Ashura in Derbent

    In Russia, Ashura Day is widely celebrated in Derbent, the southernmost city of Dagestan, which is home to a large community of Shiite Azerbaijanis (about 30,000 people). The first written mention of traditional Shiite rites in Derbent on Ashura Day belongs to the pen of the 18th-century traveller I.Y. Lerkh. However, according to other sources, they could have existed in Derbent at least since the 16th century, when the first professional mullahs — ruzekhans appeared, who was assigned the role of the prominent leaders of mourning ceremonies — “tazia” (in Persian — mourning). Since then, Shiite religious traditions have continued to take root and enrich. During the Soviet years, especially after the removal of Sharia law from the lives of Muslims in Dagestan, the Shia confession, like all others, suffered great damage. Despite this, the Shi’ite community managed to preserve much “underground”, and at present the traditions of the Derbent Shi’ites are experiencing a period of revival.

     For Shia Muslims, Ashura (Arabic ten) is a day of mourning, which they accompany with ceremonies and rituals to commemorate the martyrdom in 680 (or 61 AH) of Imam Hussein, son of Imam Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as his standard-bearer brother Abbas and seventy-two of their supporters in a battle with the forces of Caliph Yazid I. It took place in what is now Iraq, known as the Battle of Kerbala. Mourning ceremonies in memory of this tragedy begin on the first day of the month of Muharram (1st month of the Islamic calendar) and last for ten days, because according to tradition, all events related to the tragedy took place during the first nine days, and the death of Hussein fell on the tenth day — the Day of Ashura.   Mourning ceremonies to commemorate this tragedy are held in Shia communities around the world and the rituals vary greatly by country and region.

   On the first day of the month of Muharram, mourning events begin in Derbent. Shiites from other Russian cities also come to the city on these days. As darkness falls, people begin to gather in the old streets of the city adjacent to the Juma mosque — magalahs (Arabic quarter, street). After the call to evening prayer, they go to the courtyard of the Juma Mosque to listen to the sermon of the Imam of the mosque and religious verses (in Persian — mersiya) telling about the last days of the life of Imam Hussein and his companions. This continues for nine evenings, each of which is dedicated to one of the heroes of the events in Kerbala and their suffering. In the past, on the night before the day of Ashura, a ritual called “bash-chapan” was performed — participants made small cuts on their heads with a dagger, demonstrating their readiness to shed blood for the Imam’s sake. In Derbent, this ritual was replaced by blood donation a few years ago. On the day of Ashura, the culminating events take place, after which the believers observe forty days of mourning. On the fortieth day, the Arbaeen ritual takes place when millions of Shiites from all over the world flock to Kerbala to pay homage to the Prophet’s grandson.