We’re in the last days of the ramadan in 1867. After exploring Babylon and the remnants of its ancient civilisation, Tinco Lycklama immerses himself into religion and visits the holiest of shrines of Shi’a islam. And, at Najaf, he leisurely walks across the world’s largest cemetery.
Leaving the ruins of the ancient Babylon (near modern Hillah) behind him, Tinco travels towards the town of al-Kifl, where he visits the tomb of Ezekiel, considered a prophet by both the Talmud and the Bible as well as the Quran. The monument is a fascinating sight, covered with both hebrew inscriptions and islamic decorations.
The region south of Baghdad is highly significant to Shi’a islam. Whereas Mecca and Medina are the holiest of shrines to all muslims, next in line for the Shi’a is Masjid Ali, the tomb of Hazrat ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammed and – according to the Shi’a – his true legitimate heir. In Sunni islam, it is considered instead that Muhammed’s successors have to be elected by his followers. This conflict of opinion is a major factor in the religious strife in the Middle East until this day.
On April 13, 1867, Tinco travels down the Euphrates from al-Kifl to Kufa, where he is the guest of Emir Effendi, the governor of the city. After a few hours of rest, he travels straight to Masjid Ali, which is located in the modern town of Najaf. It is here that the ayatollah Khomeini spent most of his years in exile before leading the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlevi in Tehran.
At the time of Tinco’s visit, we’re in the last days of the ramadan, and the city of Najaf was extremely busy with pilgrims from both Iraq and Persia. Non-muslims are not allowed to visit the shrine and – being the only European in town – Tinco was looked upon with suspicion. Fortunately he was escorted by soldiers and by Emir Effendi himself, but these were all Turkish and sunni – and the Ottoman rulers were careful enough not to upset the local population. Tinco did not even attempt to enter the Mashid Ali.
But, even the exteriors of the shrine were impressive enough to satisfy Tinco’s curiosity, and he was allowed to explore the surroundings in all safety. He also mentions leisurely his visit to the local cemetery, the Wadi al-Salaam. Tinco doesn’t expand on this cemetery, and it is quite possible that its true significance was lost upon him. The Wadi al-Salaam is today the world’s largest cemetery, counting over five million bodies and in operation since fourteen centuries. It is thought that every single Shi’a muslim has at least one relative here, as such is the wish of true believers who consider it the highest honour to be burried close their religion’s first imam.