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Najaf
The cemeteries that became a city

Riyadh Sari
Cemeteries are generally important landmarks in all Iraqis' lives, but they exert a particularly powerful impact upon Shi'ites. Their social distinction is marked by their attitudes towards these gravesites, and…
26.11.2007  |  Najaf

The huge Najaf cemetery adjacent to Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib's shrine (the first Shi'ite imam and the fourth Islamic caliph after the Prophet Muhammad) is the best example of this, and has stood witness to all the Shi'ites have endured from the regime and its tyrannical ways against them. Since April 2003, moreover, it has also been a stronghold for armed resistance against the government and occupation.

The central gravesite

Ali Ibn Abi Talib chose to move from the Arabian Peninsula to Kufa in Iraq in the year 36 hijra (AD 656). From that day and until his death, it became the capital of the Islamic caliphate, of all Muslims. To this day, some relics that still relate to this historical heritage survive in Kufa, a city worshipped by Shi'ites.

Ali's death, following a successful assassination attempt, and the execution of his request to be buried in a valley near Kufa called Najaf, forever altered the topography of the city. Despite the proverb "Najaf is a place for burying, not for living", the city has now become home to a vast number of people. The area around the tombs of the Imam and his retinue has now become the center, while Kufa is now relegated to the status of a suburb. Today, Najaf is a province in the western part of central Iraq, distinguished by its enormous cemetery, which is considered to be the second-largest in the world in terms of the volume of the graves it holds (the largest is a war cemetery in Germany). However, most researchers argue that it should be the largest since it is older - approximately 1000 years old, according to historical dating, going back to the time when loyalists to Imam Ali began to bury their dead near his grave because they considered it to be a holy place, where sins would be cleansed by their proximity to his grave.

One thousand years of bodies

After Imam Ali's death, Najaf became central to Shi'ite scholars and theologians. For over a thousand years, Shi'ites have been bringing the bodies of their dead loved ones from all over the world to the Najaf cemetery, or to the nearby Wadi al-Salam cemetery located in the large valley at the northeastern end of the city. A quick glance at the cemetery will reveal thousands of graves, some new, some decrepit and others beginning to age. Over the ages, the cemetery has grown to contain the tombs of kings, presidents, ministers, scientists, clerics, poets, politicians, leaders and national icons from Iraq's history in addition to a large number of poor people, victims of catastrophe and floods and war and mass executions - "The reasons are many, but death is one."

The Najaf cemetery is vast, and contains the graves of non-Iraqis as well. The dead were brought to the cemetery on the backs of animals, or rowed across the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris in special boats. With the advent of modern transportation, the transport of bodies was also modernized. Historical sources cite incidents of mass smuggling of dead bodies from Iran to Ottoman Iraq for burial in the Najaf cemetery, since the legal crossing of borders between the two countries was made difficult by political tensions or outbreaks of plague or disease in one of them. The relatives of the dead would have to deal with their religious duties or their obligations to a will explicitly asking that the dead person be buried in the holy cemetery. Saddam's regime imposed exorbitant taxes (reaching up to $4000 during the 1990s) on the burial of non-Iraqis in the cemetery, which decreased the numbers of non-Iraqis being buried there.

Social portraits

The Najaf cemetery has expanded for many reasons, the most important of which are political. The unending tyranny and continuous warfare have wreaked havoc on Iraqi families, but have filled gravediggers' pockets. At the same time, the cemetery has also been a hideout for outlaws and fugitives at various times in Iraq's history, sheltering them and those who were fleeing military service or the courts. Fugitives would hide in the mausoleums, using them as houses in the midst of the loneliness and dreadful stillness of death.

