The pull of Samarra

As the anguished residents of Samarra hugged each other in the streets following a massive US bombardment that devastated their town, foreign visitors also prepared to bury their dead.

    The passports of Iranian victims caught up in the bombardment

    Two Iranian civilians making a visit to the city's al-Askariya shrine, one of holiest for Shia Muslims, were killed in the carnage that followed an attack on US forces, and nine others riding the same bus were hurt.

    The question of why tourists were venturing into what is effectively still a war zone can only be answered by understanding the depth of their faith.

    The modern town of Samarra lies on the bank of the river Tigris, about 96km from Baghdad in the Sunni Muslim heartland. It is, however, the site of two shrines sacred to the Shias, which make it a focal point for devotional journeys to Iraq from neighbouring Iran, where the Muslim sect is dominant.

    'Hidden Imam'

    Shias believe that the Messenger Muhammad left 12 rightful successors from his family line to follow in his role as political and spiritual leader of the Muslims.

    Beneath the golden dome of one Samarra shrine are several graves of Prophet Muhammad's descendants, including those of Imam Ali bin Muhammad al-Hadi (the 10th imam) and his son, Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (the 11th).

    When the latter died at the end of AD 873, at the age of 28, he left a five-year-old son called Muhammad as his designated successor.

    The designated site is of great significance to Shia Muslims, who will risk all to visit it even in a time of turmoil

    To shield the young boy from his enemies, it is said he was hidden in the ice cellar beneath his father's house. By the start of the 13th century, the cave below the shrine in Samarra had become a place of great sanctity.

    The "Hidden Imam" became known as the Imam al-Mahdi. He is believed by devout Shias to be the last of the original imams who will come again at the end of the world.

    The second shrine has a dome marked by its delicate use of blue tiles, and beneath it is the cellar where the Imam is said to have disappeared.

    New era

    The Shias believe that he never died, but rather left this material plane of being, and went onto a metaphysical level from where he will return to the world near the end of time, in order to inaugurate a new era for humankind.

    Therefore, the designated site is of great significance to Shia Muslims, who will risk all to visit it even in a time of turmoil.

    Because of their devotion and due to bad timing, two Iranian devotees will not be returning home alive, and their wounded fellow travellers will carry the bloody memories with them forever.



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