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 Hussein. Imam Hussein 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. Millions of pilgrims take the 75km journey from Najaf to Imam Hussein'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 could 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]

children shadow mokeb iraq arbaeen

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. 

info
×
map karbala najaf iraq arbaeen

The road from Karbala to Najaf.

info
×
iraq rural countryside river reflection dusk

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]

info
×
iraq arbaeen pilgrim rural imam hussain

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”.

info
×
bread iraqi women empowerment female arbaeen

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]

info
×
fire chai tea night children arbaeen pilgrimage

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!”.

info
×
smoke pilgrimage iraqi iraq arbaeen

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.

info
×
date farmers arbaeen pilgrimage iraq al hillah


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

info
×
al hillah children female empowerment Diwaniyah arbaeen

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.

info
×
najaf arbaeen pilgrimage iraqi iraq


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.

info
×
pray najaf iraq arbaeen prayer imam hussain

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”

info
×
mother iraqi pilgrimage arbaeen al hillah

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.

info
×
family husband iraqi general military arbaeen pilgrimage al hillah

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”.

info
×
old woman emotional iraq najaf arbaeen

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.

info
×
friends iran iraq arbaeen walking pilgrims

A group Iranian girls stand outside their mokeb in Najaf.

info
×
mother daughter iranian iraq pilgrims iraq

Iranian mother and daughter in Najaf, Iraq

info
×
father son arbaeen iraq walk pilgrimage sunset al hillah

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.

info
×
children albino red hair sisters arbaeen iraq

Sisters in Najaf

info
×
child boy iraq rural pilgrim arbaeen

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.

info
×
child chaador muslim iraq arbaeen pilgrim al hillah

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.

info
×
food pilgrimage pilgrim najaf

Pilgrims are served food in Najaf

info
×
flag walking marching pilgrims al hillah

A rural pilgrim route in Al Hillah, Iraq

info
×
horses men horsemen iraq dusk arbaeen

The dusty road from Baghdad to Karbala, Iraq

info
×
window reflection children pilgrims iraq

Brothers on the road from Baghdad to Karbala

info
×
silhouette chaador muslim shia woman iraq najaf arbaeen

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.

info
×
silhouette pilgrim arbaeen walk pilgrimage

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.

info
×
landscape walking shia muslim pilgrims iraq arbaeen

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.

info
×
silhouette karbala arbaeen pilgrimage

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.

info
×
flags men muslim shia iraq arbaeen

Flagbearers carry their nation's flags as well as black flags that signify the mourning of Imam Hussein.
info
×
women muslim headscarf night iraq

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.
info
×
market vegetable najaf arbaeen pilgrimage

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.

info
×
praying woman shia muslim najaf iraq arbaeen

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

info
×
child food karbala arbaeen iraq

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.

info
×
mother daughter arbaeen iraq pilgrimage

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

info
×
chaador veiled headscarf women queue karbala iraq pilgrims

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

info
×
sleeping muslim pilgrims family karbala iraq arbaeen

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.

info
×
boys arbaeen iraq karbala imam hussein

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

info
×
imam hussein shrine pilgrimage iraq karbala arbaeen

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.

info
×
Using Format