Dive into the Culture & Traditions of Iran
You are on your Iran tour that you hear the sound of drums coming from all directions. Bodies shake with every beat. It’s a movement of grief. In synchronicity, men bring up their right hand and beat their chests. Women are standing on the sidewalk all wearing black. They mourn with their eyes. It’s like everyone in town is taking part in a public ceremony of mourning. It’s a story of grief as everyone joins voices to say “Ya Husayn” altogether. The sound of drums gets mixed with the sound of people of all ages all saying one phrase. That’s how we know it’s Ashura in Iran.
Details You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip
Ashura is the tenth day of Muharram, which is the first month in the lunar calendar. On that day, Husayn, the third Imam of Shia Muslims and the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was martyred in the Battle of Karbala. Ashura is also a part of an important religious and national gathering that takes place every year in Muharram in Iran. The Ashura procession and Tasu’a in Iran(the day before Ashura) are a unique opportunity for travelers to experience one of the traditional grief ceremonies of Shia Muslims in Iran with a variety of Muharram rituals in every region of this land.
- Kind: Religious Grief Ceremony
- Location: All over Iran
- The date for this year: August 28, 29th
History of the Festival through Old Stories
The word Ashura represents the concept of resistance for Shia Muslims. The grieving ceremony of Ashura in Iran has been a great symbol of the resistance against oppression for more than thirteen hundred years. In fact, Muharram is a historical symbol for all Shia Muslims. Itreminds them every year to resist fear and assist unity and community values.
Husayn, the third Shia Imam stood tall with 72 of his friends and family against the Yazid army of thirty thousand men during Ashura battle. Yazid, who was known by the Shia members as an oppressive perverse politician, had become the governor. He asked Imam Husayn to tag along with him and give him an oath of allegiance. However, Imam witnessed the moral values of his society being destroyed under the corrupt leadership of this tyrant. Therefore, Imam Husayn and his companions said a solid no to accept his legitimacy as a leader.
However, Yazid’s pressure and insistence on making their life a living hell made it impossible for Imam Husayn and his family to stay in their town, Medina. Their decision was straightforward. “Death with dignity is better than a life of humiliation” Imam famously said. His defiance of Yazid grew stronger. So, he was forced to flee his home city under the threat of assassination. At the time, the people of Kufa city decided to support Imam Husayn and his family. As they were heading to Kufa, the army of Yazid surprisingly chose to attack them in the middle of the Karbala desert, which is now a city located in Iraq.
Imam Husayn told everyone about the attack news he had heard the night before the army reached them. He asked people who wanted to stay safe to go and for others who wanted to fight for justice to stay in Karbala. 72 people decided to stay knowing that they would not be able to defeat thirty thousand men. They chose to die for their values and beliefs, and that is why Imam Husayn and his army and their battle on Ashura are so memorable in the Persian culture and Shia Muslims’ culture. Through this tragic end but heroic act of sacrifice, Husayn was ultimately victorious. His death became the catalyst for revolutionary change and led to the collapse of Yazid’s tyrannical rule. Imam Husayn stood by his principles until the very end, and his legacy continues to inspire millions around the world and especially Iranians during the Muharram in Iran.
Why Do We Call Muharram a Festival?
Actually, Muharram ceremonies are parades and carnivals of grief. Shias perform their regional traditions every year in their countries or communities. We can claim that there is no counterpart for this kind of religious performance in the rest of the world. Besides the first sight of these performances seems like a happy festival to those who are not familiar with the situation. Thus, it was inadvertently called a festival instead of a grieving ceremony or occasion. But, you should note that it’s not a happy one. Ashura celebration in Iran is no exception; it is the day of deep sorrow. The whole country is grief-stricken. That’s the best description for Ashura day in Iran.
Culture and Ambience of This Festival
Songs for justice fill the air during Muharram in Iran. You can hear the sounds of communities coming together to commemorate resistance from every corner of Iran. The ceremony is a mixture of mourning, celebrating, and commemorating everywhere. It does not matter where you are standing. Every region has its specific way of grieving Ashura day in Iran.
The black crowd moves their bodies in a rhythmic motion. While some slap their chest and hearts as they shed tears, there is a group rhythmically singing songs against oppression and in praise of resistance and sacrifice for peace. On the alleys and inside the mosques, the families and friends come together to grieve for the sacrificed souls. Also, they celebrate the insistence of those who fought for their values and beliefs.
Besides the ceremony on the Day of Ashura, Muharram in Iran has had a fundamental role in shaping Shia Muslim culture. It has made them resistant to oppression and taught lessons about living life under unfair circumstances. They hold a special place for Imam Husayn in their hearts. Just like Jesus for Christians, they say “Ya Husayn” under challenging times, asking for higher wisdom to help them get through the battle of life.
The love for this grief ceremony has one of its most magnificent reflections on the central city of Yazd and its surrounding villages. They prepare their town and their performances for the Muharram in Iran for several weeks prior. Passion runs through their blood as they hold rituals in which they carry several hundred pounds wooden structures called Nakhl as the symbolic representation of Imam Husayn’s coffin across town. They tell stories and have many movements specifically designed for this day. They practice in their performance groups for days before they showcase it to the public audience on Ashura. It’s like the whole city is a scene of a performance festival with ancient roots and historical symbolism ingrained inside every motion from hundreds of years ago.
