Mashhad al-Husayn is the only Shi‘i sanctuary in Aleppo. It was originally built over the period 1183 to 1260 in honor of Husayn, son of ‘Ali, as a conscious challenge to resurgent Sunni orthodoxy at the time of the Crusades. The other more prestigious Shi‘i sanctuary is that of Maqam Sitt Zaynab outside of Damascus. Zaynab was the daughter of imam ‘Ali and sister of Husayn, and the Umayyads, having spared her death in Karbala, took her to Damascus, where she died and was buried there. The Aleppo shrine is supposed to be located in a place where a blood dropped from Husayn’s head on its way from Karbala to Damascus. The Umayyad commanders beheaded Husayn, left his body deteriorate in the desert, and took his head to the caliph in Damascus as proof that their mission had been accomplished. The beauty of the shrine resides in its simplicity—much simpler than its counterpart in Damascus, which has been over the years lavishly decorated.

The mosque-cum-shrine therefore commemorates the spot (al-mukhtar) where a drop of blood fell from Husayn’s head. The mythology of Husayn in particular, and that of his father and brother, has created for Shi‘is a lively tradition of commemorations, one that is not limited to texts and hermeneutics, as most of the Sunni traditions are, but exceeds it to shrines and sanctuaries, and also theatrical representations for the commemoration of ‘Ashura, the tenth of Muharram. The core of Husayn’s mythology rests on betrayal, that of the sons and daughters—or the Shi‘i community at large at any given moment—towards their father for not having come at his rescue at the right moment. There is first the textual evolution of Husayn’s martyrdom, and how it developed over the centuries in the works of chroniclers, historians, and jurists. If Sunni orthodoxy has managed to find its point of departure in the ten years that preceded the prophet’s death and in crucial events like the hijra and the battle of Badr, Shi‘ism by contrast, unable to root itself in such grandiose events, and in order to demarcate itself from mainstream Sunnism, ended up with a more deterritorialized literature of a moving Diaspora. In a way that is very Freudian, it focuses on mourning and loss—that of its first three imams, and the last hidden imam. The genius of Shi‘ism lies precisely in reproducing such feelings physically—in the bodies of its believers—through concrete systems of representation.

There was this middle-aged woman, a white handkerchief in her right hand, tightly holding the copper-caged protective shell of the shrine: all the imam’s sufferings are now hers, in the same way that her sufferings are the imam’s.

text and photographs © 2004 zouhair ghazzal

portfolio of mashhad al-husayn