Madi Jahangir * – Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Iranian prominent writer says in his memoirs: “Yazd is Iran’s museum of mourning tools.” On the corner of the stunning Amir Chakhmaq complex which draws attention of every tourist, stands the 8.5 meters high Nakhl, the Arabic word for palm tree which is used with the same meaning in Farsi. This Nakhl, however, looks more similar to any regular cypress tree which Iran is famous for, often known as the country’s national tree as well.
The Nakhl in Yazd is a huge structure weighing several tons consisting of interwoven carved woods in the shape of a very large leaf or, as said above, the cypress tree. Traveling through the cities in central desert of Iran, one may see so many of these Nakhls in the corner of the mosques and tekyehs. But the ones in Yazd and Taft, a nearby town, are considered to be the oldest and tallest in Iran, dating back to 450 something years ago and the Safavid dynasty.
Throughout the year, the Nakhl in the corner of medieval Amir Chakhmaq tekyeh stands by the old mosque only to be photographed by visitors. But at the beginning of the month of Moharram, this gigantic wooden masterpiece is decorated generously by large pieces of black fabrics, daggers, swords and mirrors for the festival of Ashura.
I’ve been to many Moharram festivals in Iran. Witnessing those of Northern Iran including my province, the festivals in capital Tehran, the Azeri ceremonies in Zanjan and Ardabil, the Arab/Abadani ceremonies and so on. But that of Yazd, I suppose, are as unique as the ancient province. People in Yazd are very religious and traditionally take their religious festivals very seriously. The Moharram and the following month Safar, one feels the religious spirit in every big and small town and witnesses the people collaborating voluntarily and organizing all the rituals spontaneously to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein a.s as glorious as possible.
Ashura is the most crowded day in Yazd. At the time I was there, I had never seen so many people in the streets other than the day of Ashura. The mourners come out of the mosques marching toward Amir Chakhmaq tekyeh. Along the way to Amir Chakhmaq, lots of Nazri foods and drinks are distributed among the people. I can say in that particular day, nobody remains hungry or thirsty in the city. Even if you do not seek food or drinks, you will get some on your way. As an example, a group of young volunteers which are called Daste-ye Saqqa wear black clothes and tie a red fabric around their waist, while carry Quran and giving away water to the mourners.
The ceremony in Amir Chakhmaq starts when the heavy decorated Nakhl is carried on the shoulders of hundreds of male mourners, old or young, symbolising the coffin of Imam Hussein a.s. and his martyr companions. This ritual is called Nakhl-Gardani (litterally carrying and turning the Nakhl). Almost all the other male mourners gather in the center and the women on a bigger circle around them and on the rooftop of the buildings nearby. The population is said to reach millions, specially in nearby town of Taft where so many tourists also visit to watch the ceremony. There are some guys standing on top of the Nakhl, among them an old Sayyed (descendant of prophet) chants Ya Hussein and guides the passionate mourners carrying it, so that no one is left under. They turn the Nakhl several times around the square and at the same time the people cry out religious chants.
The Nakhl becomes even heavier when is decorated by swords and daggers. But people hold and move it amazingly in harmony. There is a sense of teamwork, an unwritten law or discipline, I do not know what to call, which all mourners instinctively follow and the result is incredibly systematic.
After the Nakhl-Gardani ritual, people continue mourning and listening to the religious sermons until sundown. After the night prayers, they hold the Sham-e Ghariban (literally the night of the strangers) as candlelight vigil for the martyrs of Karbala. Children often go to different districts holding candles and light up the streets, symbolizing children of Imam Hussein and his companions who search for the corpses in the dark night of the Karbala desert. And that is how and when the massive rituals to observe the first ten days of Moharram end in Yazd.