If we keep going south, the people of Bushehr will surprise us with their particular way of grieving ceremony as well. Music is in the essence of the southern people in Iran since ancient times, and this festival is not an exception. Their unique native instruments tell the stories of Imam Husayn better than any words. They even align their body movements and chest slapping with the music. It’s as if the whole city moves with the sounds of Ashura remembrance during Muharram in Bushehr. It’s as if the sound of musicians playing tunes of Ashura in Iran awakens the memories of Karbala.
Bushehr and Yazd are only bold examples of regional differences during Ashura in Iran. Every place and region has its own story to tell through the tools left by their ancestors. Muharram is celebrated in a variety of ways, which can all shine a light on how different communities have been honoring resistance. Traveling to Iran in Muharram can bring forth the opportunity for travelers to touch a piece of this perspective on one of the most important religious holidays in Iran.
More Magical Stories from Previous Participants of the Festival
Standing in the middle of a rhythmic performance watching the hundreds of hands that rose above to the sky and landed on the hearts of those around me was mesmerizing. It felt close to meditation for me as I could not think of anything else but observing and listening to what was present right in front of my eyes during Ashura in Iran. It felt as if we all became one movement and one song together for a moment in time. I did not feel separated from the woman next to me or the man across from me. It felt like the black color and rhythmic movements connected us through a magical thread of celebrating resistance.
Even though I did not speak the language, I could understand the meaning of them for those people by looking in their eyes. They had a familiar sense of sadness and victory hidden behind their faces. It was fascinating to see the order and the alignment of the center group of people. They were singing the praise songs altogether and doing special movements that seemed to have taken days of practice. It felt like a community dance festival that had so much unheard historical stories and lessons behind every movement.
Afterward, I headed to take a bowl of famous Ash Nazri. That was a traditional Persian dish cooked on that day and believed to have cured all the sickness and brought justice back to your body cells every time. I could not get enough so I came back to Iran to chase that feeling and that dish several times so far.
They walked in the alleys of Bushehr during Ashura in Iran. They were playing Percussion instruments and the Bugh, a long, spiral bugle made of antelope horns. Some people moved in alignment with others creating a scene similar to those I’ve seen in dance festivals around the world. Some played Dammam which is a traditional instrument that is passed through generations of afro-Iranians in the south. It was a stark contrast to see people dancing and playing music on a mourning day. I was shocked.
Talking to locals in Bushehr, I learned that the southern people believe Ashura in Iran marks the victory for justice. They think that it is the day that good (Imam Husayn and his family) won a battle over evil (Yazid) even though bodies were lost. Bushehr’s people believe what was left behind from that battle brought truth and justice back to their land, so they celebrate Ashura in Iran.
They bring their native instruments to every single street to wake up the memories held with the historic walls of this city of the day that justice found a voice to be heard. I could spend hours listening to Bushehr as it celebrated a grieving ceremony on Ashura. My body had become like the wind following the sounds of the instruments I had not heard before in my life.
I can hear the tunes of that day in the heart every time I feel oppressed. It makes me rise above anything that holds me back. Also, it brings hope for peace back to my life every time around.
Muharram ceremony in each city and region of Iran varies according to the culture of that place. The people of each region mourn this day in particular, given their historical and cultural background.
What Makes this Festival Special and Unique?
- Getting in touch with Iran festivals by participating in this gathering.
- Experiencing and understanding how others in the world celebrate historical resistance.
- Seeing another face of community gathering and togetherness in Iran that is different from the mainstream portrayal of this land.
- The opportunity of communication with local communities in a traditional religious gathering during Muharram in Iran.
Why Do We Care?
Keeping historical lessons of our Ancestors Alive
We think that Ashura is not only a religious festival in Iran but an ancient happening that can teach every individual important lesson from our ancestors about confronting oppression in our modern world
Creating a Unique Experience for Travelers
Creating an immersive journey through interacting with locals. Also, experiencing the celebrations of resistance and the mourning of lost sacrificed souls in the path of justice with authentic families and small communities
Changing Iran’s Global image
Promoting Iran festivals and places so the worldwide audiences get to know that Iran is different from the mainstream media portrayal of this country
Why Take a Tour?
- Location: Iranians celebrate Ashura in many places like mosques and streets. However, celebrating this ceremony in different regions can give you the opportunity of getting in touch with local rituals and special secret ceremonies, and much more. Also, it is not always easy to figure out which places in each city hold the most authentic ways of executing the rituals. Our local and experienced guides will be able to choose the best locations for you.
- Guide: A local guide can improve travelers’ experience. He/she knows the local culture, language, and history. Furthermore, she/he helps you to experience Muharram in Iran like a local. She/he will be explaining all the traditions for you and prepare you to participate in the event. Furthermore, the guide can define the reasons and meanings of different parts of the ceremony. That is crucial to your understanding of this historical and religious ceremony.
- Etiquette: Muharram in Iran is a religious ceremony. So, travelers need to learn the Iran dress code, the traditions, and the culture of the Iranian people. Some traditions came to Iranians from their ancestors, so they respect these traditions. As a responsible traveler, it’s better to learn these traditions to participate in the festival in the most respectful way to the local community. We will have conversations and discussions around Iranian etiquettes beforehand.