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Italian Traveler’s Account of Muharram Rituals 400 Years Ago
Art And Culture

Italian Traveler’s Account of Muharram Rituals 400 Years Ago

Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle was in Iran from 1618-1627, when the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1736) ruled.

In a letter dated July 25, 1618, he described the mourning ceremonies of Muharram in Isfahan, reports IBNA.

The following is an extract of his account translated by English scholar and theologian George Bull in the abridged version ‘The Pilgrim: The Travels of Pietro Della Valle’.

“When I was in Isfahan, after the Muslims (Mohammedans) had seen the new moon the previous evening (since they are accustomed to start their days from sunset the day before), they observed the first day of the month of Muharram.”

This is the start of their lunar year, which is the year of 1027 of the Hegira (Arabic word for migration) of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Mecca to Medina.

They all in fact dress sadly, and many wear black, which otherwise they rarely put on; no one shaves head or beard; no one takes a bath; and they all abstain, not only from what is thought sinful, but also from every kind of enjoyment.

They go singing a dirge in praise of Imam Hussein (AS) about the way he was martyred, beating time with castanets of bone and wood, which they hold in hands to create a mournful sound, while gesticulating and moving their bodies to suggest great melancholy.

Towards noon, a clergyman preaches about Hussein (AS), recounting his praises and his martyrdom. “This is usually carried out by one of those from the generation of the Prophet wearing a green turban on the head, such as I have never seen here at other times, contrary to Turkey, where those of the same line wear one constantly.”

The clergyman sits on a slightly raised seat, encircled by an audience of men and women, some standing, some on the ground or on a low-standing bench. From time to time he shows some painted scenes and figures, illustrating what he is recounting.

Such preaching is heard every day in mosques, also in public streets at nights, in certain places which they adorn with many lights and illustrations of historical scenes at Karbala. The preaching is accompanied by the moans and wails of the hearers.

Della Valle continues his account with a depiction of the final day of the ceremonies, which Persians call ‘qatl’, meaning slaughter. Staged combats were performed in which participants fought with long spears and swords. They also carried flags and banners (‘alam’ in Persian), signifying Hussein’s banners at Karbala.

“Camels carried empty coffins, boxes clad in dark cloth and turban. Three or four boys, representing the sons of the martyred Imam, chanted sad songs. Swords and trophies of arms were carried by the male mourners.”

 

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