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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume
30, Number 3, 2010, pp. 512-532 (Article)
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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cst/summary/v030/30.3.ate.html

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Bones of Contention:
Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian
Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq
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he Ottoman-Iranian frontier, which had fluctuated with the fortunes of war and never
been a strict dividing line, was permanently fixed by a nineteenth-century international order intent on mapping out the world according to its needs and methods of
organization. In spite of attempts to demarcate and delimit it, in times of both war and peace,
the frontier region witnessed the relatively free flow of goods and ideas, as well as diseases,
refugees, fugitives, courtesans, nomadic and seminomadic tribes, pilgrims, princes, sheikhs
and ayatollahs, and, many a time, armies. Yet unlike any other frontier region, this one also
witnessed caravans carrying the corpses and bones of the faithful to be buried in the cemeteries of the holy Shii cities of Ottoman Iraq. One could claim that, together with banditry, commercial activities related to corpse and pilgrim traffic constituted one of the most persistent
economic activities of the Ottoman-Iranian borderland. Iranian exports were not limited to
the celebrated silks, saffron, and precious metals destined for the elite.
European travelers to the region in the nineteenth century rather scornfully report that
at times thousands of people, accompanied by hundreds of coffins, crossed from Iran into
the Ottoman Iraq, and at times smaller caravans carrying the bodies of the devout in long
narrow boxes secured on the backs of mules crossed the frontier. William Kenneth Loftus, an
auxiliary member of the Turco-Persian Frontier Commission in the early 1850s, provides an
account from An Najaf:

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The dead are conveyed in boxes covered with coarse felt, and placed two on each side upon a mule,
or one upon each side, with a ragged conductor on the top, who smokes his kaliyun and sings cheerily as he jogs along, quite unmindful of his charge. Every caravan traveling from Persia to Baghdad
carries numbers of coffins; and it is no uncommon sight, at the end of a days march, to see fifty or
sixty piled upon each other on the ground.1

Another traveler, H. Swainson Cowper, who witnessed many of these ghastly processions,
maintains, A rickety wicker coffin fastened across a mules back was the usual sight, and as
many of them have been brought hundreds of miles from Persia and India it is commonly
This article was written while I was a Senior Residential Fellow at Ko Universitys Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Istanbul, and was also supported by the American Research Institute in Turkey and Southern Methodist University. I
am currently completing my book on the transformation of the
Ottoman-Iranian frontier into a boundary. Unless otherwise
noted, all translations are mine.

1. William Kenneth Loftus, Travels and Researches in Chaldea and


Susiana (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1857), 54.

2. H. Swainson Cowper, Through Turkish Arabia: A


Journey from the Mediterranean to Bombay by the Euphrates and Tigris Valleys and the Persian Gulf (London: H. Allen, 1894), 372.
3. John Ussher, A Journey from London to Persepolis
(London: Durst and Blackett, 1865), 439.
4. A short time before the period of our visit a man
who was known not to belong to the town was observed by the astute sentry bringing in a bag of barley, which the upright soldier, who suspected a trick,

and whom nothing but a bribe could corrupt(in this


case the delinquent was too poor to offer one)insisted on examining. Underneath a covering of barley
was found the skeleton of the bearers father, which
was thus placing surreptitiously, and without paying
the usual tax for such a benefit, under the guardianship of the saint. A double fee was at once demanded
from the cheater of the Sultan, but whether his piety
and affection stood such a test we were not informed. Ibid., 45960.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

513

Bones of Contention:

four major sacred burial grounds. While large


numbers of the living faithful flocked to the
holy cities for pilgrimage, many wanted them
to be their eternal resting places as well. As a
result, every year thousands of corpses arrived
from Shia Iraq and Iran, as well as India, to the
shrine cities, or Mesahid-i Mukaddese, as Ottoman documents call them.
Moved by the Shii doctrine of imamate
and the belief in an imams power of intersession or the act of intervening on the believers
behalf on the day of resurrection, and many
other traditions, Shiis had for centuries negotiated, and increasingly confronted, the Sunni
masters of Iraq for the opportunity to bury
their dead at the four consecrated cemeteries.
By the nineteenth century, their efforts had
made corpse traffic not only a lucrative trade
but also a source of tension, between Ottoman
and Iranian authorities, as well as between
Shii Ottoman subjects and their government.
The corpses and bones that the caravans carried, along with the rituals, requirements, and
limitations related to the hallowed grounds to
which they traveled, became ties that bound the
Shii Iranian state and society to the Shii Ottoman world; yet they also sharpened the bones of
contention between the Ottoman and Iranian
states, on the one hand, and the Ottoman state
and its Shii citizens, on the other.
Consequently, the dead bodies, and the
question of how to deal with them, became a significant religio-political issue inextricable from
questions of sovereignty, frontiers, and commerce and, in the nineteenth century, increasingly of public hygiene, sanitation, and sanitary
surveillance at boundaries. With the cholera
epidemics in the third decade of the nineteenth
century, this last matter made the corpse and
pilgrimage traffic part of a global problem: that
of preventing the spread of contagious diseases.
Hence the bones of the poor gentleman hidden

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supposed that a very unsanitary state of things


exists in these corpse caravans.2 Indeed, as the
coming pages will show, the sanitary aspect of
corpse traffic would make it an international
problem and change its course for good. Yet another observer, John Ussher, reports, The bodies were covered in thin deal and covered with
felt, in which the bodiesa fter having been
first buried for a year or two and then disinterredwere placed.3 Usher adds that rich Persians sent their dead for interment immediately
after death. Indeed, members of the royal family and other notables would occasionally bring
the corpse of one of theirs, like the daughter
of Abbas Mirza, to be buried in the precincts
of the holy shrines, accompanied by dignitaries
in elaborate processions. At the other extreme,
members of the poorer classes, who pooled resources to pay for a transport mule that would
carry up to six long boxes, were forced to temporarily bury the bodies of their dead closer
to home, until they could amass the necessary
means to send the bones for interment. Some
pious but poor were not even able to pay the
cost of the mule or the small tax levied at the
border. Ussher reports the sad story of a poor
gentleman trying to evade the small tax levied
on coffins and so fulfill the will of his father,
whose bones he hid in a bag of barley.4
The shrines to which both rich and poor
came to visit, and the cemeteries to which they
brought their dead for burial, were located in the
cities of An Najaf, Karbala, Al Kazimiyah, and
Samarra, collectively known as the atabat, or the
shrines of the imams. Of these, An Najaf (home
to the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib) and Karbala
(home to the shrines of Alis son, Husayn bin
Ali, and Husayns half brother, Abbas) are the
sacred hearts of the Shia world.5 Additionally,
the cemeteries of Wadi Al-S alam in An Najaf,
Wadi al-Iman in Karbala, Maqabir Quraysh at
Al Kazimiyah, and al-Tarima in Samarra are the

