Hussein: The head under the dome

Nabil Shawkat, Sunday 5 Aug 2012

The Mashhad, where the great martyr's head lies

Al-Hussien (Photo from the AUC Creswell Collection)
 In the accompanying photo, taken by K.A.C. Creswell or one of his associates circa 1920, you see the oldest of the Hussein Mosque's minarets, build around 1235 by a pious dignitary called al-Zarzur. Embellished with the carved ornaments common in the Mamluk period, most of the details are now invisible, covered under layers of modern-looking stone cladding.


The Mashhad Husseini has changed drastically in appearance over the past 100 years, but the one thing that didn't change about the Mashhad Husseini is its spirituality, especially the venerable relics it contains, real as well as imagined.

The masterpiece of the Mashhad's relics is Husein's head, which was severed from his body after his courageous last stand near Karbalaa, in the Kufa province of Iraq. Fighting against a much bigger army, Hussein and 70 of his hardcore supporters and family members were massacred in a battle that became the stuff of legend, especially for the Shiite community.

This happened in 680 (61 h.), and the head was sent immediately to Damascus, so that the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid Ibn Moawya, would rest assured that his rival is dead.

After that the fate of the head is shrouded in mystery. It was sent back to Karbalaa for burial with the rest of Husein's body. It may have been kept in Damascus and then transported to Turkmenistan, or it may have been sent to Asqalan (now Ashkelon in Israel) and then to Egypt.

Husein, grandson of the prophet and one-time contender to the caliphate, is as much of a legend in his death as he was in his life. Mashhads claiming to house his head exist in Iraq, Syria, Turkmenistan, Palestine/Israel, and Cairo.

Short link: