Sacred Journeys (Religious Tourism in Syria)

Besides the tourists who visit Syria for its historical sites, beautiful cities and seaside resorts, thousands of Shia pilgrims also come to worship at shrines around the country.

Photos by Manaf Hassan

Worshipers at the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab

When entering the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab in the southern suburbs of Damascus, you can almost hear the horn of doomsday. Crowds of women, dressed in black and white cloaks, wail and slap their faces. In the centre, rows of men hit their chests and moan with solemn movements. The worshippers jostle to touch the shrine of Zeinab, daughter of Ali bin Abi Taleb, cousin of Prophet Mohammed, rubbing pieces of cloth on the sacred shrine and crying for forgiveness. The contrast between the prosperous shrine, surrounded by gold, exquisite Iranian ceramics and a dazzling ceiling, and the humble crowd, drowned in black, pleading for mercy, presents a scene of heaven and hell.

Zeinab’s shrine is one of the most important Shia sites in Syria, followed by four other sites in Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama and Homs and numerous sacred shrines. Though Iraq boasts more eminent sites in Shiism, the American invasion of Iraq means few people visit them any longer and Syria has become a key destination for Shia pilgrims.

“The trip to Iraq is too risky,” Abu Kasem Rafi’i, who organises trips to Syria for Iranian pilgrims, says. “In Syria, we are safe and welcomed.”

Shrine of Sit Zeinab

In addition, the head of al-Hossein, the son of Ali bin Abi Taleb, whose death formed a turning point in the history of Shiism, is buried in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus.

Al-Hossein was killed in the battle of Karbala in Iraq on 10 Moharram 61, according to the lunar calendar. Shias believe that Yazid bin Mauwia, who wanted to become the caliph instead of al-Hossain, ordered his soldiers to bring him Al-Hossain’s head on a lance. They also captured the members of al-Hossain’s family and took them from Karbala to Mauwia’s castle in Damascus. On their way, they passed four Syrian cities: Al Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, where several shrines were built for al-Hossein’s companions and relatives.

Hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims from around the world come to Syria every year to visit these shrines. Between 400,000 and 500,000 of them come from Iran, according to the Iranian Organisation of Pilgrimage in Damascus.

“Coming to Syria is easier and less expensive than a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim Horan, a Syrian guide for Shia pilgrims and an investor in the Rasul Al Atham pilgrim hotel says. “This is why many Iranian pilgrims come here.”

Worshipers at the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab

Hassan Muradi, an Iranian cook who accompanies pilgrims to Syria, says he comes twice a year. “I feel lucky because I’m serving the visitors of Zeinab,” Muradi says. “My job gives me a chance to visit the sacred shrines twice a year.”

Though there are no specific statistics recording the number of non-Iranian Shia pilgrims, Horan says that thousands of Shias come from Europe, the USA as well as the Arab and Islamic world.

Hafez al-Kari, a middle-aged pilgrim from Pakistan, has visited Syria 10 times with his family. “I came to Syria for the first time in 1992,” Kari says. “I feel safe here and I want to come over and over again.”

Other wealthy pilgrims like Abu Maher, a Shia from Saudi Arabia, are so keen on visiting the shrines that they have bought houses in Syria, where they stay during their annual pilgrimage.

With many Shia religious schools, pilgrim hotels and a huge Shia population, the area of Sit Zeinab has become the meeting point for Shia pilgrims from around the world. An Iranian pilgrimage organiser, who preferred to stay anonymous, moved with his family to Sit Zeinab in 2000 to work in the religious tourism industry. “I want to live my life and die next to my beloved Zeinab.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 31

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