The Road to Arbaeen follows the journey of the world's largest annual pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq.


The Arbaeen 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 Hussain. Imam Hussain became a martyr during the Battle of Karbala [680CE] where he fought against the Yazid armies.


Arbaeen is the largest number of people fed for free and largest group of volunteers serving a single event in the world. Up to 25 million pilgrims take the 75km journey from Najaf to Imam Hussain's shrine in Karbala, while some walk 700km from Basra in Southern Iraq.


Arbaeen has been banned many times, including by Saddam Hussein who believed the walk of peace would be weaponised and pilgrims would revolt against his dictatorship. Arbaeen remains set against the tense backdrop of the Iraqi geopolitical scene and is a target for numerous terrorist attacks. In 2018 alone, Iraqi intelligence foiled over 300 Daesh related attacks.


Arbaeen offers a positive narrative of resilience, solidarity, and faith. Surprisingly, Arbaeen remains almost unknown to the world, and there continues to be widespread criticism of the media blackout surrounding it.


Ongoing Project [2017-Present]

Iraqi children play behind a mokeb in Najaf Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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Birdseye landscape view of Karbala and Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

The road from Karbala to Najaf.

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Rural date palm fields reflecting on the river at dusk in Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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. [2017]

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Father grandfather and grandchildren stand at their date palm plantation in rural Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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Iraqi army general who fought ISIS with his sons at home in Kefal during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Iraqi mother at home in abaya in Kefal during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Zainab and her family have hosted pilgrims during Arbaeen for generations, including under Saddam Hussein’s regime when Arbaeen was banned. For the past five years, while her son fought Daesh in Northern Iraq, she has hosted it alone in Kefal. Her son Jamal returned home in March 2018.

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Iraqi women bake bread at dawn dressed in abaya in Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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 military man who fought ISIS Daesh prays in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Sayed (35) 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 Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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chai seller in iraq during arbaeen serving pilgrims

A chai server on the main pilgrim route to Karbala, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Every morning local Iraqis prepare the day’s bread supply, food, and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free.

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Iraqi date farmers in rural Al Hillah Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite


Date palm farmers stand at the entrance to a neighbours mokeb [tent for pilgrims] in Al-Hillah during the Arbaeen pilgrimage.

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Iraqi woman and children pilgrims stand at mokeb tent in Najaf Iraq banned by Saddam Hussein during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite


Fatam has been running mokeb tents in Najaf during Arbaeen since the fall of Saddam Hussein. She’s in charge of the women’s tents and her son, who recently returned from the military, is responsible for the men’s tents. Iraqi families contribute up to 20% of their annual income to support pilgrims over the 40 day pilgrimage. Fatam’s family provide showers, bathrooms, bedding, tea and three meals a day.

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Mokeb shelters in Najaf


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Kebabs shawarma cooked and smoke in Najaf Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

Men cook kebabs for passing pilgrims on the outskirts of Najaf, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Every morning local Iraqis prepare the day’s bread supply, food and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free.

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Women prepare food at a mokeb on a rural route to Karbala, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Every morning local Iraqis prepare the day’s bread supply, food and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free.

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Sisters asleep on their date palm plantation dressed in abaya in Diwaniyah Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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Crying pilgrim woman from Afghanistan at Imam Ali shrine in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Within moments of being granted access to Imam 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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Women from Iran wearing abaya and dust mask in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

A group Iranian girls stand outside their mokeb in Najaf.

