Inside Shia Mosque -- Saida Zeinab, Syria

The Shrine of Sayidda Zeinab is a beautiful Iranian-style mosque and shrine in southern Damascus, Syria. It attracts Shia Muslim pilgrims from Iran and around the world who care far less about its blue-tiled architecture than about its sacred shrine of Sayidda Zeinab, daughter of the Shia martyr Ali and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shrine of Sayidda Zeinab is believed to house the remains of Lady Zeinab, the daughter of Imam Ali (the fourth Caliph). She was taken captive by the army of Yazid after the massacre of her brothers Hussein and Hassan at Karbala and Najaf. For Shia Muslims, this moment, when the family of Ali was betrayed, is the defining and most tragic moment of their history. Thus the atmosphere at Sayyida Zeinab is not one of quiet veneration, but one of passionate mourning with wailing, singing, crying, and chest beating.

The mosque dates from the 1990s, but was built on a pre-existing shrine. The courtyard of the mosque is filled with men and women marching in circles, chanting in Farsi or Arabic, and beating their chests. Often someone will be videotaping, and there will be one man leading the chant. As they chant and beat their chests, tears stream down their cheeks as the pilgrims feel the painful tragedy that Zeinab endured, losing her brothers and being taken captive. It is as if they are attending the funeral of their own daughter, and that is exactly the way the Shia see it.

The mausoleum itself is divided into a section for men and one for women, and shoes are left at the door. The space is relatively small and always crowded. Only a thin wooden fence that divides the two sections, and the wailing and sobs pour over the fence from one side to another. The lamentation is not just on the women's side: men young and old sit around in circles beating their chests, crying and chanting. Some of the men throw themselves against the tomb, clinging on to the bars that surround it, showering it with kisses. Others kneel and pray, their heads pressed against a piece of rock taken from the ground at Karbala.

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