The Road to Arbaeen

Arba’een is the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. Each year, as many as 25 million Shi’a Muslims partake in ziyara, converging in southern Iraq to mark the end of a 40-day mourning period. Pilgrims travel from all over the world to walk the 50 miles between the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. In doing so, they form a vast community that promotes peace and solidarity alongside their deep faith.


Despite the unparalleled scale, and despite being both the largest number of people fed for free and the biggest volunteer gathering in the world, the commemoration is rarely covered by international media.


Arba’een to be of great importance both for Iraq and the Shi’a, but also for the wider region. It has endured great hardships, having been banned by Saddam Hussein, and remains a magnet for terrorist attacks. Today, its very existence speaks of resilience and offers a window into innumerable and significant stories.


Ongoing [2017-Present]

Iraqi children play behind a mokeb in Najaf Iraq during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Children play behind a mawakib tent at their home in Al-Hillah. Their family, among thousands of other local families, secretly opened their homes to pilgrims for over twenty-five years under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Saddam banned Arba’een, fearing a Shi’a revolution and imprisoned or shot pilgrims if they were caught on ziyyara.

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Children play behind a mawakib tent at their home in Al-Hillah. Their family, among thousands of other local families, secretly opened their homes to pilgrims for over twenty-five years under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Saddam banned Arba’een, fearing a Shi’a revolution and imprisoned or shot pilgrims if they were caught on ziyyara.

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Rural date palm fields reflecting on the river at dusk in Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a Muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Pilgrims walk along the Hilla canal near the ruins of ancient Babylon in the date palm forests surrounding Al Hillah. 

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Pilgrims walk along the Hilla canal near the ruins of ancient Babylon in the date palm forests surrounding Al Hillah. 

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Boys in date palm fields in Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a Muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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mawakib host drives pilgrims at dusk to their sleeping quarters for the night near Al-Hillah.

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mawakib host drives pilgrims at dusk to their sleeping quarters for the night near Al-Hillah.

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Iraqi child queue for free food with his mother in abaya during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Mother and child on the final day of Arbaeen in Karbala. They were queuing for breakfast, which is served for free to pilgrims throughout the pilgrimage.

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Mother and child on the final day of Arbaeen in Karbala. They were queuing for breakfast, which is served for free to pilgrims throughout the pilgrimage.

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Family members hold a blessing ceremony for their deceased relative during Ashura at the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala.

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Family members hold a blessing ceremony for their deceased relative during Ashura at the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala.

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Children play in Kefal river during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Children swim in the Shatt-al-Hilla (Hillah canal) by the town of al-Kifl on the rural route to Karbala. 


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Children swim in the Shatt-al-Hilla (Hillah canal) by the town of al-Kifl on the rural route to Karbala. 


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Flag bearers walk through the highway to love in Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Flagbearers carry their nation's flags as well as black flags that signify the mourning of Imam Hussain.

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Flagbearers carry their nation's flags as well as black flags that signify the mourning of Imam Hussain.

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Iraqi military man who fought ISIS Daesh prays in Najaf during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Sayed spent five years fighting Daesh as part of the voluntary Iraqi military service. This year he returned home after being shot multiple times in the shoulder and shin. Sayed’s grandfather and father fought against Saddam Hussein, and his family are well-known fighters, “Our volunteer Iraqi troops are very strong and guided by our local religious leaders who ordered us to fight. Even now I feel ready to go to war if I’m needed, this is how I function now. Give me two hours, and I’ll be there”

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Sayed spent five years fighting Daesh as part of the voluntary Iraqi military service. This year he returned home after being shot multiple times in the shoulder and shin. Sayed’s grandfather and father fought against Saddam Hussein, and his family are well-known fighters, “Our volunteer Iraqi troops are very strong and guided by our local religious leaders who ordered us to fight. Even now I feel ready to go to war if I’m needed, this is how I function now. Give me two hours, and I’ll be there”

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Iraqi woman pilgrim prays at Imam Ali shrine at night during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A pilgrim praying at Imam Ali’s Shrine, the father of Imam Hussain, in Najaf.

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A pilgrim praying at Imam Ali’s Shrine, the father of Imam Hussain, in Najaf.

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Horseman reenacting battle against Yazid army to Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Horseman rides along the pilgrimage route as part of a ceremonial reenactment of Hussain's battle against the Yazid army.

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Horseman rides along the pilgrimage route as part of a ceremonial reenactment of Hussain's battle against the Yazid army.

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Women wearing abaya in Hillah during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Women walking through date palm fields in Hillah towards the city of Karbala.

