Ta'ziyeh mourning rituals
Excerpt from a study by Peter Chelkowski published in Ta'ziyeh:
Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York University Press, 1979). Chelkowski,
professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, is considered
the leading authority on ta'ziyeh mourning rituals in Iran. This book is
based on proceedings of an international symposium which took place at the
Shiraz Festival of Arts in August 1976. See Persian text of nine
This little ["Ta'ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran"]
is deliberately controversial. But it is, perhaps, the most accurate description
of the only indigenous drama engendered by the world of Islam. The Ta'ziyeh
of Iran is ritual theatre and derives its form and its content from deep-rooted
religious traditions. But although it is Islamic in appearance, it is strongly
Persian, drawing vital inspiration from its special political and cultural
Its genius is that it combines immediately and flexibility with universality.
Uniting rural folk art with urban, royal entertainment, it admits no barriers
between the archetype and the human, the wealthy and the poor, the sophisticated
and the simple, the spectator and the actor. Each participates with and
enriches the other.
The nucleus of the Ta'ziyeh is the heroic martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson
of the prophet Muhammad. After the death of the Prophet (11 A.H./A.D. 632)
the still young Muslim community was faced with the problem of providing
Almost immediately the community found itself divided into two two bitterly
opposed factions, those who espoused the ancient Arabic tradition of succession
by election and those who desired succession by inheritance, through blood-relationship
to the Prophet. The former are known as Sunnites; the latter as Shi'ites.
Three successive caliphs were elected; they had been companions to the
Prophet. Then Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the leader
of the Shi'ite partisans was recognized as the legitimate caliph. To Shi'ites,
Ali, "the Hand of God", is so exalted that it said: "Muhammad
is a city of learning, Ali is its gate."
But Ali was assassinated and later his elder son, Hassan, was poisoned
and the Sunnite governor of Syria took over the caliphate and moved in its
capital to Damascus. Ali's younger son, Hussein, however, persisted in championing
the cause of the House of Ali and was asked by a Shi'ite group in Kufa,
a city near today's Baghdad, to join them as their head.
Hussein accepted and set out from Mecca with his family and an entourage
of about seventy followers. But on the plan of Kerbela they were caught
in an ambush set by the Sunnite caliph, Yazid. Though defeat was certain,
Hussein refused to pay homage to him. Surrounded by a great enemy force,
Hussein and his company existed without water for ten days in the burning
desert of Kerbela.
Finally Hussein, the adults and some male children of his family and
his companions were cut to bits by the arrows and swords of Yazid's army;
his women and remaining children were taken as captives to Yazid in Damascus.
The renowned historian Abu Reyhan al-Biruni states, "... then fire
was set to the camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses;
nobody in the history of the human kind has seen such atrocities."
The siege began on the first day of the Muslim month of Muharram and
came to its bloody end on the tenth day, called Ashura. It was in the 61st
year of the Muslim calendar which corresponds to A.D. 680. Soon after, the
battlefield and tombs at Kerbela became a place of sacred pilgrimage for
Shi'ites throughout the Islamic Empire.
The word ta'ziyeh literally means expressions of sympathy, mourning
and consolation. As a dramatic form it has its origins in the Muharram procession
commemorating Hussein's martyrdom and throughout its evolution the representation
of the siege and carnage at Kerbela has remained its centerpoint.
Ta'ziyeh has never lost its religious implications. Because early Shi'ites
viewed Hussein's death as a sacred redemptive act, the performance of the
Muharram ceremonies was believed to be an aid to salvation; later they also
believed that participation, both by actors and spectators, in the Ta'ziyeh
dramas would gain them Hussein's intercession on the day of the Last Judgment.
Perhaps because of their tradition of hereditary kingship and strong
nationalism, the people of the Iranian plateau were particularly hospitable
to the Shi'ite form of Islam. According to Persian legend, the daughter
of the last Persian king of the Sasanid dynasty was taken captive during
the Muslim invasion and married to Hussein.
from the beginning, the annual Muharram mourning ceremonies were observed
with great pageantry and emotion. Veneration of deceased heroes had long
been an important part of Persian culture; the theme of redemption through
sacrifice found parallels in such pre-Islamic legends as the death of Siyavash
and in the ancient Mesopotamian ritual of Adonis-Tamuz.
By the tenth century A.D. impressive Muharram processions were well-established.
The reliable historian Ibn al-Athir, tells of great numbers of participants,
with black painted faces abd disheveled hair circling round and round the
city of Baghdad, beating their chests and moaning the mourning songs at
the festival of Muharram. It was at this time when the Persian Buyid dynasty
ruled from Baghdad.
