Iranians of my generation, that is, those coming of age before the
revolution, have witnessed a vanishing
form of religious theater known as ta’ziyeh.
Although its root term, aza,
means mourning, the word ta’ziyeh
has come to signify a specific form of passion play, or religious
theater. It is the commemoration of the martyrdom at Karbala,
where the third Imam of Shi’a Muslims and his entourage of 72 got
murdered in cold blood. Ta’ziyeh had reached its peak during the Qājar
era, especially during the reign of Nasser-edin Shah. However it has
been declining ever since to a vanishing point. Except for an occasional
performance at a remote village, ta’ziyeh
has all but disappeared.
associated term aza
refers to commemorating the Karbala
event, by recounting story
of martyrdom, but without theatrical representations. These are solemn
and tearful events designed to bring salvation to the believers by
shedding tears for the martyred Imam. The two types of events ta’ziyeh
and aza dari had been conducted in parallel or in consort. Whereas ta’ziyeh
is all but forgotten, the latter has increased in frequency after the
Iranian (Islamic) revolution. This is because aza dari does not
employ shabih sazi
or any image making, which is considered sacrilege by many
religious scholars. The portraiture and sculpture of both men and
animals are prohibited by Islam. It may be because fighting idolatry was
Islam’s main aim. It should be mentioned, however, that at the height
of ta’ziyeh a well known religious leader, Ayatollah Qassem
Ghomi, testified (fatva)
that there was nothing wrong with ta’ziyeh performances.
jest of the Karbala
event is as follows. YazÌd
is considered a usurper and Imam Hossein, who believes the caliphate is
rightfully his, decides to advance his claim. He sets out for Kufeh in
Iraq, upon invitation of his followers there. An army is sent by YazÌd
to intercept and prevent him from reaching Kufeh. This army encounters
Imam Hossein’s group in a plain called Karbala near Nineva
the ancient Assyrian capital. To
break the Imam's resolve, his company is kept without water for 10 days.
The adult men are killed and the women and children are taken prisoner
and are brought to YazÌd’s
headquarters in Damascus.
the Greek and Indian cultures that developed advanced forms of theater,
for some unknown reason theater did not take root in Iran before Islam.
In modern times a form of popular theater, rou howzi,
usually comedy, was performed at weddings and circumcisions.
Another type was naghali, which consisted of reciting the epic poems of
Shahnameh at tea houses.
purpose of this article is to review the origins and history of
ta’ziyeh, its characteristics, and the role of Persian music in it. It
is concluded with a sample ta’ziyeh,
that of Qasem
which seems to have all the elements of drama.
of the Karbala events appears to have started during the Buyids (Ale
Buyeh). Ale Buyeh have their root in Daylaman, Northern Iran. At the
weak point of the Abbassid Caliphs they rose against them and ruled from
Baghdad. They used aza
as a means of exciting the Shi’a communities and organizing them
against the Sunni rulers. The declaration of Shi’a as the official
religion of Iran by the Safavids in the 16th century had a
similar purpose of organizing the country against the Sunni Ottomans
form of ta’ziyeh, that is commemoration of a martyr in Iran,
goes much farther back to the pre-historic era. Two prominent stories,
Kin’e Siavash and Zarer, show similarities to that of ta’ziyeh.
Siavash is sent by his father Kaykavus, king of Iran, to fight Afrasiab
of Turan. When Afrasiab agrees to a peace treaty favorable to Iranians,
Siavash sends word to his father suggesting cease fire. However, because
of the intrigues of his step mother, who does not want him returned,
Siavash is ordered by
Kaykavus to reject the peace treaty. Siavash is disillusioned and
disheartened and seeks refuge in Afrasiab’s camp. However he is
eventually killed by Bidarafsh, the wily brother of Afrasiab. The news
of Siavsh’s murder makes the Iranians including their hero Rostam very
sad. Rostam is said to have stood in mourning for a week.
Eventually Siavash’s murder is revenged, but a song commemorating his
death is said to have been sung until the Iran invasion of
term rozeh khani
was first coined by Molla Hossein Va’ez Kashefi, who published a book
in the 16th century, titled Rawzat al-Shohada, or the
garden of the martyrs. Ta’ziyeh
was a synonym. Later, during the Qajar era, the term ta’ziyeh
was specifically used to refer to the enactment of the story of Karbala,
as a religious theater.
is the only place that ta’ziyeh, the theatrical form was
performed. This may be partly due to the influence of the West during
the Qajar era, and partly because Iranians were more lax about religion
than most other Moslem countries. In pre-Islamic period also religious
tolerance had its ups and downs. Kourosh, and Yazdgerd III were examples
of tolerant leaders, while Darius and Anushirvan were examples of
was mainly conducted in halls called takiyeh. The best known and
the most elaborate takiyeh in Tehran was that of Dowlat, an
extravaganza building constructed during Nasser-edin Shah. It uses the
same plan as Albert hall in London, that Nasser-edin Shah had brought
back from his trip there. In fact Mostowfi, a writer of the period,
states that Nasser-edin Shah’s aim was to use the hall for Western
style theater. When the religious leaders objected it was used for ta’ziyeh.
Many foreign travelers to Iran during this period have commented about ta’ziyeh.
For example Edward Brown, professor of Eastern Literature at Cambridge
University, and author of the authoritarian book “a Literary History
of Persia” in his book, “A year Among Persians’” describes
a ta’zieyh that he saw in Iran.
the term takiyeh was used by the sufis for the tomb of their
leader. The actual tomb, ghabre khajeh (Pious man’s tomb), was
constructed as a platform, raised a few feet in the middle of a hall.
Such a platform can be seen at Menar Jonban, in Isfahan, which houses
the tomb of a Sufi, Amu Abdollah.
The followers of the sufi leader visiting his tomb performed their
rituals at takiyeh. The sufi centers built as assembly halls
without any tombs were also called takyieh. They often included a
raised platform called ghabre khajeh. Takiyehs used for ta’ziyeh
also include a Ghabre
Khajeh. The reader may also recall that the raised platform in the
middle of sangak bakeries in Iran are called ghabre khajeh.
had also borrowed from Christian passion plays, or Cross Stations, such
as those taking place in Guatemala today. The similarity can also be
observed in religious ceremonies, or passion plays called sineh zany and
zanjeer zany that take place today. The former groups beating their
chests with their hands, and the latter their backs with a chain set.
Continued, Next issue