Esfahan, Iran

Esfahan has been described as the most beautiful city in the Islamic world. Normally, I am suspicious of hyperboles like this, but after spending 2 days here I can understand why people have said this. The Emam Mosque is easily the most beautiful mosque I have ever visited. Beyond the tourist sites, despite a population of over a million people, it also has a very relaxed pace, and incredibly atmoshpheric teashops tucked underneath medieval bridges where you can easily spend hours.

But the most lasting impression has been unexpected, while wandering through the bazaar. As I rounded a corner in the midst of the seemingly endless maze of twisting alleyways, I came across a huge group of people walking slowly in the opposite direction. The procession was led by a smartly dressed man holding a microphone, into which he was chanting an incredibly dissonant prayer in Arabic. Behind him men wheeled a cart with 4 enormous black speakers broadcasting his prayer in every direction at high volume. They came to a halt after they rounded the corner, the speakers unfortunately positioned directly next to my right ear. By now, about 200 people had amassed, and all started to respond to the prayer leader’s chant by shouting with steadily increasing energy, until 1 or 2 burst into tears. This wasn’t just a welling up of the eyes, but real weeping. People started to raise their fists in the air, then beat their chests in unison. By now I was the only one not weeping, and of course I felt incredibly awkward, but still managed to snap some photos as discretely as possible. There came a quick change of tempo with which everyone started to hit themselves continuously in the forehead — not just a smack but blows which would have given me a pretty serious headache, one after another. For a brief moment I stripped these unusual circumstances of their context: here I was suddenly surrounded by 200 grown men belting themselves in the head. After a while of this exercise, another man took over the chanting and the microphone, spawning another round of intense weeping. Then, quite suddenly, they started hitting themselves in the head again. And then it all stopped and everyone had tea.

I later learned that this was a mourning ceremony for the Emam Hussein. Mourning 1,000-year-old religious figures is a very big deal in Iran, and the third Emam, Hussein is particular important to the Iranian Shiite Muslims. For the last week I have seen black flags flying everywhere, mourning the death of this famous martyr, commemorated once a year for 40 days. This ceremony which I have witnessed is an expression of this, and apparently a tame one at that. Until a few years ago, this ceremony was performed with swords gouging everyones foreheads and splattering blood all about. This is now illegal so people beat themselves with their own hands, in a gesture of self-flagellation, an attempt to feel some of the pain felt by this martyr upon his death. “They’re crazy!” said the Iranian man who explained this to me. To my western sensibilities, this was definitely one of the more bizarre sights of the last month.