ISTANBUL, Turkey — The mourning ceremonies of Ashura are some of the most spectacular traditions surviving Iran’s Islamic antiquity. Although I am a Greek Orthodox Christian, the commemoration ceremonies marking the killing of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s grandson in 680 AD are as reminiscent of Easter as they are alien and otherworldly.
It was in search of this paradox that, while living in Iran, between 2004 and 2007, I travelled to a separate region each year to photograph remarkably diverse local mourning customs.
From the towering edifice constructed of wood and swathed in black painted cloth circumambulated by thousands of locals around the town square of Taft in central Iran; villagers masquerading as depraved Arabs, a deposed Shah or Britain’s dastardly MI6 intelligence operatives in nearby villages; galloping stallions used by the Arab Iranians of Shush or dignified columns of self-flagellators processing down the main boulevard of Shiraz; all playing against a relentless soundtrack of metal chains rhythmically snapping on black shirts tautly stretched across skin, Iran’s sprawling plateau provides endless variety.
More so than anywhere else in the world of Shiite Islam, a series of dynasties starting from the 16th century Safavid Empire endorsed Shiism as the state religion and allowed countless local traditions to bloom.
Photographing Ashura took on a religious fervor for me, earning rebukes from secular acquaintances in Tehran who preferred to escape the charged atmosphere for guarded luxury compounds on the Caspian Sea coast. They partied in impenetrable foxholes far from the call of the maddahs (religious chanters) while a nation wept in a hysteria for a loss inflicted 14 centuries ago.
Year after year, I braved suspicious security officials, difficult scheduling and extreme weather conditions to ensure I could be there to document as many of these disappearing customs as possible. One year, I travelled from misty Istanbul and a conference at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate on the shores of the Bosphorus to the Persian Gulf, spending just enough time in Tehran to change into less formal clothes for the long night busride to an isolated region famous for its passionate mourning theater.
During a cold spell in January 2008, I struggled against ice in Boston’s frozen airport and railway stations to make my connecting flight to New York. Twenty-four hours later, I arrived in Tehran in the middle of the coldest winter recorded by Iranian meteorologists in 40 years. Flying to the historical desert city of Yazd, we passed over a yellow desert frozen by the cold into a glazed amber. Moving on from Yazd to Mashhad, the crucible of Iranian Shiism on the Afghan border, our creaking Soviet airplane appeared on the brink of disintegration. At least two Soviet-era planes crashed in Iran this year, killing hundreds of passengers.
That was my last Ashura in Iran. I returned this summer not for a season of mourning but for one of anger as millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they called rigged elections.
Already at that point, the few foreign correspondents tolerated by the Islamic Republic during the early years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline reign had dwindled to a constantly harassed handful. The government preferred to open the doors to poorly-informed, non-Persian speaking foreign journalists parachuting in for a few days of work rather than tolerating permanently-based specialists who knew and understood the country’s dynamics.
Six months after June’s elections, the opposition campaign dubbed the Green Movement has morphed into an organized and mostly peaceful civil rights movement pushing a repressive Islamic Republic seemingly creaking at its seams for expanded rights. At a time when no visas are issued to foreign journalists and after being imprisoned in Evin Prison for three weeks without charge by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, 2009’s Ashura hardly seemed like a good time to return to the country.
Friends inside Iran spoke of hundreds of thousands of black-clad mourners taking advantage of the crowds to shout slogans not just against the unpopular Iranian President but also condemning the velayat-e faghih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent), the very underpinning of the Islamic Republic.
In 1978, impassioned demonstrations during Ashura set the stage for the Shah fleeing the country into exile. In this most politicized Ashura in 30 years, the old revolutionaries currently snapping the reins in Iran are trying very hard not to give predominantly young street protesters the kind of bloody pretext offered by the imperial soldiers when they shot live ammunition into seething crowds.
On a season certain to be remembered for political developments rather than intricate ceremonies, GlobalPost offers its readers a selection of images reminding us that, temporal headline-grabbing strife aside, Iran’s most solemn tradition offers up a visual beauty that makes for one of humanity’s most compelling spectacles.