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Mother and daughter from Iran wearing abaya and hijaab during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Iranian mother and daughter in Najaf, Iraq

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Father and son stand on the edge of their date palm field in Al-Hillah

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Father and son from Iraq at sunset dusk between Najaf and Diwaniyah  during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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 them 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 with albinism and red hair stand outside a mokeb in Najaf  during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Sisters in Najaf

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Father and son from Iraq at sunset dusk between Najaf and Diwaniyah  during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Young girl from Iraq wearing abaya and hijab at sunset dusk between Najaf and Diwaniyah during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Pilgrims are served food mutton and rice in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Pilgrims are served food in Najaf

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Flag bearers walk through date palm jungle in Al Hillah during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

A rural pilgrim route in Al Hillah, Iraq

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Children play in a local river near Kefal 

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Iraqi men riding horses reenact the battle of karbala against the yazd army  during Imam Hussain Arbaeen muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

The dusty road from Baghdad to Karbala, Iraq

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Brothers reflection in window at midday on the highway of love to Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen shia muslim pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Brothers on the road from Baghdad to Karbala

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Woman doctor silhouette as she wears chaador at Imam Ali shrine in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Boys silhouette on bridge on the highway of love to Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Pilgrims walks the highway of love to Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

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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Men silhouette on a flooded street on the evening of Arbaeen during Imam Hussain pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

The floodlit streets of Karbala, Iraq on the eve of Arbaeen. The annual Arbaeen report revealed that on this evening alone over 15.3 million people were inside the city. Over the course of 40 days over 25 million pilgrims journey to Najaf and Karbala.

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Pilgrims wait to enter the city of Karbala during the Arbaeen pilgrimage.

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Flag bearers walk through the highway to love in Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq by Emily Garthwaite

Flagbearers carry their nation's flags as well as black flags that signify the mourning of Imam Hussain.
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Iraqi children perform at their mokeb shelter on the outskirts of Najaf, Iraq during the Arbaeen Pilgrimage.

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Pilgrims stands in Wadi-al-Salaam (Arabic for ‘Peace Valley’), an Islamic cemetery located in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf, Iraq. It is the world’s largest cemetery, covering over 1,500 acres and containing tens of millions of bodies. After Daesh, burials rose to almost 250 a day.

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Pilgrims depart for Najaf, Iraq

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A Shi’a cleric stands outside Imam Ali's shrine during the Arbaeen pilgrimage in Najaf, Iraq. The Imam Ali Mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam. It was built in 977 over the tomb of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and has been reconstructed twice. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the mosque was the site of several attacks and used as a base by militia members.

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A father waits for his son outside a security checkpoint in Karbala, Iraq on the eve of Arbaeen. The annual Arbaeen report revealed that on this evening alone over 15.3 million people were inside the city. Over the course of 40 days over 25 million pilgrims journey to Najaf and Karbala.

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Iraqi women and children pilgrims wear chador and abaya queue for free food at mokeb tent in Najaf Iraq during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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Man in candlelit vegetable and fruit market in Najaf during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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A server prepares chai for pilgrims in Karbala, Iraq on the eve of Arbaeen. Everyday for 40 days, locals and volunteers prepare food, shelter and sweet teas for pilgrims - all of which is free.

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Iraqi woman pilgrim prays at Imam Ali shrine at night during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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

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Iraqi child queue for free food with his mother in abaya during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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Iran mother and daughter during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

Mother and daughter look towards Imam Hussain's Shrine on the eve of Arbaeen in Karbala.

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Women pilgrims outside Zaynab Hill in Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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

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Family husband wife pilgrims sleeping on colourful blankets in Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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pilgrim prays at imam ali shrine during the arbaeen pilgrimage

Ishfaq Hussain Bukhari rests outside a prayer room beside Imam Ali's shrine during the Arbaeen pilgrimage in Najaf, Iraq. The Imam Ali Mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam. It was built in 977 over the tomb of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and has been reconstructed twice. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the mosque was the site of several attacks and used as a base by militia members.

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mother daughter inside imam hussain shrine cry and mourn during arbaeen pilgrimage

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

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Mokeb children from Iraq pray and cry in Karbala during Imam Hussain Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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

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Imam Hussain's Shrine in Karbala

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Imam Hussain shrine rooftop in Karbala during Arbaeen pilgrimage by Emily Garthwaite

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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