into the street again. No weeping, noise or fuss. 'Those are corpses,' said my attendant, clicking his beads, 'brought in here to "visit" Hussain before being taken to al Wadi es Salaam- the Vale of Peace- for burial. They will "visit" Abbas, too, if they haven't already done so.'

I asked him how much it costs to acquire enough land to be buried in. 'The first three meters of ground you can have free,' he said, 'but the washing of the body, shrouds, the gravedigger and so on will cost about 35 dinars.' It sounded very reasonable, considering the fervent demand for burial space that has increased rather than slackened with the passing centuries. Of course, your relations would face considerable extra expense - for transporting your body by car- if you happened to die in, say, Kabul in Afghanistan or Meshed in Iran.

Like Hussain's tomb, that of Abbas has twelve-foot entrance doors of Baroquely carved and newly varnished wood. Here, too, a friendly Sayyid led me in. The tomb's facade is plainer in effect than that of Hussain's, despite a coating of golden tiles and a ceiling under the pillars (wood, not marble) of stalactite-like silver mirrors. Only the top portion of Abbas' minarets are gold; the rest of them are interestingly tiled with a rather violent zigzag pattern of white and black. A few women in black cloaks squatted in the courtyard, but it was relatively deserted and I had no difficulty in squinting through the tied-back curtain of the shrine's inner door; the shimmer of the silver-covered walls and ceiling reflected back the chandeliers and neon that barely illuminated the shrine's heart, hidden behind the cage-like structure of silver bars at which millions of pilgrim hands have clutched.

Round the courtyard of Abbas' tomb, as in Hussain's, cells for Koran readers and a guest-house are being built and new walls tiled. My Sayyid confirmed that here, too, the government was generously providing funds without asking for an accounting'. Not that the keepers of the shrines are short of money, I imagine. True, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the followers of the young Najdi, Mohamed Abdul Wahhab, having studied in Damascus and Baghdad, returned home and began recruiting a puritan Muslim sect driven by a fanatical determination to exterminate idolatry and luxury. The Wahhabis grew rapidly and eventually captured Mecca itself. But before that, they had galloped into Iraq. In 1810 they waited until the people of Karbala had trooped off to Nejef for the pilgrimage and then rushed in to sack the tomb of Hussain. Everything that smacked of luxury was stripped away- gold and silver, jewels, priceless carpets - the accumulated treasure of centuries. But since then, successive pilgrimages must, to a considerable extent, have restored the wealth of Hussain.

As a matter of curious fact, although Hussain was the central figure of the battle of Karbala, his shrine does not attract quite the wealth of gifts from pilgrims as the other great shrines in Iraq. Abbas' is, in fact, the most 'likeable'. Taking all the shrine-cities in the order of their popularity and therefore the order of their richness, the list reads as follows: Abbas (Karbala); Khadimain (Baghdad); Ali (Nejef); Hussain (Karbala). The appeal of Abbas may, of course, stem from the extra horror that attended his martyrdom.

Abbas had been overwhelmed with pity for the women and children who had begun to cry for water. He tried to steal from Hussain's camp to the Euphrates to bring water to the little band. Detected, he fought his way single-handed to the riverbank- an immense furious figure before whom the Ommayad soldiers fell back in disarray. Abbas was able to fill a water-skin and was returning to Hussain's ranks when they fell upon him again. 'Shot full of arrows,' my friend Sayyid Abbas related sombrely when he told me the story one night in his father's crowded reed mudhif near Amara, 'he dropped the water-skin- he couldn't hold on to it any longer- and the precious water ran away into the sand. Then Abbas- he was a great fighter as I've said- laid about him with his huge sword- he was bigger and stronger than most men. But his right hand was hacked clean off.' Against the walls, the listening men grunted. 'So he grasped the sword with his left hand. But his left hand was hacked off, too.' Another grunt of disgust. 'With his sword between his teeth, he staggered to a date-palm and propped himself against it to fight on somehow. There Ubaidullah's men bludgeoned him to death with branches and clubs. And so Abbas died.' When the story ended the listeners sat back, a heavy silence fell; it was a moment or two before any other topic could be raised. AD 680- just then- was only the day before yesterday.

The martyr Abbas, that courageous, fiery man, is known as Abul Ras al Harr, the Hot-Head, by the faithful. To this day in much of southern Iraq, certainly in the Marshes, a vow made in God's name - wallah! or billah! - or in Ali's name or that of Hussain is as nothing compared to a vow in the name of Abbas - 'Bil Abbas!'

Oddly enough, despite the immense importance of the tombs of Hussain and Abbas for so many millions, they are not, as one might expect, looming, lavish monuments. They are not Taj Mahals; they are in size relatively modest structures. Neither doorway is overwhelming, and the main gate to Abbas' tomb is insignificant, jammed in between a line of shops and an ugly modern wall with dirty white and black lines painted on it.

Karbala, like its shrines, is modest; a pleasant place. It has an open face; I feel no sense of religious chauvinism here- the Sayyids smile at you. The town's streets are full of palm-trees and gardens; it, too, smiles and is open-faced. There is a modern side to Karbala, of course; the suburbs display some gaudy villas of expensive and adventurous design. The Karbala Hotel is new and excellent- clean, bright, well-run. Our lunch was delicious: rice, spinach and beans in a thick soup, mince meat kebab, tomato salad, Iraqi flat bread and fruit, with jugs of buttermilk.

Raad Jalal, the young assistant manager, told me that in the pilgrimage month of Moharram the foreign Muslim visitors from the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran (among other places) are so thick on the ground that- he held up the two first fingers of each hand pressing them together- 'there is only just room to stand upright'. No cars can move in the streets. Every hotel is full, and so are the private houses that take in pilgrims as boarders. 'Lucky for you that you came now,' he said smiling. Now, in February, Karbala is nicely empty, the air is cool and fresh. In fact, at night you need to wrap up because the last of the winter is exerting itself and there is a distinct nip in the air. This coldness is called locally al Ajouza, the Old Woman. And when that chill-boned witch appears, they say early summer heat cannot be far behind.