1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kerbela

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KERBELA, or Meshed-Ḥosain, a town of Asiatic Turkey, the capital of a sanjak of the Bagdad vilayet, situated on the extreme western edge of the alluvial river plain, about 60 m. S.S.W. of Bagdad and 20 m. W. of the Euphrates, from which a canal extends almost to the town. The surrounding territory is fertile and well cultivated, especially in fruit gardens and palm-groves. The newer parts of the city are built with broad streets and sidewalks, presenting an almost European appearance. The inner town, surrounded by a dilapidated brick wall, at the gates of which octroi duties are still levied, is a dirty Oriental city, with the usual narrow streets. Kerbela owes its existence to the fact that Ḥosain, a son of ‘Ali, the fourth caliph, was slain here by the soldiers of Yazid, the rival aspirant to the caliphate, on the 10th of October A.D. 680 (see Caliphate, sec. B, § 2). The most important feature of the town is the great shrine of Ḥosain, containing the tomb of the martyr, with its golden dome and triple minarets, two of which are glided. Kerbela is a place of pilgrimage of the Shi’ite Moslems, and is only less sacred to them than Meshed ‘Ali and Mecca. Some 200,000 pilgrims from the Shi’ite portions of Islam are said to journey annually to Kerbela, many of them carrying the bones of their relatives to be buried in its sacred soil, or bringing their sick and aged to die there in the odour of sanctity. The mullahs, who fix the burial fees, derive an enormous revenue from the faithful. Formerly Kerbela was a self-governing hierarchy and constituted an inviolable sanctuary for criminals; but in 1843 the Turkish government undertook to deprive the city of some of these liberties and to enforce conscription. The Kerbelese resisted, and Kerbela was bombarded (hence the ruined condition of the old walls) and reduced with great slaughter. Since then it has formed an integral part of the Turkish administration of Irak. The enormous influx of pilgrims naturally creates a brisk trade in Kerbela and the towns along the route from Persia to that place and beyond to Nejef. The population of Kerbela, necessarily fluctuating, is estimated at something over 60,000, of whom the principal part are Shi'ites, chiefly Persians, with a goodly mixture of British Indians. No Jews or Christians are allowed to reside there.

See Chodzko, Théâtre persan (Paris, 1878); J. P. Peters, Nippur (1897).  (J. P. Pe.)