Since the collapse of Saddam's regime, the city had witnessed a huge increase in the number of visitors. Under Saddam constraints were imposed on visitors in order to prevent mass gatherings and the threat of public rebellions. Today, however, thousands of Iraqi Shiites visit one of their faith’s most revered cities every day.
"Before 2003 visitors numbered no more than a few thousand each month,” says Housen Ahmed, a perfume dealer located next to the venerated tomb of Ali. “They were mostly Iraqis from different cities coming for the purpose of burying the dead in the city's big cemetery. At that time our city was the city of cemeteries.”
For hundreds of years the Shia faithful from Iraq and beyond have brought their dead to be buried in the famous "Wadi al-Salam" (The Valley of Peace) cemetery, located next to the tomb of Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb. Najaf became an ocean of graves.
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of dead arriving into the cemeteries sky-rocketed to the point that thousands of identified victims were being buried each month at the height of the violence in 2006.
"In the days of war with Iran, we used to bury around 300 victims a month except for the days of big battles. But between 2004 and 2006 we received thousands of dead every month," said Ali Abu Saibaa a grave digger.
Abu Saibaa paints a dark picture of a city consumed by the dead. As he talks, he waves both hands to indicate the huge area covered by the cemetery which accounts for around two thirds of the entire city. The site is considered the biggest Islamic cemetery in the world and the second largest cemetery after Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Germany.
Yet, even as the city has absorbed the bodies of the dead, recent improvements in security point to a new future beckoning for the city: one of tourism and hotels.
As the cemetery has broadened horizontally, hotels have risen up vertically.
"We now believe that every building destroyed in these neighborhoods will be replaced with newly built hotels,” remarks Abu Zahraa, a local resident. Hotels or smaller ‘Musafer Khana’ (travelers’ inns) are sprouting up across the city. According to Maisam Adeeb, manager of the Al-Faez hotel, "hotels are the place of the rich these days". Even what were just small homes one year ago have now been transformed into four story hotels, he says. “The goal is to benefit from the crowds of foreign visitors, especially Iranian visitors, as much as possible.”
Ten million visitors now come to the city each year from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Arab Gulf and across the Muslim world. The Iraqi Investment Bureau estimates that the number of visitors to the city will reach 25 million per year by 2015.
For the city’s businesses and traders, the key to renewed growth and commercial gains has been the improvement in the city’s security. "We cannot compare the business we have today with what we had three years ago,” says Abdulla Munaf, a textiles dealer who hopes to move into the hotel business. “Security today allows us to open shops and work late at night and sometimes till the morning."
While the hospitality industry is booming some observers worry that other potentially profitable sectors of the city are being neglected. According to business student, Ali al-Fatlawi, the city lacks restaurants and entertainment centers, which could prove equally lucrative as the hotel industry.
What is clear is that a period of transition is under way in Najaf. The city is seeing investment like never before and its image is changing considerably. Maybe, it is about to abandon its reputation as a place for headstones in favour of glitzy hotels.