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Women walking through date palm fields in Hillah towards the city of Karbala.

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Women pilgrims outside Zaynab Hill in Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Women queue at the entrance to Zeynab's Hill in Karbala, Iraq.

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

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Afghan Woman pilgrim inside Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a Muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Within moments of entering Imam Ali's Shrine in Najaf, I saw an elderly woman sitting in her wheelchair. As most people were seated on the floor or lying on blankets, she was instantly noticeable. She had come from Afghanistan with her brother [who stands behind her in the photograph] - it was their first Arba'een. Their journey to Karbala will be an unusually long one for them, requiring an immense amount of effort. Her brother explained that once he is tired and weak from pushing her in the wheelchair, she will push him. I was so moved to see such a powerful sibling bond. I asked him to place his hands on her shoulders and for her to place her hand on his. It was at this moment that she began to weep.

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Within moments of entering Imam Ali's Shrine in Najaf, I saw an elderly woman sitting in her wheelchair. As most people were seated on the floor or lying on blankets, she was instantly noticeable. She had come from Afghanistan with her brother [who stands behind her in the photograph] - it was their first Arba'een. Their journey to Karbala will be an unusually long one for them, requiring an immense amount of effort. Her brother explained that once he is tired and weak from pushing her in the wheelchair, she will push him. I was so moved to see such a powerful sibling bond. I asked him to place his hands on her shoulders and for her to place her hand on his. It was at this moment that she began to weep.

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Women from Iran wearing abaya and dust mask in Najaf during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A group Iranian girls stand outside their mokeb in Najaf.

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A group Iranian girls stand outside their mokeb in Najaf.

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mokeb owner on the highway to love in Karbala with oranges during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A mokeb owner distributes oranges to pilgrims on "The Highway of Love" on the edge of Karbala.

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A mokeb owner distributes oranges to pilgrims on "The Highway of Love" on the edge of Karbala.

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Mokeb children from Iraq pray and cry in Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Iraqi children pray for Imam Hussain in a local mokeb tent in Karbala.

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Iraqi children pray for Imam Hussain in a local mokeb tent in Karbala.

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Pilgrims watch volunteers dressed as Yazid horsemen recreate the 7th Century Battle of Karbala in which the Yazid army set fire to the tents of Imam Hussain’s family and companions. This form of mourning, where the Battle of Karbala is enacted is known as taziya.

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Pilgrims watch volunteers dressed as Yazid horsemen recreate the 7th Century Battle of Karbala in which the Yazid army set fire to the tents of Imam Hussain’s family and companions. This form of mourning, where the Battle of Karbala is enacted is known as taziya.

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Iraqi women bake bread at dawn dressed in abaya in Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Women bake prepare the day's bread supply known as khubz [Iraqi flatbread] at a mokeb on a rural route to Karbala, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Every morning local Iraqis prepare the day’s food and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free. Some Iraqi families set aside up to 20% of their annual earnings to serve pilgrims walking Arbaeen. [2018]

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Women bake prepare the day's bread supply known as khubz [Iraqi flatbread] at a mokeb on a rural route to Karbala, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Every morning local Iraqis prepare the day’s food and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free. Some Iraqi families set aside up to 20% of their annual earnings to serve pilgrims walking Arbaeen. [2018]

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Pilgrims walks the highway of love to Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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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. 

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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. 

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A mother fans her daughter from the midday heat under the canopy between the two shrines of Imam Hussain and Abbas, the sons of Imam Ali in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq.

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A mother fans her daughter from the midday heat under the canopy between the two shrines of Imam Hussain and Abbas, the sons of Imam Ali in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq.

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Iraqi army general who fought ISIS with his sons at home in Kefal during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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“Many people see us Iraqi men as fighters, as military men. Yes I’m fighting for my country but I’m also a father and I’m fighting for my children, for peace”. 

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“Many people see us Iraqi men as fighters, as military men. Yes I’m fighting for my country but I’m also a father and I’m fighting for my children, for peace”. 

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Man in candlelit vegetable and fruit market in Najaf during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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The market pathway in Najaf was a maze of squashed vegetables and mud. Dimly lit lightbulbs were hung from the ceiling, the air was humid after the rain and Arbaeen was only days away.

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The market pathway in Najaf was a maze of squashed vegetables and mud. Dimly lit lightbulbs were hung from the ceiling, the air was humid after the rain and Arbaeen was only days away.

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Family husband wife pilgrims sleeping on colourful blankets in Karbala during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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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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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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Iraqi pilgrims wear chador abaya to queue for food at mokeb in Najaf during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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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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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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