5. Atabat, thresholds, more fully, atabat-e aliyat or


atabat-e (or atab-e ) moqaddasa, the lofty or sacred
thresholds, contain the tombs of six of the imams
as well as secondary sites of pilgrimage. See Hamid
Algar, Atabat, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, www.iranica
.com/articles/atabat (accessed 10 May 2010).

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Caravan of corpses going


to Kerbelah, in John Ussher,
A Journey from London to
Persepolis, 480

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by his son in the bag of barley took on a significance that extended far beyond the power of Ottoman custom and quarantine officers intent (or,
at times, not so intent) on capturing miscreants.
Informed by this background, and based
primarily on Ottoman documents, this article
focuses on the unique phenomenon of the transfer of corpses (naql al-janaiz or naql al-amwat)
as it was related to Ottoman-Iranian relations,
the making of their frontier, and the relations
between Ottoman authorities and their Shii
subjects. To shed light on Ottoman perceptions
of Shii Iranians the article first discusses how
Sunni religious authorities responded to Ottoman struggles with the Safavids. Emphasizing
the role of sectarian differences in OttomanIranian relations the article dwells not on the
theological aspects of naql al-janaiz but rather
on its social, political, and economic implications.6 After providing a general overview of
the ongoing significance of sectarianism and
its evolution in Ottoman-Iranian relations, and
the role that sacred Shii geography played in
this relationship, I show how two concurrent
developments changed the dynamics of border
crossing in the nineteenth century: the delimitation and demarcation of the frontier, and the
appearance of cholera as a new agent of globalization. Focusing on the medicalization of the
emerging boundary line, I show how Ottomans
were able to regulate corpse and pilgrim traffic
and therefore control the flow of Iranians into

6. For the religious aspect of the corpse traffic, I relied


on Yitzhak Nakashs masterful treatment of the issue
in his The Shiis of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), chap. 7, Corpse Traffic.

Ottoman Iraq. Yet I also argue that, at the turn


of the twentieth century, the transfer of corpses
as well as the limitations related to it, provided
a venue for Iraqi Shiis to claim full citizenship
in the Ottoman body politic.
Persistence of Sectarianism in Ottoman-Iranian
Relations: Pre-nineteenth-Century Period

In the early sixteenth century, three interrelated


phenomena emphatically recast the physical
and mental map of the Islamic world: the transformation of the Safaviyya Sufi order into the
Safavid state (1501); the resulting dominance
of Shiism in the Iranian plateau; and the Safavid championship of Shii Islam, which shifted
Irans relations with the surrounding world.
One key result of these transformations was the
threat the Ottoman Empire felt on its eastern
frontiers. Subsequently, three factors contributed to the development of the Ottoman-Iranian
rivalry: the presence of large numbers of qizilbash (Alawites) living in Anatolia; Shah Ismails
messianic appeal and missionary efforts among
them; and the existence of holy Shii sites and
considerable numbers of Shiis in Iraq-i Arab.
Indeed, six years before the Ottomans decisively
crushed him in Chaldiran (1514), Shah Ismail
took control of Baghdad and made pilgrimage
to the shrines of the imams, where he devoted
his attention to [their] maintenance and beautification and bestowed generous gifts on their
attendants.7 The following year, he defeated

7. Eskandar Monshi, History of Shah Abbas, trans.


Roger Savory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1978), 58. Rudi
Matthee argues that Irans expansion into Iraq-i Arab,
the sacred land of the Shii world, was motivated less
by the ideology of the nascent Safavid state than

by strategic considerations. See Rudi Matthee, The


Safavid-O ttoman Frontier: Iraq-i Arab as Seen by
the Safavids, International Journal of Turkish Studies 9 (2003): 15773. Similarly, Rhoads Murphey concludes that strategic considerations rather than reli-

gious animosity shaped the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry.


See Rhoads Murphey, Sleymans Eastern Policy, in
Sleyman the Second and His Time, ed. Halil Inalcik
and Cemal Kafadar (Istanbul: Isis, 1993), 25978.
8. See Adel Allouche, The Origins and Development of
the Ottoman-Safavid Conflict (906962/15001555)
(Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1983), 93. Following in Shah
Ismails footsteps, Nadir Shah, after his invasion
of Iraq in 1743, financed the renovation of the dome
of the Shrine of Ali in An Najaf. See Ernest S. Tucker,
Nadir Shahs Quest for Legitimacy in Post-Safavid Iran
(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 42. For
Safavid propaganda in Anatolia see M. ahabettin
Tekinda, Yeni Kaynak ve Vesikalarn I Altnda
Yavuz Sultan Selimin ran Seferi, Istanbul niver-

sitesi Edebiyat Fakltesi Tarih Dergisi (Yavuz Selims


Iranian Campaign in Light of New Sources and Documents) 17 (1967): 4986.
9. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 187. For Shii pilgrimage, see
Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, chap. 6. For Hajj, see Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, 15171683 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1994).
10. Suspicious of possible infiltration on the part of
the shahs emissaries in Iraq, in the sixteenth century
Istanbul required Iranian pilgrims to take the official caravan routes through Damascus, Cairo, and
Yemen, rather than the much easier KermanshahBaghdad-Basra route that was later opened to pilgrim traffic depending on political expediency. See
Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 13637.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

515

Bones of Contention:

