Kerbala is the Holy City of martyrdom and sacrifice, 102 km south of Baghdad and 78 km north of Najaf. Housing the tombs of the best-loved martyr,Imam Abbas bin Ali ibn Abi Talib (kaw), who martyred here with his brother Imam Hussein, grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), together with many others whom all were buried in the two great shrines of the city.
It is not only the Mecca and Medina, as it were of Iraq, but also the scene of possibly the most moving incident in Islamic religious history, the tragic Battle of Al-Tuff (680 AD - 10th of Moharram, 61 AH), in which were martyred Imams Hussein and Abbas.
The elegance and originality of Arab-Islamic architecture are well evident in Al-Abbaseyya Shrine. In every corner of the shrine, there are some magnificent artistic decorations. Al-Husseineyya Shrine is considered one of the Islamic architecture's wonders. According to historical sources, the first building to embrace the tomb of Imam Hussein goes back to the year 685 AD (65 AH). About two centuries later, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Montasir Billah 861 AD (247 AH) rebuilt the tomb and in 5th century AH, Al-Hasan ibn Al-Fadhil built a fence around it.
Though practically on the edge of the desert, Kerbala lies amidst fruitful orchards thick with greenery and palm trees. Its streets and markets are always crowded with visitors and pilgrims.
The death of Imam Hussein and seventy-two companions in battle with the 4000 archers and cavalrymen of the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid, shook the Muslim world with reverberations that can still be felt after fourteen hundred years. That battle followed the murder nineteen years earlier of Hussein's father, Ali (kaw), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet (pbuh), in the doorway of his recently completed mosque at the new Muslim city, Kufa. So, from the moment the roadway turns into sight of Kerbala you are moving within a region haunted by the ghosts of the religious martyrs who lie buried here and who for millions of Muslims have sanctified it forever with their blood. It is a region in which anyone, especially non-Muslims, would do well to tread softly.
The story is short and poignant. Civil war had flared when the Caliphate, for the first time though not for the last, became the center of a murderous controversy following the murder of the Caliph Othman, the 3rd Caliph, in AD 656. For the next six years, the much respected and feared Umayyad Muawiya, in his capital Damascus, negotiated and intrigued against the gentle Ali to secure for himself the 'papacy' of Islam until, finally, Ali was assassinated in Kufa, the capital he had set against Damascus. The great Muawiya died, as Caliph, in 680 AD and his son, the frivolous Yazid, was acclaimed Caliph in his place in Damascus. Many in Medina, however, favored Imam Hussein bin Ali, a pious and serious man, rather like his father. Soon letters arrived in Medina from Kufa, Ali's former capital, urging Hussein to take up the Caliphate where Ali had left it. None too sure of himself, Hussein set off across the desert accompanied only by his family and retainers- 72 persons in all. But while Hussein was still struggling over the sands, Yazid rushed a Governor called Ubaidullah to Kufa, who lost no time in rounding up Hussein's partisans.
Meanwhile, Abbas had been overwhelmed with pity for the women and children who had begun to cry for water. He tried to steal from Hussain's camp to the Euphrates to bring water to the little band. Detected, he fought his way single-handed to the riverbank- an immense furious figure before whom the Umayyad soldiers fell back in disarray. Abbas was able to fill a water-skin and was returning to Hussain's ranks when they fell upon him again. Shot full of arrows, he dropped the water-skin- he couldn't hold on to it any longer- and the precious water ran away into the sand. Then Abbas, who was a great fighter- laid about him with his huge sword- he was bigger and stronger than most men. But his right hand was hacked clean off. Against the walls, the listening men grunted. So he grasped the sword with his left hand. But his left hand was hacked off, too. Another grunt of disgust. With his sword between his teeth, he staggered to a date-palm and propped himself against it to fight on. There Ubaidullah's men bludgeoned him to death with branches and clubs. And so Abbas died.
On the other hand, when Hussein's 72 brave souls at last approached Kufa, they found themselves not only unsupported by any local uprising but cut off from the river by a far larger force of cavalry and archers. Ubaidullah demanded unconditional surrender.
Hussein's outnumbered band fought valiantly. But outnumbered, it was doomed. His followers made their determination not to yield doubly sure by digging a ditch behind them and filling it with fire to cut off their own retreat. Yet soon Ubaidullah's methodical arrows began to fall and, one by one, Hussein's companions, unable to strike a blow at the enemy in most cases, died as he stood at their head, his sword in one hand and the Holy Qur'an in the other. There was nothing any of them could do; the odds were irresistible. They died bravely; and the last to fall was Hussein, the bravest of all. Thirty-three Umayyad lance- or sword-thrusts dispatched him.