Travelogues: tapping into the past hearing Muharram rituals from Europeans visiting Persia

August 27, 2020 - 2:9

TEHRAN – Travelogues, inscribed by European travelers to Persia (Iran) over the past centuries, is a good source to hear about Muharram mourning ceremonies from the point of view of Westerners, experts say. 

“Travelogues of globetrotters, particularly European travelers to Iran during the [lunar] months of Muharram and Safar bear narrations of Ashura [mourning ceremonies] in different historical periods, some of which belong to the mourning ceremonies of Tasua and Ashura during the Safavid and Qajar periods,” according to the National Library and Archives of Iran (NLAI).

“A section at the National Library and Archives of Iran is dedicated to Iranology and Islamology arenas, containing a treasure trove of related documents and studies. And there are also over 400 travelogues being kept in this section,” Iraj Enayatizadeh, who presides over NLAI department for Iranology and Islamology.

“Some of those travelogues belong to famous European tourists, which contain objective and historical materials and important documents of Muharram and Ashura mourning ceremonies and the way Iranian society observed Muharram in the past centuries.”

Travelogues by Pietro della Valle (1586 – 1652), Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605–1689), Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (1884 – 1940), Frederick Charles Richards, and Heinrich Karl Brugsch, which are being kept at the National Library and Archives of Iran, portray scenes from Shia Muslims commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS) and his companions during the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE.

According to sources, in his travelogue, the Italian author Pietro Della Valle who visited ‎Iran in 1618 described the Muharram mourning ceremony with all rites and features of the event. ‎Travelers and tourists who journeyed to Iran in Safavid and Qajar eras referred to interesting points about the Iranian ceremony in the month of Muharram from black wearing neighborhoods to mourning bands in cities.

In fact, travelogues are valuable sources which highlight different aspects of the Iranian social history, particularly where it is hidden from the eyes of Iranian historians. It is with the assistance of these travelogues that reconstruction of social, cultural, etc. spaces in the past becomes possible and on the same basis, it may be claimed that travelogues include points that are very important in cultural historiography.

One of the most important issues that are addressed in these travelogues is Muharram ceremonies among Iranians. The rituals performed in this month contain valuable cultural points that are portrayed in an interesting way by the European tourists.

Pietro Della Valle describes the event in Karbala as such: “Imam Hussein was attacked by his enemies, known as ‘Khavarej’, while traveling and was killed in Karbala together with seventy or eighty of his companions. He is buried there and his shrine is a pilgrimage of the Muslims who even travel from distant places to this city.”

“In the month of Muharram”, he writes, “mourning ceremonies are held in most houses, particularly on the ninth and tenth days which are called Tasua and Ashura, to commemorate Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. Everybody can freely take part in these ceremonies, whether rich or poor, to listen to the sermons and drink tea, coffee, and sherbet.”

Over the past couple of years, Yazd, Meybod, Isfahan, and Kashan were among Iranian cities which hosted the highest numbers of foreign tourists during the day Tasua and Ashura when the mourning ceremonies reach its climax. Holidaymakers can witness various ceremonies such as Tazieh, a passion play inspired by historical and religious narrations, and Sineh-Zani [beating the chest]. They also converse with locals and religious figures while taking shots of mourners to document the events.


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