The Significance of the Askiriya Shrine

The Askiriya Shrine in Iraq, badly damaged by a bomb, is a holy site for Shiite Muslims. Yitzhak Nakash, professor of Middle East History at Brandeis University, tells Alex Chadwick about the mosque's history.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More now on the mosque that was so badly damaged in the bombing early today. It's known as the golden-domed shrine of Askiriya. It's in Samarra. That's a city of about 200,000 people. That's 60 miles north of Baghdad. Yitzhak Nakash is a professor of Middle East History at Brandeis University. He's the author of Reaching for Power: Shi'a in the Modern Arab World. Welcome Professor Nakash. And what can you tell us about this holy site?

Professor YITZHAK NAKASH (Professor of Middle East History, Brandeis University): The city itself, Samarra, is believed to be the birth place of Muhammad al Mahdi. He is the 12th Shiite Imam. Shiites believed that he disappeared. And they expect him to return one day as a messianic figure. Also, this particular shrine, Shiites believe, contains the tombs of Hasan al-Askari and Ali al-Nardi(ph). They are the 10th and 11th Imams. Obviously this is a very special and dear site as far as the Shiites are concerned.

CHADWICK: How important is this site to the Shiite branch of the Muslim faith? How do you rank this among other shrines?

Professor NAKASH: The Shiites have six shrine cities. Four of those cities are in Iraq. I will list them in the order of their importance. The first one is Najaf, the shrine city of Najaf in southern Iraq where Ali, the first Shiite Imam, is believed to be buried. The other important shrine, second in rank, is in Karbala, where Husayn, his son, is believed to be buried. Then we have shrines in Kazamane(ph) and in Samarra. And I would say that this is probably the fourth in importance.

CHADWICK: When was this shrine built and who built it? Do we even know?

Professor NAKASH: It was probably built in the 10th century by one of the Abassi(ph) Khalifs(ph). It was ruined several times during history. It was restored. The details are not quite clear.

CHADWICK: How many people would normally worship in this shrine? Or is it not a place where people go to worship?

Professor NAKASH: On a regular basis I would say that the number is not particularly big. However, there are a few occasions during the Shiite yearly calendar where Shiites are advised to go and pay specific visits to various shrines. And this is one of them. So, a large number of visitors would usually appear on days of visitations and not necessarily every Friday.

CHADWICK: So, the building, though, this shrine, it's a Shi'a shrine but it's in this Sunni-dominated area. This part of Iraq is, this is really Sunni territory. How is it that a very important Shi'a shrine ends up there?

Professor NAKASH: This development has to do with the nature of composition of Iraqi society. This particular area of around Baghdad and north of Baghdad has been Sunni largely because it was very tribal in nature, tribes who did not settle down and did not convert to Shiism, something that did take place in the south. And as a result, Samarra, that knew like big days and had some very prospering Shiite mudressas(ph) in the 19th century, declined as far as the Shiite presence in the city is concerned and became a Sunni city but with very important Shiite shrines.

CHADWICK: Professor, there is another significant shrine in Samarra for the Shi'a, one with a spiral minaret. Is that it? Would that be under threat as well?

Professor NAKASH: There is another shrine, indeed, the one with the minaret. It would be under threat if it was targeted by foreign J'hadists or people who are trying to provoke the Shiites and throw Iraq into a civil war.

Hopefully the shrines would be now under better protection.

CHADWICK: Yitzhak Nakash is professor of Middle East History at Brandeis University and he's the author of Reaching for Power: Shi'a in the Modern Arab World. Professor Nakash, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Professor NAKASH: My pleasure.

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