Henceforth, the Ottoman-Iranian geopolitical rivalry would be couched in religious and


sectarian terms of differing intensities. Safavid
challenges to Ottoman rule in Iraq, Anatolia,
and Kurdistan, and their proselytizing in these
regions, spurred Ottoman anti-S afavid and
anti-Shii propaganda.10 Thus from very early
on, the highest Ottoman religious authorities,
like Mufti Hamza (d. 1512) and Sheikh al-Islam
Ibn Kemal, known as Kemalpasazade (d. 1533),
issued anti-Shia fatwas declaring Shah Ismail
and his followers as apostates and heretics. Kemalpasazade decreed that their status is that of
apostates, and once conquered . . . their possessions, women and children would be considered
spoils; as for their men, they should be killed
unless they become Muslims. 1 1 It was after
obtaining these fatwas that Selim ordered his
army to prepare for the campaign against Shah
Ismail, massacring the Anatolian qizilbash on
his way to decisive victory at Chaldiran. Three
decades after Chaldiran, and possibly on the eve
of Sultan Suleymans first campaign against the
Safavids (153335), the famed Ottoman Sheikh
al-Islam Ebus-suud (ca. 14901574), declared
the Safavids and their followers to be apostates
and defined war against them as holy war and
therefore not merely licit but obligatory.12
No doubt such fatwas were the by-products
of a time of confrontation. As Rhoads Murphey
suggests, preoccupation with doctrinal matters,
as expressed in the rather bombastic literary
style of sixteenth-century diplomatic correspondence, may well have been mostly confined to
pro forma rituals, which signaled the initiation
and conclusion of military campaigning.13 However, such correspondence was not limited to
the sixteenth century, as Ottoman-Iranian re-

Sabri Ate

the Sunni Uzbek Shaybak Khan, made a goldmounted drinking cup out of his skull, and sent
his straw-stuffed head to Bayezid II; at the same
time, he also sent the Mamluks their share of
severed heads and demanded from them the
right to cover (kiswa) the Holy Kaabah.8 Thus
began the Iranian rulers bid to become the uncontested champions of Shii Islam. As a result
of the ensuing confrontation, the oldest frontier
region of what is today called the Middle East
was determined by what one could conveniently
call the first attempts to export a Shii revolution.
An indirect result of the same confrontation
was the Ottoman occupation of Mamluk Egypt,
which elevated the sultans rank to the custodians of the two holy cities and made them the
uncontested champions of Sunni Islam. Consequently, sectarian tension became an indelible
component of Ottoman-Iranian relations, with
Iraq the main theater of confrontation.
The emergence of naql al-janaiz and pilgrimage to the atabat as an interstate issue was
a by-product of these historical developments,
as Yitzak Nakash maintains. Before Irans conversion to Shiism, those buried around the holy
grounds of the four shrines were largely distinguished and affluent individuals.9 With mass
conversion, securing pilgrimage and burial traffic routes and controlling the flow of caravans
became the purview of the state and as such a
source of legitimacy, and possible contention,
with the masters of Iraq. The borderlands of
Baghdad, Basra, and Kermanshah emerged as
sites where the legitimacy of both empires was
at stake. The Ottomans had the task not only of
securing the consent of their Shii subjects in
Baghdad and beyond but also of restraining the
Ajams, who were eyeing the holy Shii sites.

11. For these fatwas, see Allouche, Origins and Development, 11112.
12. Colin Imber, Ebus-suud: The Islamic Legal Tradition (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009),
86.
13. Murphey, Sleymans Eastern Policy, 271.

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lations in later centuries indicate. A look from


the borders, especially from the atabat, shows
that sectarian animosity continued. Wartime
animosity laid the ground for peacetime relations and made Iranian access to the atabat and
corpse traffic contentious issues. As a result of
this sustained sectarian hostility, even the marriage of Sunnis to Shiis was forbidden, which
remained an unresolved issue as long as the Ottoman Empire endured, because the prohibition was a direct result of the sectarian rivalry
between the empires and became inseparable
from their ideologies of legitimation.14
After about two decades of struggle over
the frontier regions, the Safavids and the Ottomans signed their first political treaty in
Amasya, on 21 May 1555. For the first time,
the sultan officially recognized Safavid Iran,
while Iran recognized Ottoman sovereignty
over Baghdad, Basra, and western Kurdistan.15
Correspondence exchanged between Sultan
Suleyman and Shah Tahmasb before the signing of the treaty underscores the significance
of sectarian differences and Shii holy sites in
Ottoman-Iranian relations. In his letters, Shah
Tahmasb raises the issue of Iranian Shii access to the atabat and safe transit to the hajj in
Hejaz. Accepting his counterparts request that
Iranians be allowed to freely visit the atabat, as
well as Mecca and Medina, Sultan Suleyman
promised that they would be treated justly and
be protected, adding, the essence of our wish
is to protect the honor [namus] of the Prophet
and his companions.16 Accordingly, Shiis were
guaranteed free access to the holy cities in Arabia and Iraq, while Iran pledged to cease abusing Sunni Islam, namely, by curbing irreverent
and offensive language used by Shiis when referring to the first three caliphs of Islam, the
Prophets wife Aishah, and the Sunni faith in

14. See Karen M. Kern, The Prohibition of Sunni-Shii


Marriages in the Ottoman Empire: A Study of Ideologies (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1999).
15. For early Iranian-O ttoman treaties, see Remzi
Kl, XVI-XVII Yzyllarda Osmanl-ran Siyasi Antla
malar (Ottoman-Iranian Political Treaties of the Sixteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries) (Istanbul: Tez
Yaynlar, 2001). The most detailed Turkish source on
Iranian-O ttoman relations of the early period is still
Bekir Ktkolu, OsmanI-Iran Siyasi Mnasebetleri
(16121678) (Ottoman-Iranian Diplomatic Relations
[16121678]) (Istanbul: Fetih Cemiyeti, 1993). For the be-

