KARBALA, Iraq – It is the most impassioned day of the year for Shiite Muslims — Ashoura, when one of the faith's most revered figures, Imam Hussein, was martyred in battle. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites who flocked to his resplendent, gold-domed shrine to commemorate him Saturday found the site has radically changed.
The shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is seeing its most extensive renovation since the 17th century. The construction is part of a push by Iraq's Shiite rulers to reinvigorate sacred shrines long neglected under former dictator Saddam Hussein, reflecting the community's steadily growing pride and power since the fall of their nemesis.
Now worshippers find the shrines' minarets coated in gold and — in the most dramatic change — the sweeping plaza surrounding the mosque has been covered over with a series of domes to provide shade from the hot sun in the desert city of Karbala.
Not everyone is happy with the changes. Five experts on the shrine, including three who advised on individual parts of the renovation, say the drama of the shrine has been lost.
The covering of the once-open plaza, they argue, ruined the visual experience. Pilgrims no longer can see the awe-striking view of the mosque as they pass through the sprawling, light-filled plaza, then into the dazzlingly colorful mosque, finally reaching their ultimate destination: Hussein's richly ornate tomb, they said.
"They sacrificed considerations of Islamic architecture to do it," said Haider Naji, one of the experts.
On Saturday, throngs of Shiites who came from across the country — some marching for miles on foot in processions — converged on the shrine, one of the holiest sites of the faith. Men cloaked in black beat giant drums, youths blew military-style bugles, and others carried platters of sweets to sustain energy, decorated with dyed pink and blue feathers.
Outside the shrine, the crowds held Ashoura's blood-soaked, emotional pageantry of grief. Men and boys dressed in white burial shrouds — to show their willingness to die for Hussein — whipped their backs with chains and cut their heads with knives, drenching themselves in blood to mourn his loss. Men and women wailed in mourning, breaking down into tears.
Others dressed as the historic figures from the 7th century battle — Hussein, in green, and his enemies, in red, with turbans decked with feather plumes, leather battle vests and swords. A fountain of fake red blood bubbled before the shrine. A horse covered with a sheet stained red was led through the crowds, representing Hussein's white steed Zuljanah, which is said to have been riddled by arrows as it tried to shield its wounded master.
Ashoura marks the martyrdom of Hussein in a battle at Karbala in the deserts south of present-day Baghdad. The event is one of the defining moments in the split between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.
Shiites believe Hussain's father Imam Ali was Muhammad's rightful successor and that was he unfairly passed over by the caliphs considered by Sunnis as the rightful line. Hussein led a revolt against the Damascus-based Sunni caliph, who sent an army that crushed Hussein's small band of fighters at Karbala.
In commemorations for Ashoura held by Shiites around the world Saturday, details of the battle are retold or recreated in passion plays that bring wails of sorrow and pity from the crowds.
The stories are deeply engrained in Shiites' consciousness. The agonizing thirst of Hussein's wife and children in the desert after the besieging enemy stopped their water supply. The heroic, doomed attempt to bring them water by Hussein's half-brother al-Abbas, who — even after the enemy cut off his arms — rode gripping the water-skin in his teeth until he died in a hail of arrows. The killing of Hussein's loyalists one by one until Hussein was alone, wounded and finally beheaded.
So strong are the passions that onlookers sometimes stone the actor playing Hussein's killer, Shimr. At a Baghdad shrine on Saturday, the play's "Shimr" broke character to weepingly ask the audience's forgiveness, pleading that someone had to take the role.
The day has often been a chance for Sunni militants to attack Shiites, whom they see as heretics. Iraq has seen repeated deadly bombings against Ashoura ceremonies in past years, though there were no immediate reports of violence this year. In Pakistan's tribal region on Saturday, a bomb blast struck an Ashoura procession, killing seven people, including three children.
The renovations at the shrine in Karbala are the latest evolution in what was once the austere, tree-marked grave of Hussein. Over the centuries, it became more ostentatious, culminating in the shrine built in the 17th century by artisans from the nearby Persian Safavid empire, according to Ghada Razouki, an expert in medieval Islamic architecture.
Under the shrine's gold-plated dome, Hussein's sarcophagus is drenched five tons of silver and 120 kilograms (260 pounds) of engraved gold. The mosque is etched inside and out with geometrical designs, verses from the Quran and the names of Muhammad's family in green, blue and yellow. Tiny mirrors reflecting light line the arched ceiling above the sarcophagus.
The current renovations, launched in 2005, aim to provide more room to crowds reaching some two million pilgrims, said Sheik Salah al-Haydari, head of the Shiite Muslim endowment, which has overall control of Iraq's Shiite shrines.
The plaza that surrounds the shrine has been covered over with the domed roof and will be expanded four-fold to 24,000 square meters (260,000 square feet) by 2013, said Mohammed Kadhem, who is leading the $50 million project. One extension of 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet) has been completed.
The ancient wall surrounding the shrine has been replaced with multi-level buildings with extra prayer spaces, offices and a museum. The shrine's minarets were coated in gold.
Al-Haydari countered the criticisms, saying, "We are continuing the architectural style that is there, like a river continuing its path."
To recreate the dramatic open space around the shrine, urban planners reviving Karbala's old city will increase plaza space outside the site's gates, said Mohammed al-Assam of Dewan Architects.
Shiite officials are also renovating the shrine of al-Abbas next to Hussein's, that of Imam Ali in neighboring Najaf, and the shrine of his descendants in Baghdad.
The rush to improve the shrines became more determined after al-Qaeda militants in 2006 blew up the golden dome of a shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The destruction of the al-Askari shrine — now rebuilt — underscored to Shiite officials the need to rebuild and glorify their shrines to demonstrate their growing power.
"Shiite areas are now in the hands of Shiites. What is happening is natural and it shows their control," said analyst Hadi Jalo.
In contrast to the architects, worshippers aid the changes to the once-neglected shrine should have been even grander.
"All these changes are but a little for the Imam Hussein," said Ahmad Ali, who just arrived in Karbala from Baghdad. "But thank God it's better than before: there's air conditioning, protection from the sun and rain," he said.
Speaking before walking from Baghdad to Karbala, Abdullah Ashraf, 25, said worrying about changes to the shrine misses the point.
"What makes the Hussein shrine alive is the memory of his story."