In the first years of the sixteenth century, when under the Safavid dynasty,
Persia, which had always been a strong cultural power, again became a political
power, Shi'ite Islam was established as the state religion and was used
to unify the country, especially against the aggressive Ottomans and Uzbeks
who were adherents of Sunnite Islam.
The Muharram observances received royal encouragement; commemoration
of Hussein's martyrdom became a patriotic as well as religious act. Many
accounts of the processions, written mostly by European envoys, missionaries,
merchants and travelers, tell of characters dressed in colorful costumes
marching, or mounted on horses and camels, depicting the events leading
up to the final tragedy of Kerbela.
Living tableaux of butchered martyrs stained with blood, their bodies
showing simulated amputations, were moved along on wheeled platforms. Mock
battles were mimed by hundreds of uniformed mourners armed with bows, swords,
and other weapons. The entire pageant was accompanied by funeral music and
spectators, lined up along its path, beat their breasts and shouted "Hussein,
O Hussein, the King of the Martyrs" as it passed by.
Certain similarities between the Muharram processions and the European
medieval theatre of the Stations of the Cross was obvious. An important
difference is, however, that during the Muharram ceremonies the spectators
remained stationary while the tableaux moved and in the theatre of the Stations
the tableaux were stationary while the viewer-penitents moved.
The Muharram processions are, perhaps, more similar to the Passion Week
celebrations which can still be seen in such Christian countries as Guatemala.
At the same time as the Muharram ceremonies were flourishing and developing
under the Safavid rule, a second important and popular form of religious
expression came into being. This was the dramatic narration of the life,
deeds, suffering and death of Shi'ite martyrs.
Virtually always connected, though sometimes only slightly, with the
Kerbela ambush, these stories were taken from a book called Rowzatu'l
Shuhada or The Garden of Martyrs, written in Persian and widely
circulated among Shi'ites from the early sixteenth century onward. Unlike
the Muharram processions, the rowzeh-khani -- garden recitations
-- were stationary, the narrator usually seated on a raised pulpit, his
audience gathered in a semicircle beneath his feet.
Soon, reading from The Garden of Martyrs began to serve only as
a framework and springboard for professional narrators who provided creativity
on the suffering and deeds of the many Shi'ite heroes. Through choice of
episodes and modulation of his voice, the narrator was able to excite and
manipulate the emotions of his audience, to produce in them a unity of feeling
of great intensity.
For about two hundred and fifty years the Muharram processions and the
narrative recitations existed side by side, each becoming more complex and
at the same time more refined and theatrical. Then in the middle of the
eighteenth century they fused. A new dramatic form was born, Ta'ziyeh-Khani
or, as it is more familiarly called, simply Ta'ziyeh.
Interestingly, from the beginning, the antagonists recited their parts,
while the protagonists sang theirs. The main theme was still the siege of
Kerbela, but the focus was on individual heroes around whom separate plays
were written. Martyrs who predated and postdated Kerbela were added to the
Ta'ziyeh serves as an excellent illustration of the concept that the
roots of drama are in funeral songs and commemoration of deceased heroes,
and also, that in the development of the theatrical art, the text is one
of the last elements to be added.
It is significant to remember that, in the entire Muslim world, Persia
was the only country to nourish drama. this can perhaps be attributed to
Persia's continuous attachment -- in spite of religious prohibitions --
to figural representation. Persia is justly famous for painting, sculpture,
and the other visual arts.
Nevertheless it must be noted that, although the Persian literary heritage
extends back over 2,500 years and is renowned for its carefully structured
national and romantic epics, its only true drama is the Muslim inspired
Ta'ziyeh, which took well over a millennium to develop.
That this should be so, especially in view of Persia's close cultural
and geographical ties with Greece and India, both of which had extraordinarily
rich theatrical traditions, remains a puzzle. Indeed, no Greek amphitheaters
have been discovered on the eastern banks of the Euphrates...
In the beginning, Ta'ziyeh consisted of a few loosely connected episodes
with long monologues followed by some dialogue. Hardly any action was connected
directly with these quite primitive recited and sung parts. In fact, the
actors read their lines from scripts about two inches wide and about eight
inches long which they held in their pals.
The tradition continued and is practiced even today. It is perhaps at
least in part an expression of the Muslim proscription against representation
of living things; the script serves as a barrier to any suggestion that
the actor actually becomes the person he portrays. In this respect it bears
some similarity to the use of masks in the Greek theatre.
The spectacle of the pageant rather than the text was most important.
Nevertheless, within a century, this art form produced a corpus of several
hundred lengthy dramas.