general and by ordering the cessation of public


cursing ceremonies, the denial of the legitimacy
of the first three caliphs (sabb va rafd), and, of
course, Omar Kushan, the ritual destruction of
the effigy of Omar, the second caliph.17
However, such amicable rhetoric did not
put an end to Ottoman anti-Shii policies or Iranian anti-Sunni practices. Even though I could
not find fatwas like those of Ebu Suud coming
from the Iranian ulema, it is well known that
anti-Sunni practices abounded at the Safavid
court. For example, during the time of Shah
Tahmasb, to impose Shiism on the Sunni majority of Iran, Sunni ulama were obliged to
execrate the first three Caliphs, and the recalcitrant among them were immolated; the tombs
of Sunni saints and scholars were violated; and
Sunni mosques were desecrated. 18 Indeed,
Shah Tahmasbs zealotry was so intense that he
would interrupt Friday prayer in Sunni mosques
of Qazvin, making a Shii preacher ascend to
the pulpit and start the vilification of Alis enemies: the companions beginning with Abu
Bakr and the rest of the ashara al-mubashara biljanna (the ten who were blessed with paradise),
the prophets wives (Aishah and Hafsa), and the
four Sunni caliphs.19 It appears that such practices continued, because injunctions against sabb
va rafd and calls for the better treatment and
security of Iranian pilgrims to Iraq and Hejaz
appear in later treaties concluded between Iran
and the Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman animosity outlived the Safavid
state. The Afghan occupation of Iranian lands
up to Esfahan, and the Russian occupation of
Baku and Dagestan (1723), whet the Ottoman
appetite for the spoils of Safavid disintegration.
When meeting to discuss the situation in Iran,
the Ottoman divan (council of ministers) declared that, according to many books of Islamic

ginning of the eighteenth century, see Mnir Aktepe,


Osmanl-ran Mnasabetleri ve Silahr Kemani Mustafa Aanin Revan Fetihnamesi 17201724 (OttomanIranian Relations and Kemani Mustafa Aghas Conquest
of Yerevan 17201724) (Istanbul: stanbul niversitesi
Edebiyat Fakltesi Yaynlar, 1970).
16. Kl, Osmanl-ran Siyasi Antlamalar, 7475.
17. Omar also refers to Umar ibn Sad, who was in
charge of the military detachment that surrounded
Husayn, son of Ali, and ultimately martyred him at
Karbala.

18. Hamid Algar, Some Observations on Religion in


Safavid Persia, Iranian Studies 7 (1974): 291.
19. Rosemary Stanfield Johnson, Sunni Survival in
Safavid Iran: Anti-Sunni Activities during the Reign
of Tahmasb I, Iranian Studies 27 (1994): 128.

20. Aktepe, 17201740 Osmanl-Iran Mnsebetleri,


1314.
21. The text of this ferman is published in ibid.,
3943.
22. Tucker, Nadir Shahs Quest, 39.
23. For a detailed treatment of this topic, see ibid.
24. Ibid., 98.

25. Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, Trih-iCevdet (Cevdets History) (Dersaadet [Istanbul]: Matbaa-i Osmaniye, AH
1309/1893), 2:305.
26. Lady Sheil draws attention to the popularity of
Omar Kushan in Tehran of 1850 in her Glimpses of Life
and Manners in Persia (London: John Murray, 1856),
140.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

517

Bones of Contention:

to make pilgrimages to the shrine cities of Iraq


and that Ottoman officers would not demand
oppressive taxes from them.24
Following Nadir Shahs unsuccessful attempts to foster religious coexistence, Karim
Khan Zand (r. 176079) and the Qajar dynasty
(17961925) made Shiism the basis of their legitimacy to rule. When Karim Khan Zand occupied Basra in 1775, yet another similar fatwa
was issued against him as well.25 Consequently,
religious animosity went unabated even during
times of peace.26 However, even though the Ottoman chronicles continued to label Iranians
as Qzlbash religion-destroyers who had gone
astray, Shiis as rafidi (rejecters, deniers), and
the shah as heretical and misguided, during
the Qajar times the language of Islamic brotherhood gradually replaced that of sectarian animosity that the aforementioned fatwas display.
Additionally, the sectarian differences that led
to hostility did not result in Ottomans and Iranians becoming isolated from each other. Especially in its earlier centuries, the Ottoman capital continued to be part of the Persian cultural
ecumene, while Iran continued to function as a
Turco-Persian state under successive dynasties.
Cultural and commercial contacts, as well as the
exchange of ambassadors and the movement of
pilgrims, merchants, artists, and people changing subjecthoood, continued unabated. As a
result, Iranians and other Shiis continued to
dwell in a legally ambiguous space until the 1823
Ottoman-Iranian Treaty, which treated the shah
and the sultan as equal and sovereign Muslim
leaders and recognized Iranians as foreigners.
Like the Europeans before them, they were to
be given special consideration in their dealings
with the central government and were entitled
to state intervention should they encounter violations of the treaty by the Ottomans, whether
government officials or otherwise.27 Employing
the usual hyperbolic and ornate language, the
treaty of 1823 gave both the sultan and the shah

Sabri Ate

jurisprudence (fiqh), the Shiis (Rafidhi taifesi)


were considered apostates (murted) and infidels
(kafir) and fighting them was tantamount to
fighting polytheists.20 After this council meeting,
in his ferman (royal decree) to the commanders
of the imperial and local troops getting ready
to march on Iran, Ahmed III, declaring the
revafz- kzlb blasphemous and apostates,
urged his soldiers not to lag in their gaza (holy
war) and jihad on the enemies of the religion
(dmen-i din). He justified these remarks by
referring to the highly regarded books of the
ulema, which declared the lands of the revafz-
kzlb to be Dar al-Harb (abode of war) and
gave fatwas for the application of the rules of
apostasy and blasphemy.21
One possible break with sectarian animosity and its logical conclusions emerged during
the short reign of Nadir Shah (173647), who,
nearly one century after the signing of the
Treaty of Zohab, before his 1736 coronation at
Mughan, overtly criticized sabb va rafd as an underclass practice that stained the soil of Iran.22
Nadir Shah made a further attempt to bridge
Shii and Sunni Islam by proposing that the Ottomans acknowledge Shiism as a fifth madhab,
or school of legal interpretation, thenceforth
to be called madhab-i Jafari. However, the Ottomans rejected his overture and therefore lost
the opportunity to relegate religion to a secondary role in Ottoman-Iranian relations. Yet the
Treaty of Kurdan, signed in 1746 between Nadir
Shah and the Ottoman Empire, did grant formal Ottoman recognition of the legal status of
Shii Iranians as fellow Muslims and Iran as part
of Dar al-Islam [abode of Islam] without compromising the legitimacy of the Ottoman sultan
as the principal defender of Sunnism and the
custodian of the Two Holy Places.23 Like earlier diplomatic exchanges, it also promised that
Iranians would henceforth give up the ritual
cursing of the first three caliphs [sabb] and, in
return, that they would be allowed to continue

