Iraq Pulse

Pilgrims seeking miracles flock to ancient shrines

Article Summary
Many archaeological sites in Iraq are turning into holy shrines, as Iraqis report the occurrence of miracles and other holy acts.

BAGHDAD — The shrine of the famous Arab poet Abu Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (A.D. 915-965) in the Wasit governorate, southeast of Baghdad, has risen from a state of neglect and become a “holy place,” where miracles occur, according to visitors to the shrine that Al-Monitor spoke with Nov. 27.

“I pray at the shrine, and I pray for miracles and to earn a good living, as I heard from citizens who confirmed the miracles performed at this holy site,” said Saad al-Sultani, a farmer in the Numaniyah district in Wasit.

Sultani’s view aligns with media reports documenting the miracles said to have taken place at the shrine. Some Iraqis even say that the shrine's door was stolen, but that the thieves returned it a few months later after they felt an omnipresent, lurking danger.

Iraqis are also sharing stories about how the waters of the Tigris River once encircled the shrine, which is located on the river's bank. “About three decades ago, we used to gather around the shrine, which prompted a flood tide around it. This is when we used to recite the Quran,” Sultani said. To many, the water that encircled the shrine indicates that this is indeed a holy place. 

Karim al-Kalabi, another farmer living near the shrine, told Al-Monitor, “People come to be blessed by the shrine and take vows, as they trust their problems will be solved and their prayers answered.”

Visitors to the site have also noticed traces of henna, or red-tinted dye, in many of the shrines' corners. It is a traditional practice to paint the walls of religious shrines when one’s prayers are answered.

Mutanabbi's grave was discovered in the 1950s, when researchers were able to pinpoint the location where the poet was killed by bandits while traveling from Iran.

This archaeological site has now transformed into a holy place, marking a historic shift in the role of this sanctuary. While visitors often donate money to archaeological sites of a religious nature, with the intent to preserve them, they rarely donate to sites that are not of a religious nature. 

For instance, the Mashhad al-Shams (Temple of the Sun) shrine in Hillah in central Iraq is a remnant of Iraq's Babylonian heritage that has now become a Shiite site of worship. Visitors to the site receive blessings and talk of miracles, like the healing of the sick and the infertile, and the solving of social problems. The families of martyrs who died in the war against the Islamic State also visit the shrine, asking for divine mercy for the dead. This newfound attention has led to the reconstruction of the site and an increase in visitors.

In the same vein, in the Diwaniya governorate, south of Baghdad, the house of a young Iraqi man who was accidentally electrocuted there while undertaking a repair in September 2016 has been turned into a religious shrine. According to news reports, people reported seeing a lightning-like flash emerge from his home after his death.

“I visited the shrine and noticed dozens of visitors, mainly women, seeking the blessings of the place and offering gifts and money,” said Ali al-Hashimi, a businessman from Diwaniya.

This relation between religion and mythology can also be found in the Borsippa archaeological site, which was constructed between 604-562 B.C. It is commonly believed that the battle between Prophet Abraham and the pagan King Nimrod took place here. This has made the site outshine the ancient city of Babylon, which is 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, in terms of numbers of visitors.

Part of the Borsippa site was turned into a large mosque topped by a 10-meter-high green dome, surrounded by gardens and visited by thousands each year. The site includes the grotto where Prophet Abraham escaped to after the clerics told King Nimrod to kill the newborn Abraham, who was going to pose a threat to him and his kingdom once fully grown.

All these stories confirm how daily life in Iraq is linked to popular beliefs and social accounts, in contrast to Western communities, where secular values are deeply instilled.

What is striking is that Mutanabbi has no deep ties to traditional religion. On the contrary, he was known in Islamic history for claiming prophecy and was accused of apostasy and heresy.

In this context, Ali al-Najjar, a cleric from Najaf, told Al-Monitor, “One of the reasons people accord this much attention to what is sacred to them is because they are keen to preserve their historical roots that are associated to their beliefs. This is not to mention that the religious symbols and saints had proved their ability to do good for people, hence the great faith in them.”

Al-Monitor has noticed, however, that the Mutanabbi shrine and nearby gardens still sit in neglect in the absence of restoration and maintenance works, even in the guesthouse. “It is expected to expand and be developed with the increased signs indicating that it is a sacred place,” poet Kadhim Bahia told Al-Monitor. “The number of visitors for religious purposes is increasing, [whereas before] visitors were limited to poets, historians and authors.”

On the opposite side, Provincial Council member Wasit Rahim al-Ayedi told Al-Monitor, “It is a positive thing to give the Mutanabbi shrine a religious character. Yet, this edifice remains of great cultural and archaeological value, and the provincial council organizes there a poetry and cultural festival on a yearly basis. … The council examines the financing of cultural festivals after the shrine is restored and rehabilitated.”

“The Ministry of Tourism and Culture has not allocated any funds for the rehabilitation and restoration of the shrine,” said Ayedi.

Haider Mawla, a member of the parliamentary committee on culture, media and archaeology, said, “The best solution would be to encourage the private sector to invest in archaeological areas and turn them into profitable projects, instead of waiting for the funds from the federal government or the provincial councils.”

Found in: religious tourism, religious symbols, pilgrimage, iraqi culture, archaeology, archaeological sites

Wassim Bassem is an Iraqi journalist who tracks social phenomena in investigations and reports for various media outlets, including Al-Esbuyia, Bab Nour and Elaph.


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