And while death may be the great equalizer, the graves of Najaf cemetery tell a different story; speaking of inequality and injustice even in death, revealing the vast economic and social chasms between the dead. One finds that the graves differ in size, area and design, as do the gravestones; while some are large and grandiosely carved out of high-quality marble, others are small and cheaply made from artificial tile that is called "kashi" in the local dialect. There is also a difference in the graves themselves - some are mausoleums, with more than one storey, where each can fit two or more different coffins. Others have built rooms, and even homes, for their dead, with gardens and running water and a person paid to stand in the garden and recite prayers for the dead. The graves of Islamic scholars or Shi'ite 'ulama are topped with miniature domes of different sizes and decorations.

The Najaf cemetery has some idiosyncrasies that only those who live in it - the gravediggers - know about. These people know its paths and the contents of its graves. They can tell a visitor how old each grave is, and who lies in it and where they came from. Every detail has been carefully taken down in personal records, some hundreds of years old. The undertaking profession has been carried down in Najaf cemetery from generation to generation of well-established Najaf families: the Abu-Usaybi's, Shaykh Muhammad's family, Shaykh Rahim's, and the family of Hajj Nimr Hubayban. Each undertaker has an office inside the cemetery, and each family or tribe has its business with a specific undertaker who knows where their graves are and is specialized in burying its recent dead. Many people reserve graves for themselves, and begin to build them - under their personal undertaker's supervision - while they are still alive.

The Najaf cemetery, with its hundreds of thousands of graves, has now expanded so much that it encroaches onto the road leading to Karbala. It's now become more of a park for the city's visitors and locals, since Shi'ites usually begin Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha celebrations by visiting the dead. Women dressed in mourning sweep the dust from the graves, and clean the sites. Visitors at the cemetery, whose visits stretch on for hours, share food and drink and fruits with each other. Possibly out of spite, the previous regime set up a small amusement park on the cemetery's northern border in the late 1980s.

Political events

Among the many negative consequences of the brutal Iraq-Iran war was that it led the cemetery to expand both in both length and width, so much so that it could no longer contain the dead. A new cemetery was built, filled with rows of the remains of Iraq's finest young men, and even at the beginning of that long war, the cemetery has been filled with the Iraqi flag. However, the 1990s saw an increase in child deaths, followed by their grieving mothers and pregnant women. This really was a substantial change in the cemetery's look!

And, despite the heavy surveillance by the former regime's security organizations, the mausoleums were often used as weapons depots and to plan revolts during that oppressive era.

The cemetery was heavily damaged during the March 1991 uprising against the former regime, where Saddam's henchmen systematically destroyed many tombs, fearing that rebels were hiding in them. They also damaged graves and headstones with no regard for their spiritual or symbolic value in order to aggravate opponents. The tanks rolled in, scattering stones and bones, after the cemetery had already been bombed with rockets, to open up the streets and establish Saddam's army's control over it. Such nefarious methods led to the disappearance of thousands of graves from the old cemetery, and people were forbidden from collecting the bones of their dead loved ones and rebuilding their tombs. During the infamous battle for Najaf in 2004, the cemetery also became a target, since some members of the Mahdi Army used it as a base. Since April 2003, the cemetery has seen a terrifying increase in anonymous bodies, which have been assigned their own segment of the cemetery; these terrible cases have increased due to the intensity of the ethnic fighting in Iraq.

The cemetery's future

Since the state's inception in 1921 no Iraqi government has tried to modernize the cemetery by organizing its graves or the ways funeral rites are conducted in a way fitting to a holy city and the cemetery's importance and the numbers of visitors it hosts. The cemetery takes up a large part of the city and the graves have melded into its landmarks, expanding north, south, east and west - so much so that undertakers are constantly searching for new areas to bury the dead even as the cemetery expands. And despite its constant expansion, the cemetery still lacks basic necessities to meet the needs of the people who flock to it in huge numbers during the festive season. The city council has not bothered to build new roads inside it or to widen the current streets or put up signs to help visitors figure out the cemetery's vast uncharted areas. The cemetery's exaggerated expansion has also narrowed living quarters for the living, which has led some leaders to do what the city council has not done. Muqtada al-Sadr has distributed some empty cemetery plots, particularly to the north and south ends adjacent to the sea, to his followers who do not have homes.

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