27. Bruce Masters, The Treaties of Erzurum (1823 and


1848) and the Changing Status of Iranians in the Ottoman Empire, Iranian Studies 24 (1991): 9. Translation, Bruce Masters. For the text of the 1823 Erzurum
Treaty, see Sahhflar eyhi-z de Seyyid Mehmed
Esad Efendi, Vaka-nvs Esad Efendi Trihi (History
of Esad Efendi), prepared by Ziya Ylmazer (Istanbul:
OSAV, 2000), 23646; and Trih-i Cevdet, 11:22835.

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the title of khalifa without mention of the Ottoman sultans exclusive claim to rule over the
umma (the Islamic community).28 No doubt because of a long history of persistent complaints,
the treaty made it clear that Iranian pilgrims
would be treated like the pilgrims of other Islamic lands. The more enduring second Erzurum Treaty of 1847 would take further steps
toward equalizing the sovereigns and thus ending the ambiguous space Iranians inhabited in
the mental map of the Ottoman Dar al-Islam.
To corroborate the ties of friendship and unity
between the two Mussulman states, article
7 of the treaty once again ensured Persian
pilgrims and other subjects protection from
all kinds of oppression, molestation, or disrespect.29 This was also the time of Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, which changed
the terms of the discussion when they led to the
proclamation that the dhimmis, or people of
the Book, of the Ottoman Empire would be fellow citizens of Ottoman Muslims. Henceforth,
citizenship, not religion, was to define ones station in the Ottoman lands. By making citizenship the source of rights, these reforms signaled
that Iranians could no longer rely on their ambiguous membership in the larger Dar al-Islam
to guarantee their rights in the Ottoman state.
Thus began a process I refer to as dividing the
umma, defining the citizen: citizenship, not religion, became the basis of rights conferred.
However, this did not mean that religious
animosity subsided. A snapshot of Ottoman
documents shows that Iranian complaints about
the ill treatment of Shiis on their way to Hejaz
and Iraq, as well as Ottoman objections to sabb
va rafd, continued to the end of the nineteenth
century. At the same time, even though the
conversion of southern Iraqi tribes to Shiism
increased Sunni-Shii competition, and Shii
practices such as naql al-janaiz were unaccept-

28. Masters, The Treaties of Erzurum, 10.


29. For the text of the 1847 Treaty of Erzurum, I relied on Richard Schofield, ed., The Iran-Iraq Border:
18401958, vol. 1 (Buckinghamshire, UK: Archive Editions, 1989): 6757 7.
30. In one such example, Zia al-S altana, the sister
of the Qajar prince Sayf al-Dawla, bought a piece of
land in An Najaf and asked for permission to build
a madrassa. See Babakanlk Osmanl Arivi, Prime
Ministry Ottoman Archives, Istanbul (hereafter cited

able for the Sunni Ottoman establishment, the


protection of all pilgrims to Hejaz had been
identified as a sacred duty of the sultans; as a result of the constant petitions of Iranian envoys
and ambassadors, Istanbul repeatedly ordered
the governors of the frontier region to ensure
that Iranian pilgrims to Mecca and the atabat
were treated fairly. Ideological animosity did
not mean that the sultans would neglect their
sacred duty or that Istanbul would forgo the
sizable revenues they accrued from Iranian pilgrim and corpse traffic. Hence, until the coming of cholera, a new agent of globalization, lucrative border crossing continued unabated.
Charitable Involvement

A significant facet of the Ottoman-I ranian rivalry related to what could conveniently be
called the Iranian dynasties charitable involvement in the affairs of Ottoman Iraq. In addition
to petitioning for protection and free access for
pilgrims and corpse caravans, Iranian dignitaries continuously requested permission to erect
Shii mosques and madrassas in Ottoman territory.30 Moreover, there were constant appeals
for the maintenance and furnishing (tefri) of
the shrines of the imams, especially those of Ali
and Husayn.31 Throughout the centuries, Istanbul was careful with such appeals, as they were
seen as threats and challenges to its legitimacy.32
However, what challenged the legitimacy of the
Ottoman rule in Iraq was a boon to the legitimacy of the Safavid and Qajar monarchies. The
glow of golden domes in An Najaf and Karbala,
revered in Ottoman diplomatic language, was
light to the Iranian rulers as well.
To control and reduce the Shii presence
in Baghdad, An Najaf, and Karbala, the Ottoman government issued a set of regulations regarding visitations (ziarat) as early as 1565.33 At
the time, semi-official representatives of the

as BOA), Sadaret Amedi Kalemi Evrak, A AMD, AH


25/38, 1267.1.12/17 November 1850.
31. In one such example, Nasir al-Din Shah, in the company of his cousin Ali Reza (Azad al-Mulk), sent bars
of gold to the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hasan
al-Askari. The bars were to be delivered to the highest
Shii religious authority of the time, Abd al-Hussein
Tehrani. Ali Reza Azad al-M ulk kept a diary of his
travels, Safarnameh-e Azad al-Molk ba atabat (Azad
al-Molks Travels to Atabat) (Tehran: Muassisah-i Pazhuhish va Mutaliat-i Farhangi, AH 1380/2001).

32. For more information on pious gifts as a source


of diplomatic rivalry, the politics of hajj, and the difficulties Iranian pilgrims faced in earlier centuries, see
Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 13445.
33. It should be noted that Ottomans considered the
Iranian visitors to the atabat just as visitors (zuvvar),
while for the visitors themselves their ziarat was a pilgrimage, almost if not equally meritorious than the
hajj, which is still an obligation on the Shii Muslims.

34. Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans, 138.

40. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 248.

36. Colin Imber, The Persecution of the Ottoman Shiites according to the Mhimme Defterleri,
15561585, Der Islam 56 (1979): 246.

42. For the later phase of Shii-Sunni competition,


see Selim Deringil, The Struggle against Shiism in
Hamidian Iraq: A Study in Counter Propaganda, Die
Welt des Islams 30 (1990): 51. For the conversion of
Iraq to Shiism, see Nakash, Shiis of Iraq,

37. Ibid.
38. Ibid, 247.
39. Ibid.

43. BOA, Yldz Mutenevvi Maruzat (Y MTV), 73/71,


17 Kanun-u Evvel AH 1308/21 July 1894.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

519

Bones of Contention:

citers in the two shrines who received stipends


from Iran. The divan ordered the beylerbeyi to
execute them after accusing them of some other
crime.40
Such charitable Iranian involvement and
presence in Iraq affected Ottoman attitudes toward their own Shiis. The fear that Iran would
use them as a beachhead in the provinces that it
lost to the Ottomans (Baghdad, Shahrizor) put
the Ottomans on continuous lookout for signs
of heresy, especially among the notables, and
discrimination against the Shiis of the empire,
be they Alawites or Jafaris, continued. Hence,
for example, Ashura celebrations, such as those
planned in Mosul in 1573 and 1574, were a cause
for concern and therefore were banned.41
Ottoman suspicions toward their Shii
population continued unabated, reaching their
peak toward the end of the empire. The continuous flow of pilgrims, merchants, and corpses
from Iran continued to be a thorn in the side of
the Ottomans, as did the Shii propaganda that
converted many tribes of the southern borderland to Shiism. Selim Deringil shows that, even
into the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman
administration concerned itself with limiting
the movements of Iranian visitors (zuvvars) and
restricting the time they spent in the atabat.42
As late as 1894, the governor of Baghdad urged
Istanbul to appoint Sheikh Muhammed Esad
Effendi as muderris (professor) to the province
so that he could counter the efforts of Ayatollah
Mirza Hasan Shirazi and other Shii akhunds
(clerics) to spread Shiism.43 It was because of the
ineffectiveness of such efforts that, four years
later, the chief financial officer of Baghdad
province, Vahab Bey, sent a ciphered telegram
that complained about the laxity of the governor and urged Istanbul to develop a master
plan to counter the akhunds and stop the spread
of Shiism that threatened the foundations of
Islam.44 It was not only the high-ranking Iranian

Sabri Ate

Shah seem to have resided both in An Najaf and


Karbala, whose principal aim it was to distribute
alms.34 These representatives were not permitted to establish soup kitchens for the poor, even
if only for Iranians. It was argued that a pilgrim
could take care of herself or himself for the
span of five to ten days, and longer stays were
undesirable.35
Less than ten years after these initial regulations were issued, in 1573, a report reached
the Imperial Divan in Istanbul that fifty men
had received a salary from Persia to recite
continuously, day and night, Nobel Suras, on
behalf of the evil-doing Shah.36 However, this
was only part of the bad news. When a group of
corpses was brought to Karbala, Safavid appointees went with standards from Abbass shrine
to meet the processions, and the corpses were
paraded around the holy places. Worse yet, such
practices were carried out with the knowledge
of the sayyids (descendants of the Prophet),
nakibs (head of sayyids), and mutevelli (administrators of shrines), whom the Imperial Divan
deemed worthy of capital punishment (siyaset).37 Yet the issue was not an easy one. When
dealing with the Shii Safavid influence in Iraq,
Istanbul walked a tightrope. It was necessary,
especially at times of crisis on the western frontier, not to alienate its own Shiis while staying
on good terms with Iran. Hence in spite of numerous warnings issued against the ceremonial
parading of corpses, corpse traffic and burials
continued. Neither willing nor able to stop the
practice, the Imperial Divan nevertheless insisted that the corpses were not to be laid in
the direction of their qibla, that is, Aradabil.38
The beylerbeyi, or governor, was to arrest and execute the reciters on trumped-up charges. He
was, however, to be extremely careful to avoid
anything which may give offense to Persia.39
Whatever measures the beylerbeyi took were not
successful. Four years later, there were still re-

4 4 . BOA , Yldz Peraknede Bakitabet Dairesi


Maruzat (Y PRK BK), 57/16, 19 Rebi ul-Ahir AH 1312/1
August 1898. Apparently, a commission of five clerics
was sent to the region to counter the spread of Shiism
and the proselytizing of akhunds. Yet Vahab Bey contended that the magnitude of the problem required
serious measures and planning.

520

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ulema who maintained the strong Iranian presence but also Qajar princes, merchants, students
in the seminaries of holy Shii cities, pilgrims
who sometimes stayed for long durations, large
numbers of Iranians who lived in An Najaf and
especially Karbala, and petty traders.45 As such,
for peace in Iraq, Istanbul had to placate Iran.
However, various other issues of the borderland
complicated relations.
Less then two decades after their sporadic
and inconclusive war of 182122, Tehran and
Istanbul were again at loggerheads because of
rising tension on their borderlands. While parties were preparing for a new confrontation in
1840, the two dominant imperialist powers of
the time intervened. As a result of intense diplomatic activity of Russian and British representatives in Tehran and Istanbul, the two Muslim
powers agreed to a negotiated resolution of
their mutual problems and a settlement of their
frontiers for good. Consequently, Ottoman and
Qajar diplomats and technical teams, accompanied by their British and Russian counterparts,
set out to delimit and demarcate the frontiers
of both states, hoping to bring border crossing under control and defuse rising tensions
over an undefined boundary line. The process,
which took nearly seven decades and many a
frontier commissions work, lasted from 1843
to 1914. The work of these commissions transformed the frontier into a boundary and an abstract and imprecise line into a clearly defined
and increasingly monitored border.
Consequently, when a comprehensive
peace treaty was negotiated at Erzurum, the issues under negotiation included the protection
of Iranian pilgrims, the cessation of illegal or
excessive taxation, and the waiving of fees for
poor Iranians visiting the atabat and bringing
corpses. Between the start of the Erzurum negotiations (1843) and the signing of the Erzurum
Treaty (1847), Istanbul intermittently ordered
the governors of frontier provinces (namely, Er-

