Iraq: The Road to Arbaeen follows the journey of the world's largest annual pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq. The pilgrimage marks the end of a 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual that commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Imam Hussein. Arbaeen is the largest number of people fed for free and largest group of volunteers serving a single event in the world. Millions of pilgrims walk to Iman Hussein's shrine, some walking over 425 miles from Basra. It has been a target for numerous terrorist attacks and remains set against the tense backdrop of the Iraqi geopolitical scene. It has been banned many times, including by Saddam Hussein. Surprisingly, Arbaeen remains almost unknown to the world, and there continues to be widespread criticism of the media blackout surrounding it. Arbaeen offers a truly positive narrative of resilience and faith and one I was proud to witness.


I travelled through Southern Iraq with an Iranian documentary film crew co-directing and photographing the Arbaeen Pilgrimage in collaboration with the Iranian Institute of Culture.

During the days of Saddam Hussein, it was banned to complete the Arbaeen Pilgrimage, and in doing so, many pilgrims were killed or imprisoned for a minimum of two years. Local Iraqis living on this route offered shelter to Shia Muslims and allowed them free passage during the night. They would mark their homes to signal they were safe and cook all through the night. These children are from a large family who housed Shia Muslims during the days of Saddam Hussein.

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A rural pilgrim route in Al Hillah, Iraq at dusk. Pilgrims continue to walk late into the night, some walking from as far as Basra to reach Karbala.

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Women queue up for food at a makeshift kitchen in Najaf, Iraq. Local Iraqis offer fresh meals, water, places to sleep and many other amenities for free. Some families set aside as much as twenty percent of their annual earnings.
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Flagbearers carry their nation's flags as well as black flags that signify the mourning of Imam Hussein.
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A rural pilgrim route in Al Hillah, Iraq at dusk. Pilgrims continue to walk late into the night, some walking from as far as Basra to reach Karbala.

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Within moments of being granted access to Iman Ali's Shrine, I saw an elderly woman sitting in her wheelchair. As most people were seated on the floor lying on blankets, she was instantly noticeable. She had come from Afghanistan with her brother, who stands behind her in the photograph and it was their first Arbaeen. Their journey to Karbala will be an unusually long one for them, requiring an immense amount of effort. The brother explained that once he is tired and weak from pushing her in the wheelchair, she will push him.

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Sisters in Najaf

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Pilgrims on the road from Baghdad to Karbala. Last year a suicide truck bomb killed over 80 people on this route. I was inspired by the resilience and bravery of the pilgrims, who returned despite the threat of terrorism.

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Brothers on the road from Baghdad to Karbala

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An Iraqi father and son on the road from Najaf to Diwaniyah. Local families in this region are Date farmers. The dusty roads are lined with Date palm trees, modestly built homes and livestock roam through what is known as 'Palm jungle'. Before the war with Iran in the 1980s, Iraq was the largest exporter of Dates in the world, producing 1 million tonnes of dates annually. Saddam Hussein's military campaigns and subsequent decades of neglect destroyed the industry, cutting yearly production to 420,000 tonnes.

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Sisters inside their family home on the road from Najaf to Diwaniyah. Local families in this region are Date farmers. The dusty roads are lined with Date palm trees, modestly built homes and livestock roam through what is known as 'Palm jungle'. Before the war with Iran in the 1980s, Iraq was the largest exporter of Dates in the world, producing 1 million tonnes of dates annually. Saddam Hussein's military campaigns and subsequent decades of neglect destroyed the industry, cutting yearly production to 420,000 tonnes.

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The dusty road from Baghdad to Karbala, Iraq

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Local children prepare tea known as ‘chai abu Ali’ to serve pilgrims in Najaf, Iraq during the late hours of the night before pilgrims find shelter. The boys took turns to stoke the fires, regularly switching teapots and all the while calling out to the crowd "Chai! Chai!”.
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A pilgrim praying at Imam Ali’s Shrine, the father of Imam Hussein, in Najaf.

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A girl stands on a rural pilgrim route in Al Hillah, Iraq at dusk. Pilgrims continue to walk late into the night, some walking from as far as Basra to reach Karbala.

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An Iranian mother and daughter at sunset near Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf, Iraq.

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A doctor stands inside a floodlit waiting room at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq. During the Arbaeen pilgrimage over 160,000 people sleep in this mosque. Up to 5,000 people require medical attention everyday but surprisingly, the most severe cases are only food poisoning and air pollution related breathing problems.

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Women queue at the entrance to Zeynab's Hill in Karbala, Iraq. 

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In 2016, a suicide truck bomb killed over 80 people on the route from Baghdad to Karbala and it remains a target for ISIS bombers. Tens of thousands of security personnel and Shia militiamen are deployed around the perimeters of the shrine as well as on all roads leading to Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. I was inspired by the resilience and bravery of the pilgrims, who returned despite the threat of terrorism.

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On the night of Arbaeen pilgrims sleep in a semi-abandoned building lit with occasional floodlights. Surrounding the entrance and over three floors were families sleeping, swaddled in blankets. Occasionally you would find a person praying or a family sharing biscuits. The family pictured were part of a large group of Shia pilgrims - only a couple were still awake. I left the building at 2 am, and the family had not moved, they were no doubt exhausted by their walk to Karbala.

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Over 15 million Shia pilgrims arrive in Karbala every year to visit Imam Hussain's Shrine. It remains the world's largest annual peaceful gathering.

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A Shia pilgrim on the road from Najaf to Karbala, Iraq

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