Iraqi shrine tablets offer blessings, cures and a living

  • World
  • Sunday, 22 Apr 2018

A piece of molded clay made of local soil, known as ''turba,'' in seen in Kerbala, Iraq April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - For pilgrims, the clay tablets from Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim Kerbala shrine are a blessing, an aid to prayer, even a cure for sickness. For local families, the are all that, and also a business.

The tablets, known as "turbah" or soil in Arabic, come in many shapes - round, square, lozenge, half-circle - with various inscriptions, often praising Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammad's grandson who is buried in the city.

But they are all pressed from the same sand dug up around the site, 100 km (62 miles) south of Baghdad, where the imam was killed with most of his companions and many of his family in the 7th century, after he rose up against Ummayyad Caliph Yazeed.

Pilgrims - who press the palm-sixed tablets to their foreheads when prostrated in prayer - buy the turbah from a small band of local craftspeople and dealers.

"My family of eight children live from this business, and our income vary with the seasons," said Um Ahmed, 45, who inherited a small turbah workshop from her father.

She had been working there since her childhood. "We work from morning to afternoon with a break in the middle, we make 15,000 to 20,000 Iraqi dinars ($13-17) a day net."

Um Ahmed uses copper moulds to hold the muddy mix of sand and water, and engraved steel plates to stamp the holy inscriptions on the tablets after they have dried in the sun. The sand is highly cohesive with a low salt content and filtered for impurities.

She makes up to 50 engraved tablets a day, and sells them for 250-500 dinars to wholesalers.

Turbah trade flourishes during high pilgrimage seasons to the golden-topped shrines of Hussein and Abbas, the imam's half brother and companion who was also killed in Kerbala.

Millions of Shi'ites from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon and beyond flock every year to Kerbala to commemorate Ashura, or Hussein's martyrdom, and Arabaeen, the 40th day of mourning, and other religious occasions. Ashura falls in September this year.

Most pilgrims pick up the tablets from stalls around the shrines.

"It is my first visit to Kerbala," said Shabnam, a young Iranian woman, buying prayer stones to bring home as gifts. "They are for prayers, and for curing the ill. The soil of Kerbala is the burial place of Imam Hussein."

A range of turbah - some connected to electronic counters to keep track of how often they are pressed during prayer - are also on sale on ebay, with prices rising to $15.

($1 = 1,186.4300 Iraqi dinars)

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3

Next In World

Internet, the thorn in the side of Cuba’s one party state
Japan mulls state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka as COVID-19 cases surge: media
Apple launches redesigned iMac desktop with colours and custom chip, priced from RM5,599
Australian state seeks to build onshore mRNA vaccine site
Oxygen supplies run low as India grapples with coronavirus "storm"
The climate pledges of the world's top emitters
Japan PM to postpone visit to India, Philippines: media
Climate activists look to 2021 to rebound from pandemic
Xi to attend Biden's climate change summit in first meeting of two leaders
Panama to buy 2 million more doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine

Stories You'll Enjoy