45. Although it belongs to a much later period, according to figures provided by Lawrence G. Potter,
a British census gave the number of Iranians in Iraq
in 1919 as some eighty thousand, although a figure
of 200,000 was cited in a British diplomatic memorandum. Lawrence G. Potter, The Evolution of the
Iran-Iraq Border, in The Creation of Iraq, 19141921,
ed. Reeva Specter Simon and Eleanor H. Tejirian (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 69.

zurum, Van, and Baghdad, which were responsible for enforcing policies regarding the borderland) to redress the complaints of Iranian
citizens. This was to be done in accordance
with the necessities of the modern state. Thus
Iranians, like all other foreigners, were asked to
observe the rules of murur tezkeresi, or travel papers, the precursor of the passport, which was
soon to be introduced.46
This was part of the process by which lax
frontiers turned into tight boundaries. Thus
state making at the peripheries transformed
Iranians from ambivalent members of the umma
to citizens of Iran. As a result of the ongoing
negotiations I have described, Iranians came to
enjoy special privileges similar to those given to
nationals of big powers.47 Such rights came with
responsibilities and new rules and regulations.
They also coincided with the emergence of a
phenomenon that required even tighter border
controls: the spread of cholera and the ensuing
medicalization of the frontier. It was becoming
obvious that the uncontrolled flow of goods and
people, dead or alive, must be controlled.
Bones of Contention:
Sanitation, Cholera, and Corpse Traffic

Corpse traffic, especially from inside Iraq,


increased in scale from the mid-eighteenth
through the late nineteenth century as An Najaf
and Karbala emerged as the main Shii strongholds in Iraq and the bulk of Iraqs tribes converted to Shiism. Shii ulama in Iraq encouraged the corpse traffic to reinforce the position
of shrine cities as the focus of devotion for Shii
believers. The corpse traffic reached its peak in
the late nineteenth century and became an integral part of a whole set of rituals, visitations,
and religious practices that helped ensure the
welfare of Najaf and Karbala, as well as their
hinterland.48
An observer notes that, in early 1850s An
Najaf, the burial fees charged by the authori-

46. BOA, Sadaret Mektubi Kalemi (A MKT) 21/97,


AH 1260/1844. Murur tezkeresi was a document used
for individuals traveling beyond their place of inhabitance. It was originally introduced to prevent internal migration to the cities. For murur tezkeresi, see
Musa adrc, Tanzimat Dneminde Anadolu Kentlerinin Sosyal ve Ekonomik Yaps (Social and Economic
Structures of the Anatolian Towns in the Tanzimat Era)
(Ankara: TTK Basmevi, 1997), 46.

47. A law passed in 1875 gave Iranian consuls exclusive authority over Iranian subjects in civil and criminal matters, and Iranians were exempted from taxes
paid by the Ottoman subjects. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq,
16768.
48. Ibid., 187.

49. Loftus, Travels and Researches, 55


50. Ibid.
51. Cenaze definesi rusumu was not always given to
the highest bidder. A certain Najafi Seyyid Mahmud
telegraphed the Yldz Palace to complain that, even
though he was the highest bidder, the kaimmakam
(district governor) threatened him and contracted

der, to local merchants for specific periods of


time.51 The merchants [known as mltezim, or
tax farmers] or their agents traveled to cities
and villages in Iran to collect corpses and then
transferred them to the shrine cities.52 The Ottoman cabinet minutes of 1 June 1891 show that
the amount collected for the year was two hundred thousand kuru, after the cost of collection
had been deducted.53
It is estimated that, at the beginning of
the twentieth century, twenty thousand corpses
from inside Iraq and from Iran were brought to
An Najaf alone for burial. All corpses brought
to shrine cities for burial, regardless of country
of origin, were subject to certain fees. Ottoman
Shii subjects paid less than Iranian ones. As Nakash quotes from John Gordon Lorimers Gazeteer, in the late nineteenth century the cost of
transporting a corpse from Kermanshah to Karbala could be as high as 1.35 Ottoman gold lira
(or about 1). This included the fees collected
by the Ottoman consulate at Kermanshah to obtain a pass for importation of the corpse and by
the sanitary officials at Khanaqin, where it was
later inspected. Additionally, a burial tax (dafniyya or turabiyya) was levied in the main cemeteries of the shrine cities and in the precincts of the
shrines. Each site also charged a fixed tariff that
varied according to its sanctity and ranged from

the bid to a close associate for his own benefit. After


the kaimmakam who threatened him was dismissed,
Najafi Seyyid Mahmud offered to outbid the winning
contractor by one thousand Ottoman lira if the previous bid was cancelled and the contract given to him.
BOA, Irade Dahiliye (I DH), 1252/98190, 6 Rebi ulAhir AH 1309/10 November 1891.

52. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 199.


53. Deringil, Struggle against Shiism, 56.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

Sabri Ate

ties of the mosque ranged from ten to two hundred tomans (5100) and sometimes much
more. He also maintains that the fee was entirely at the discretion of the mullas, and they
proportion it according to the wealth or rank
of the deceased.49 On arrival, the coffins were
left outside the city walls, while the persons in
charge of them (frequently the muleteer of the
caravan) bargained for their final resting place.
While those able to pay for a vault within the sacred precincts of the mosque would be ushered
through the city doors, the poorer classes (or
the muleteers accompanying the coffins) would
bury their dead outside the walls on the north
side of the city, where the graves are neatly constructed with bricks, and covered with gravel or
cement to preserve them from injury.50
In the late Ottoman period, corpse traffic became more regulated by the state and
the fees were not at the discretion of the mullahs. Burial dues were set for the benefit of the
Awqaf, or Foundations Department. The Ottoman cabinet minutes of 1 June 1891 show that
the amount collected for the year was two hundred thousand kuru, after the cost of collection had been deducted. The Ottoman Awqaf
farmed out the collection of dues (cenaze definesi
rusumu or dafniyya) on burials in Shii cemeteries and shrines, theoretically to the highest bid-

