Cultural-Historical Background of Ashura Rituals in Iran

Cultural-Historical Background of Ashura Rituals in Iran
ID : N-2925 Date : 2018/09/19 - 08:09

(Persia Digest) - Mourning rituals of Moharram stem from two origins. One of them is the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (AS) and his disciples in Karbala near the Euphrates, and the other includes rituals that have evolved in Iran as part of the country’s indigenous culture. The first aspect of Karbala rituals is characterized by the following:

  • Opposing tyranny with steadfastness in the right path
  • Manifestations of human sentiments such as sacrifice and wishing well for friends and even enemies
  • Innocence combined with valor, which ends in martyrdom (that is, laying down one’s life for a lofty and divine cause)
  • All of these oppose the ruthless brute force that ignores human sentiments and emotions.

Such confrontation, being rooted in epics, has the potential of becoming eternal and being embedded in the deepest layer of a culture. For this reason, the rituals of Siavash as well as Ashura have been so long lasting. To activate that huge potential, however, another factor is needed: a context powerful enough to contain it. This is the second aspect of Ashura rituals.

That context, however, was not the land in which Ashura occurred, and it is not about the superiority or inferiority of a particular culture. Rather, it is about acceptance of an event in a specific cultural environment. The Iranian culture was ready to accept this event because it was already familiar with such events as the death of Siavash; therefore, it allowed Ashura to become a well-established ritual in this country.

Moving metal flags, organizing colorful ceremonies, and passion plays characterize Ashura rituals in Iran. Those rituals have been molded by political and social conditions and affected the historical course of the country. The confrontation between the Deilami dynasty and Abbasid caliphs or Sarbedaran Movement, and the role of the national government of Safavid in the face of the Ottoman Empire that prevented the latter from conquering Iran are examples of such historical events. Other manifestations include the Constitutional Revolution as well as the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which were also inspired by the incident at Karbala.

Ancient grounds for mourning ceremonies

Let’s take a look at the ancient documents on the mourning ritual performed in northeastern and southwestern Iran. The first region is Greater Khorasan including the delta of the Seihoun and Jeihoun rivers in present-day Central Asia, which was the birthplace of the legendary Siavash. The other domain is the southern part of Mesopotamia, which was the cradle of Sumerian civilization five millennia before Christ. Sumerians were non-Semitic people who left Iran for Mesopotamia and settled there. They had many rituals of which ample evidence has been found in archeological excavations. When combined with documents found in Iran’s archeological sites such as Jiroft, they prove the existence of a homogenous civilization from the easternmost to the westernmost reaches of the Iranian plateau. Sumerian mourning rituals have four components: sacred marriage rites, tragedy, finding and bringing back, and the endless road. This article focuses on the tragedy component. The ceremony held under the Third Ur consisted of a mass movement toward the place where Demuzi, the martyred god, had been killed, followed by people mourning the god.

Such rituals have also continued in other parts of Iran, indicating their common roots. The “Tragedy of Mehr” is an example of such similar rituals. Worshipers of Mehr built a special platform to perform their rituals for which they wore masks. The Parthian palace, Hethra, displays examples of such masks, which were made by local artisans and probably represented legendary and religious figures of that time. In later centuries, those ceremonies were not restricted to the temples and began to be performed by ordinary people on the street.

Concurrent with Sumerian rituals and on the other side of the Iranian plateau, the mourning of Siavash was based on legends and spread to southern, central, and even western parts of the plateau. Such rituals have lingered to the present, although they have not often been supported by kings from the time of Achaemenids through the Sassanid or Ashkanid eras.

These rituals have been integrated into the local culture of the Iranian people since the later centuries of pre-Islamic Iran, and their changed forms can be seen in Pahlavi text and poems. Most of them were accompanied with live performances, and their ideological foundations evolved in proportion to cultural conditions of their time.

It should be noted that human beings move toward a lofty cause and want to connect to it. In other words, human nature leads us to link the mundane to the divine world. The need to be in contact with a divine being drives human beings to look for intermediaries, which have traditionally been either celestial bodies or idols created by the very humans. This need is shared by people who have believed in divine prophets and explains why ancient beliefs have survived so long. What was sacred for ancient people continues to be sacred in another form. Conversion of Mehr altars into Christian churches and of Buddhist temples and Zoroastrian fire temples into Muslim mosques is a manifestation of that evolutionary course.

The physical form of that conversion can be seen in people’s culture. The existing rituals of Siavash, Chamar rites in Lorestan, or Mir Norouzi ceremonies in Kurdish culture are reminiscent of these ceremonies in those parts of the country. Mourning ceremonies of Moharram are among the most prominent examples of that conversion. They represent new rituals that have been shaped by ancient molds to have greater influence on people’s souls.

Bibliography

  1. See: Mehrdad Bar, Iranian Myths, Iran Culture Foundation, 1973
  2. Tamuz and Ishtar (Babylonian variations of Sumerian “Demuzi” and “Inana,” which are embodied as male and female cedar trees. The cedar is not found in the delta of Euphrates and Tigris rivers; rather, it grows in the mountains, which were the main origins of Sumerian people. Therefore, this legend seems to be of Sumerian origins.) Samuel Henry Hook, Middle East Myths, translated by Ali Asghar Bahrami and Farangis Mazdapour; Roshangaran Press; it should be noted that Semite governments of Babylon and Assyria passed down the Sumerian culture.
  3. Thorkild Jacobsen, Origins of Religious Plays in Ancient Mesopotamia, translated by Bahman Shakeri; Social Origins of Arts; Niavaran Cultural Complex; 1978
  4. Majid Rezvani, Origins of Theater and Dancing in Iran, translated by Manijeh Eraqizadeh, Social Origins of Arts; Niavaran Cultural Complex; 1978
  5. Ibid., Quoting Iran from the Beginning up to Islam; Gierschman, p. 247
  6. Ibid. p. 168. Also see: Foundations of Theater in Iran, by Dr. Abolqasem Jannati Ataei; Ebn Sina Press, 1954
  7. See: the following two articles by this author:
  • Humans and Water in Sepidroud Basin, collection of anthropological articles; Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization; 1990.
  • Analysis of Traditional Rituals Marking 40th Day of Spring in Pariz, Kerman Province; Collection of articles of the first conference on Kerman studies; 1990

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