Ta'ziyeh: Performing Iran's Living Epic Tradition

Martyrdom's Thousand Homes:
Painted Shrines to Hossein, One of Early Islam's Slain Leaders, Dot the Lush Iranian Coast

Tara Bahrampour

[Image: A village in Gilan province.]

In 1996 I was preparing for a trip to Iran when Peter Chelkowski, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, asked if I would undertake a mission there. I was to travel the country in search of the Qajar-era folk art found on some hosseiniehs and tekiehs, the outdoor shrine buildings that house annual re-enactments of the massacre of Shiite Islam's founding fathers' on the plains of Karbala, in what is today Iraq. Some of the sites were in major cities, but many were obscure, unmapped and undocumented for so long that even the experts were not sure where they all lay.

[Image: Agha Seid Mohammad boq'a in Niagoo village.]

[Image: On a wall of Agha Seid Mohammad boq'a; Hossein(?) embarks on his journey holding the infant Ali Asghar in his arms.]

I set out armed with a camera, a zoom lens, and only a vague sense of what I was looking for. In south Tehran I wandered labyrinthine alleys and queried local residents before I found an old saqqah-khaneh: a cubbyhole carved into the wall of a brick building and decorated with painted tiles where believers left crumpled bills and candles. In Shiraz, a friend and I searched for the famous 1876 hosseinieh Mosheer with its elaborate pediment of colorful painted tiles depicting the martyrdom of Hossein. Professor Chelkowski had given me an old, grainy photograph of it, but when we showed it to locals they shook their heads blankly. Finally we stumbled upon a tiny courtyard where, in an abandoned room lined with peeling wallpaper, we discovered dusty tile fragments whose broken faces and hands matched those in the photo. Later we learned that the shrine, with its magnificent panorama, had been destroyed a few years earlier by an electrical fire.

[Image: A wall of Davazdah Tan boq'a in Melat village. Abbas, the standard-bearer, leaves for Karbala.]

The boq'as of the Gilan province were the most elusive quarry. Most Iranians I spoke to had never heard of these thatched roof huts nestled in tiny villages along the lush Caspian coast. The small shrine-like structures were often built in honor of a local saint or Sufi and located in cemeteries; like hosseiniehs, they functioned as loci for village ceremonies. In Moharram, the mourning month, villagers gathered there to watch martyrdom narratives re-enacted through storytelling and the display of portable canvases that told of the trials of Hossein, his son Ali Akbar, his nephew Ghassem, and his half-brother Abbas.

[Image: At Davazdah Tan, Hossein(?) on his winged horse.]

Toward the late Qajar dynasty (around the turn of the 20th century), paintings of the events began to bloom like jungle flowers on the boq'as. Unlike religious folk art in the Caucasus and central Turkey (from whence some scholars believe the tradition came), the majority of boq'a scenes were not painted on the inside but on the outside of the building, protected on four sides by porticos. Cheaper than tiles, the Gilan boq'a art required only the artist and his paints, and villages competed to produce the most beautiful specimens.

[Image: At Davazdah Tan, TK looms large while one of his enemies is tortured.

On an early June morning, I boarded a bus at Tehran's smoggy depot and rode for four hours through dun-colored mountains and dark tunnels before being let off on the side of a road near some rice fields. The air was muggy. A friend of mine had arranged for a friend of his to meet me and be my guide. In a shack beside the road I slept on the floor with his family, and showered in a wooden lean-to beside a chicken coop. The friend's name was Hossein, but he had little knowledge about hosseiniehs or boq'as. So in the morning, we hired a local man with a car and set off to the coastal city of Rasht to visit a scholar I had heard might have some information.

[Image: Agha Amir Shahid boq'a in the town of Lahijan.

I was lucky; not only was the scholar-a frequent traveler-in town, but his trove of knowledge was vast, if dated. On a worn map, he traced his finger along jagged mountain roads. "There was a beautiful boq'a here," he said, stopping at a blank spot. "But I haven't been up there for ten or fifteen years. It may be gone." In recent decades, earthquakes had leveled whole towns, swallowing up an unknown number of boq'as.

[Image: At Agha Seid Hossein boq'a in the town of Lengerud, Hossein and Ali Asghar depart.

Seismic unrest was not the only culprit. In the region's damp climate, plaster and stucco crumbles quickly and thatched roofs need constant upkeep. A century ago, boq'as were lovingly tended by villagers and by itinerant artists who regularly touched up the paintings. Now, those attentions had waned. As Iranians turned from villages to cities, and from live theatrical spectacles to television, the boq'as and their colorful murals had been left to fade in the sun and rain.

[At the boq'a at Licha, boiling an enemy of Hossein.

We drove from village to village, guided more by strangers than by any map. We had to give up on a few boq'as on the scholar's list; they were either long gone or too well hidden in the dense vegetation. But there were also moments of wonder. We bumped down a gravel road past a drowned soccer field to discover the Davazdah Tan, or Twelve Bodies, a boq'a in the town of Melat. Like a jewel in a green case, the four-sided hut fairly shone against the vegetation. Village girls in bright scarves beamed at us from the porch. Behind them, the walls were covered in fantastical images: winged horses, brave warriors, and graphic depictions of the torture and dismemberment suffered by the enemies of Hossein.

[Image: At Licha, enemies of Hossein fall naked off the ____ and are devoured by a many-headed sea monster.]

Down the road, at the boq'a of Licha, jinns, devils, and a distressed-looking lion try to aid Hossein, who waves them off in the name of fair fighting. On another panel, Hossein begs for water for his infant son Ali Asghar; his enemies kill the child, but find their punishment on a third panel, where they are boiled alive or cast naked into the mouths of a three-headed sea monster.