Virtual tours provide safer option for visitors of Iraqi shrine

COVID-19 has nonetheless battered the country’s Iraq’s tourism sector, which constitutes around half of its non-oil economy.
Friday 15/05/2020
A resident of Najaf, visits the Imam Ali shrine through his phone in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf. (AFP)
A resident of Najaf, visits the Imam Ali shrine through his phone in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf. (AFP)

NAJAF, IRAQ--Every year, Maher al-Rubaye marvels at the gold-leaf walls of Iraq’s Imam Ali mausoleum. He still visits the shrine today, but through a screen in his living room.

Before lockdown measures were imposed, Iraqis were able to visit the shrines and touch their walls for blessings. They are now forced to keep their visit virtual, similar to al-Rubaye, who lives hundreds of meters away from the shrine of one of the twelve imams.

The COVID-19 pandemic was first confirmed to have spread to Iraq about three months ago, when an infected Iranian theology student was detected in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

The governor of Najaf, Louai Al-Yasiri, eventually decided to close the province to all visitors.

As lockdowns extended across Iraq, visitors lost access to other major mosques, including the ornate burial place of Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph, in Najaf. Concerns about COVID-19 spreading inside these religious shrines are heightened because of the massive crowds they attract that make transmission more likely.

A computer technician operates a rackmount console terminal at the server room of the Imam Ali shrine in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf. (AFP)
A computer technician operates a rackmount console terminal at the server room of the Imam Ali shrine in Iraq’s central holy city of Najaf.(AFP)

Iraq imposed other restrictions too, shutting down airports, restaurants and schools and prohibiting travel between provinces. It has so far recorded 3,000 coronavirus infections and 110 deaths.

Similar preventative measures were taken throughout the world, including in cities with religious significance like Mecca, Jerusalem and the Vatican, frustrating religious followers who derive inspiration from visiting their holy sites.

In the meantime, however, innovative technology has offered them a chance to visit these restricted areas without leaving the safety of their homes.

An app provided users with a virtual tour of the Kaaba, the holiest Islamic site in the world, while the documentary film “The Holy City” transported viewers to the most important religious events in Jerusalem, such as the Orthodox Easter celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Ramadan prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque. It also allowed Jewish followers to participate in prayers held twice a year during the Passover and Sukkot holidays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Vatican website provided a virtual tour of Rome during the Holy Week, where Pope Francis gave blessings from an empty St. Peter’s Square.

For faithful Muslims like Rubaye, confined to their homes because of lockdown measures, these virtual options are a safe way to share in a religious experience from afar.

At his home, Rubaye extends one hand towards the sky in prayer and holds his mobile phone with the other.

On the screen flash images of the shrine: its large plaza, the marble floors and intricate calligraphy — and finally, the glittering mausoleum itself.

“I visit you, Commander of the Faithful,” Rubaye recites, adding a COVID-19-mandated amendment: “…from a distance.”

“In these current circumstances, with the confinement imposed by governments across the world, virtual pilgrimages are as valid as the normal ones,” said Ali al-Atabi, a sheikh in Najaf’s Old City.

But the pandemic has added other challenges for war-weary Iraqis desperate to see the economy turn around. COVID-19 has battered the country’s religious tourism sector, which constitutes around half of its non-oil economy. The billions of dollars pilgrims usually generate creates jobs for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and is one of the country’s only forms of tourism.

A normal year bring millions of Shia pilgrims to shrines in Najaf and nearby Karbala, travelling from neighbouring Iran or even India.

Now, the scene inside the shrine is unusually empty for the Ramadan period, as pilgrims are limited by curfews, flight suspensions and a ban on inter-city travel.

The narrow alleyways radiating out from the shrines, typically bustling with locals and tourists en route to prayer, are eerily empty. Wooden stalls where religious trinkets and other souvenirs are usually laid out have been shrouded in plastic for weeks. The sounds of an occasional tweeting bird and the call to prayer five times daily — followed by an addendum to do so at home to avoid crowds — have replaced the din of bartering, clinking coffee cups and shuffling feet.

The closures are particularly jarring as most shrines remained open during the bloodiest years of Iraq’s sectarian violence, which saw suicide bombers target religious sites and densely populated neighbourhoods.

So even with TV footage showing round-the-clock images of mausoleums and a hotline providing a free audio guide of the site, this year’s Ramadan experience is an unaccustomed change for most Iraqis.

“I’m dreaming of visiting the Imam Ali shrine, which we Shias normally pray at every single night in Ramadan,” lamented Numan al-Saadi, another resident of Najaf.

“Today, I can only see it from a distance through my phone.”

In Iran, Shias gathered in Tehran and about 400 other cities on the occasion of the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Ali, the Shias first imam, despite the country’s virus outbreak, which has caused over 113,000 confirmed cases and 7,000 deaths. Iranians plan to continue to assemble within 3 days from May 19-21, despite warning of a second wave of the virus.

Iranian news agencies published photos of the participants wearing masks while listening to public speeches, and others praying in mosques or open squares.

In Iraq, officials continue to support virtual visits to Najaf, a tough precaution that was not even taken during the darkest days of war.

(With news agencies.)