Iran’s Qali Shuyan (Carpet-Washing Ritual) in the town of Mashhad Ardahal, near Kashan
The 7th Meeting of Intangible Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was held in Paris recently in the presence of representatives of member states, during which the proposal of the Islamic Republic of Iran for registration on the World Heritage List of the famous carpet-washing ritual at the shrine of a venerable descendent of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA) in the town of Mashhad Ardahal, near Kashan, was approved.
In the meeting 36 cultural works from various countries were offered for registration. Iran, as one of the 148 members of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, has now ten of its spiritual-cultural works registered in this international convention. These include Naqqali or the art of story-telling with actions, traditional Iranian navigation in the Persian Gulf, the Nowruz or New Year celebrations on the Spring Equinox, the Ta’ziyah or enacting of the tragedy of Karbala, the Zour-Khaneh or the traditional ritualistic Iranian body-building exercises, music of the northern Khorasan region, and the art of carpet-weaving in Fars and Kashan.
The Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was approved in 2003 to preserve the vast spectrum of arts, rituals and traditions in different parts of the world. Iran is indeed rich in this field with its thousands of years of civilization. Archeological excavations have proven the fact that Iranians throughout history have developed unique cultural norms and masterpieces of art, and in turn have conveyed this to other world nations. One of the signs of dynamism and freshness of cultures is to keep alive the traditions and pass them on to posterity. These rituals are manifestation of unity and affinity. Examples in this regard are the mourning ceremonies for the Martyrs of Karbala that Iranians commemorated in the months of Moharram and Safar.
These religious ceremonies have definitely shaped Iranian culture and all aspects of life. The love and affection of the Iranian people for the Ahl al-Bayt or Blessed Household of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA) as per the commandment of God Almighty in the holy Qur'an have been famous throughout history. The birth and martyrdom anniversaries of the Infallible Imams are devoutly observed throughout Iran. Because of this devotion the shrines of the Imamzadehs or descendents of the Imams are the centre of cultural and religious gatherings throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. One such gathering is the carpet washing ritual that has now been placed on the list of UNESCO's Intangible World Heritage List.
Mashhad-e Ardahal or the place of martyrdom in Ardahal refers to a village in Isfahan Province, located some 50 km east of the city of Kashan. The village contains the resting place of Sultan Ali, a son of Imam Mohammad Baqer (AS) the 5th Imam of the Prophet's Household. The mausoleum has two magnificent courtyards, a couple of splendid balconies and tall minarets decorated with ceramic tiles. The whole building complex belongs to the Seljuqid period, and is 800 years old.
The Qali Shuyan or Carpet Washing Ceremony, one of the most interesting religious ceremonies in Iran, is held in Mashhad-e Ardahal. It is a traditional religious and historical mourning ceremony. The origin of the ceremony can be traced back to the time when Sultan Ali, the brother of the Prophet's 6th Infallible Heir, Imam Ja'far Sadeq (AS), who was invited from Medina to Ardahal more than 12 centuries ago, was brutally martyred in the village by the enemies of the Ahl al-Bayt in the service of the tyrannical regime of the Omayyad caliphs. After his followers from the area arrived too late to help him they wrapped his body in a carpet. They then washed his body in a stream 150 meters away, before burying him.
So for hundreds of years people in their thousands from the surrounding area and beyond have flocked to Mashhad-e Ardahal to mourn and represent this event each year on the second Friday of the Iranian month of Mehr (early October), since this was the day Sultan Ali was martyred. Some pilgrims even walk to the shrine from places that are far away. The crowd of pilgrims then leave the shrine carrying the remains of the same sacred carpet (that was used to wrap the body of Sultan Ali) on their shoulders, and while mourning, symbolically beat the remains of the carpet with long sticks to show their hatred towards the enemies of the Prophet's Household and to demand justice for this unjustified killing, and also as a means to clean the carpet.
The pilgrims wear black clothes, chant religious elegies, cry and beat their chests (as a sign of grief and mourning) and rotate their sticks in the air, while rotating the carpet around the yard of the shrine. They then wash the carpet in a special stream of water near the shrine. The people believe the water acquires curative properties because of the sincere devotion of the pilgrims to God the Almighty Creator. Many pilgrims apply the stream water upon their bodies and also bottle the water to take home with them. The pilgrims then return the carpet back to the shrine and the mourning ends at noon with a giant feast, where tens of thousands are fed for free, before finally returning to their homes. According to estimates, this year over 300,000 people from different parts of Iran assembled in Mashhad-e Ardahal for this grand ceremony, which has now been registered on the UNESCO List of the World Intangible Heritage.
According to historical documents, on the request of the people of Kashah, Imam Baqer (AS) sent one of his sons to this area of Iran for enlightening them with the genuine teachings of Islam. Sultan Ali arrived and took up residence in the village of Ardahal. He was a pure, virtuous, and honest person, engrossed in the worship of the One and Only God. In 116 AH, two years after the martyrdom of Imam Baqer (AS) in Medina, the Omayyad regime ordered its agents to kill the Imam's son Sultan Ali in Ardahal. The people of Fin village on hearing the news that the house of this virtuous descendent of Prophet had been surrounded by enemies intent on carrying out their evil design, rushed to Ardahal with sticks at their hands. When they reached the place, Sultan Ali had achieved martyrdom. They were deeply sad to find his body decapitated. They thus put wrapped him in a carpet, took it to the nearby stream, washed the corpse and laid it to rest at the spot where Sultan Ali had specified in his will. Thus, ever since, every year, the people of Fin enact this tragedy. Only the local villagers have the right to hold the symbolic carpet and wash it, while others watch and beat their chests.