The Road to Arbaeen

Arba’een is the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. Each year, as many as 25 million Shi’a Muslims converge on 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]

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

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

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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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Dusk on a local pilgrim's route through Al Hillah. 

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Dusk on a local pilgrim's route through Al Hillah. 

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Imam Hussain at a family home in 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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Framed image of Imam Hussain in a family home.

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Framed image of Imam Hussain in a family home.

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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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Local Iraqi children, belonging to a family who housed pilgrims during Saddam Hussein's 24-year dictatorship, play behind a mawkeb tent. Under Saddam's government, pilgrims wishing to walk Arbaeen would risk being killed or imprisoned for a minimum of two years. Local Iraqis living between Najaf and Karbala offered shelter to pilgrims by marking their homes to signal they were safe. They would provide food, shelter and safe passage through the night.

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Local Iraqi children, belonging to a family who housed pilgrims during Saddam Hussein's 24-year dictatorship, play behind a mawkeb tent. Under Saddam's government, pilgrims wishing to walk Arbaeen would risk being killed or imprisoned for a minimum of two years. Local Iraqis living between Najaf and Karbala offered shelter to pilgrims by marking their homes to signal they were safe. They would provide food, shelter and safe passage through the night.

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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 play in a local river near Kefal

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Children play in a local river near Kefal

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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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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 reenacting the battle against the Yazid army on the road to Karbala.

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Horseman reenacting the battle against the Yazid army on the road to Karbala.

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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. I was inspired by the resilience and bravery of the pilgrims, who returned despite the threat of terrorism.

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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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Father grandfather and grandchildren stand at their date palm plantation in rural Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Shrine in Holy city Karbala during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by British photojournali
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Safa and his family stand against the backdrop of their family date palm plantation. “I have been hosting a mokeb since Saddam Hussein left. Before that we had secret housing inside the palm jungle - we’d hide pilgrims underneath palm leaves. I’m proud to say I was against Saddam. I know my son will continue our Arbaeen duty”.

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Safa and his family stand against the backdrop of their family date palm plantation. “I have been hosting a mokeb since Saddam Hussein left. Before that we had secret housing inside the palm jungle - we’d hide pilgrims underneath palm leaves. I’m proud to say I was against Saddam. I know my son will continue our Arbaeen duty”.

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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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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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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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a cow sacrifice in Karbala Iraq during Arbaeen Arba'een Shi'a Muslim pilgrimage by British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A cow is sacrificed in the city of Karbala

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A cow is sacrificed in the city of Karbala

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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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Chai tea sellers stoke fire in Najaf Iraq 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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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Jamal was a General in the Iraqi army for five years. In March 2018, he was gunned down in the stomach by Daesh and was found on a roadside by Iraqi troops.


“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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Jamal was a General in the Iraqi army for five years. In March 2018, he was gunned down in the stomach by Daesh and was found on a roadside by Iraqi troops.


“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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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 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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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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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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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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mother daughter inside imam hussain shrine cry and mourn 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 daughter mourn for Imam Hussain at the entrance to his Holy Shrine in Karbala, Iraq

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Mother and daughter mourn for Imam Hussain at the entrance to his Holy Shrine in Karbala, Iraq

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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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Imam Hussain's Shrine on the eve of Arbaeen. 

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Imam Hussain's Shrine on the eve of Arbaeen. 

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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 view from Abbas shrine to Imam Hussain's holy shrine on the day of Arbaeen.

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The view from Abbas shrine to Imam Hussain's holy shrine on the day of Arbaeen.

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