The Shrine Cities – Najaf and Kerbala


Home to the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet, resplendent with its golden dome and minarets, Najaf is a major city of mosques and shrines.

There is no quarter or street without a mosque, either small for the locals or large and attended by visitors to the city. The city’s large cemetery (Wadi Al-Salam) is considered the holiest and most sought-aft er place for burial among Shia believers. Najaf is also one of Islam’s most important seminary centres for the training of Shiite clergymen (al Hawzah al Ilmiyyah), and has many religious schools. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali, whose shining golden dome is visible from a distance of 75km away.

What to see and do

Shrine of Imam Ali

Enclosed in a mosque named Al-Haidariya Shrine is the spectacular Shrine of Imam Ali. Built in the same style as those of Kerbala, Samarra and Kadhimain, it comprises a rectangular enclosure surrounding a two-storeyed sanctuary, containing the tomb, with a great dome over it.

The most prominent and visible part of the shrine is its resplendent golden dome. Approximately 25m from the roof of the shrine, its diameter is about 16.6m. Wrapped in tiles of gold foil, the dome is surrounded by a belt of gold Koranic verse against a background of startling blue enamel. The whole edifice stands on a square-shaped ornate structure. At the eastern side of the shrine are two golden minarets (that to the north is 29m high, the one to the south is 29.5m) each made of 40,000 gold tiles, inlaid in some places with blue enamel.

Shrine of Imam Ali Iraq
© Zurijeta, Shutterstock

Within the shrine the surrounding walls have many open rooms or iwans that are laminated with Kerbala mosaic which in turn is decorated with a number of Koranic verses, pictures of plants and beautiful inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions contain valuable historical information which is considered to be a record of rich Islamic heritage.

The atmosphere is not so emotionally charged as in Kerbala. It feels more mature, more respectful to Allah (God) and Imam Ali as his servant. You have to go through the usual routines of checking in cameras, mobile phones, etc, and the checking of women’s clothing, but the welcome is genuine.

Wadi Al-Salaam Cemetery

The Peace Valley Cemetery, known as Wadi Al-Salaam Cemetery, is to the north of the Shrine of Imam Ali, beginning at the end of Al-Tossi Street. It is on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites, highlighting its significance as one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It includes the remains of millions of Muslims and dozens of scientists, guardians and people of faith as well as the graves of prophets Salih and Hud.

Because of the merit accorded to being buried in this cemetery and the honour of being interred near the remains of Ali, Muslims come from all over the world to conduct the funerals of departed family members in Najaf in order for them to be entombed in this cemetery.

Al-Hannanah Mosque

This is one of the most revered mosques in Najaf and covers about 7,400m² In the middle of the mosque is the place where it is believed that the head of Imam Hussain was put after his martyrdom in 680AD. Historical references also indicate that the body of Imam Ali passed through this location on its way to Najaf. The shrine has been renovated and extensively reconstructed.

Najaf Sea

To the south of the old city near the Safi Safa Shrine in an expansive area with very beautiful scenery, you can see the natural depression which once contained the Najaf Sea. Nothing remains now of the sea itself except its name; historians think that it was probably a land-locked lake whose waters finally disappeared in the 19th century.

It is said that in its heyday the Najaf Sea was used by ships carrying goods and people and that the remains of many shipwrecks were found on its shores as the waters receded and evaporated. Today the Najaf Sea is considered to be one of the most fertile agricultural areas in Najaf, with fields of vegetables and glades of palm trees.

Where to stay in Najaf

Although hotel accommodation is not limited, given the huge numbers of pilgrims visiting Najaf every day, bookings should be made in advance wherever possible. Many new hotels are being constructed to accommodate the influx of pilgrims, but despite this Najaf is still underdeveloped in terms of accommodation, restaurants and other tourist facilities. You will find numerous smaller, local hotels on every street in Najaf. Classified as ‘second rank’ hotels, their clientele is almost exclusively pilgrims or local Iraqis, travelling in family or larger groups. These hotels are basic, often with mainly family rooms and lacking Western-style toilets. Dining rooms are frequently communal-style and often segregated into male and family areas.

With its strict adherence to Sharia principles (including no alcohol, a strict dress code for women in public, frequent segregation of the sexes and constant security checks even when walking along the streets), Najaf is not the most comfortable or relaxing place to visit.

Getting to Najaf

Located on the eastern side of the city, Al-Najaf International Airport. As of June 2019, Najaf Airport was served by an extensive list of airlines. It is possible to fly directly into Al-Najaf International Airport from the UK and the following airlines have direct flights into the airport from their home countries – Turkish, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Air Arabia, Iran Air, Middle East Airlines, Gulf Air, Royal Jordanian, Cham Wings Airline and FlyDubai. Iraqi Airways have domestic flights to Najaf from Baghdad, Erbil, Suleimaniyah, Mosul and Basra.


The first major Shrine City on the route south towards Basra is Kerbala. The name Kerbala is derived from the Babylonian word kerb (a prayer room) and El, Aramaic for God – hence God’s temple. Kerbala’s Shia sanctuaries are objects of great veneration and the city contains the shrines of Hussain ibn Ali, son of Imam Ali, and Abbas, Hussain’s half-brother. Hussain is known among Shia believers as the Prince of Martyrs (sayyid al shuhada) because he was killed in his challenge to the accession of Muawiya’s son Yazid to the caliphate.

Kerbala emerged as a focus of devotion, particularly for Persian Shia believers. The city has been strongly infl uenced by the Persians, who were the dominant community, making up 75% of the population at the turn of the 20th century, when there were around 50,000 people in the city.

Streets of Kerbala © Thomas Koch, Shutterstock

What to see and do

The town is split into two: Old Kerbala, famous for its shrines, and New Kerbala, the residential district containing Islamic schools and government buildings. Th ere are more than 100 mosques and 23 religious schools in the city, the sole reason for travellers to visit.

The mosques of Hussain and Abbas stand out on their own as islands in the middle of a city whose activities are centred around the wants and needs of the pilgrims. Hussain’s Mosque and Shrine is surrounded by a wall with eight gates. The main gateway is surmounted by a clock tower decorated with glazed blue and gold earthenware. The three small bulbs on the dome, which is covered in gilded copper, indicate the importance of the mosque.

The second major shrine in Kerbala is that of Abbas, Hussain’s half-brother. The Abbas Shrine has nine gates decorated with glazed tiling leading into the mosque. In the middle of the shrine is the tomb of Abbas, over which there is a huge dome with Koranic verses and the Prophet’s sayings inscribed in gold. In the middle of the shrine is the tomb of Abbas, over which there is a huge dome with Koranic verses and the Prophet’s sayings inscribed in gold.

Where to stay in Kerbala

Despite there being hundreds of hotels in the city, Kerbala is still underdeveloped in terms of accommodation for the millions of Shia pilgrims who come here to visit the religious sites each year. It has no luxury hotels that meet international standards, despite the huge demand, and although hotel prices can be high, the level of quality of the accommodation can be very poor. You will find numerous small, local hotels on every street in Kerbala. Although they are classified three-stars, two-stars or one-star, these ratings do not correspond in any way to European equivalents.

Very few non-Muslims visit Kerbala as, with its strict adherence to Sharia principles (including no alcohol, a strict dress code for women in public and constant checkpoints to go through even when walking along the streets), it is not conducive to relaxation. Furthermore, apart from the shrines, there is nothing in the way of sightseeing.

Getting to Kerbala

Although the foundation stone of Kerbala International Airport was laid in 2009, with the airport anticipated to cater to the increasing religious tourism traffic, work is progressing painfully slowly.

Located 105km south from Baghdad, on Highway 8, the city is easy to get to as it is signposted from every direction. Note all the approach roads have outer and inner checkpoints. Security measures are fully implemented 24 hours a day.