Bones of Contention:

521

Caravan of pilgrims,
withcorpses, going to
Karbala, in Lady Sheil,
Glimpses of Life and
Manners in Persia, 179

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forty gold piastres for al-Tarima of Samarra to


five thousand gold piastres for al-R iwaq (the
portico of the shrine) in An Najaf.54 Ottoman
records of the sanitary administration show that
while a small number of Iranian zuvvars were
exempted from the sanitary tax, no corpse was
exempted. Hence the poor gentlemans hiding
his fathers bones in a bag of barley.55
A range of other mostly private and local
economic activities were also closely connected
to corpse traffic, including caravan organizers,
corpse driers, smugglers, shroud makers, gravediggers, tomb builders, servants in the shrines,
and ulema and students who would read the
holy book at the cemeteries. Indeed, by the
mid-nineteenth century, as Russian and British
manufactured goods arrived in the region, the
declining prosperity of Baghdads local economy made it increasingly dependent on pilgrim
and corpse traffic. Hence when, because of the
inconveniences and exactions, which Persian
pilgrims experienced, the shah prohibited pilgrimage and corpse traffic around 1850, Baghdads fortunes further dimmed. 56 Similarly,
when, due to serious health risks, corpse traffic was stopped in 1905, under the leadership
of Muhammad Hussein al-Jaberi and Muhammad Baqir, the people of Karbala immediately
petitioned the palace and asked for the ban to
be lifted.57 It was because of such benefits and
high demand that, in spite of their utter disgust
with the practice and its religio-sectarian implications, at other times the Ottoman authorities
did not stop the lucrative corpse traffic and at
times overtaxed Iranians who participated in it.
Such policies were a cause of constant Iranian
complaints to the Bab- li, or Sublime Porte.58
However, some Ottoman authorities argued that corpse traffic made no essential con-

54. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 18790.


55. For example, in the period from 1 March 1874 to 28
February 1875, out of 24,675 zuvvars, only 341 were
considered poor and could not pay the sanitary tax.
For the period of 19034 , the number was 333 out of
58,801. To compare and show the sectarian take on
visits to Iraq, compare the fact that for the 187475
period of hajj to Mecca, of 65,675 hajjis, 7,533 were
exempted because they were poor. See Rapport Sur la
Perception de la Taxe Sanitaire et Statistique de la Navigation dans les Ports Ottomans Du 1er Mars 1874 au
28 Fvrier 1875 (Report on the Collection of the Sanitary
Tax and Navigation Statistics in the Ottoman Ports
from 1 March 1874 to 28 February 1875) (Constantinople: Typographie et Lithographie Centrales, 1875).

tribution to the economy. In his detailed records


of the frontier region, Mehmed Hurid Pasha,
the secretary of the Ottoman commissioner to
the first international Ottoman-Iranian Frontier
Survey Commission, claims that Iranians used
coffins to smuggle precious goods like silk and
sometimes even hid apples, quince, and other
fruits they brought as gifts for their friends.
Hurid Pasha gives the following numbers for
the economic activities of the Khanaqin customhouse, the main Ottoman point of entry, which
he draws from one annual account (likely that
of 1850) of the quarantine registers of the town:
pilgrims (males) and merchants, 52,969; muleteers, 3,348; beasts of burden, 64,065; corpses,
3,176; bales of commercial good, 9,815; and
sheep, 24,957.59
He informs us that children and women
are not included in the accounts. Moreover, he
adds, since the quarantine and customs officials retired at sunset, after which time nobody
controlled the passages, the number of males
crossing the frontier most likely exceeded one
hundred thousand. A British member of the
Turco-Persian Frontier Commission would seem
to support this upward revision when he reports
that, between 1849 and 1852, at a low average,
80,000 persons annually flock to pay their vows
at the sacred shrine, and from 5000 to 8000
corpses are brought every year from Persia and
elsewhere to be buried.60 Despite such large
numbers, Pasha disputes the economic value of
pilgrim and corpse caravans, claiming that they
did their utmost to avoid buying anything on the
Ottoman side of the frontier and even went so
far as to bring their own fodder.61 No doubt such
practices continued to ruffle Ottoman feathers.
However, disagreements over the economic
value of the corpse traffic and Ottoman unease

56. James Felix Jones, Memoirs of Baghdad, Kurdistan, and Turkish Arabia, 1857 (Slough, England: Archive Editions, 1998), 362.
57. Prime Ministry to Ministry of Health, 16 Eyll AH
1321/29 September 1905, BOA, Sadaret Mektubi
Muhimme, AMKT MHM, 588/27.
58. In one such case, on 12 August 1841, the Iranian
representative in Istanbul, Mirza Jfar Khan, asked the
Ottoman Foreign Ministry why it had allowed the reintroduction of the forbidden practice of charging
Iranians who brought corpses to different custom
stations in Baghdad province and urged such practices be terminated. One such complaint was made
by Iranian ambassador Mirza Jafar Ka. See BOA, Sa-

daret, Divan- Hmayn Kalemleri, Dveli Ecnebiye


(A DVN DVE), 11/27 AH 6.23. 1257 / 12 March 1841.
59. Mehmed Hurid, Seyahatname-i Hudud (The Border Journal), transcription by Alaatttin Eser (Istanbul:
Simurg, 1997), 92.
60. Loftus, Travels and Researches, 54.
61. Hurid, Seyahatname, 9193.

62. Glden Saryldz, introduction to Hicaz Karantina


Tekilat (18651914) (Hijaz Quarantine Organization
[18651914]) (Ankara: TTK Basmevi, 1996).
63. Willem Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran (Washington, DC: Mage, 2004), 18.
64 . Saryldz, introduction to Hicaz Karantina
Tekilat.
65. Mark Harrison, Disease, Diplomacy, and International Commerce: The Origins of International Sanitary Regulation in the Nineteenth Century, Journal
of Global History 1 (2006): 210.

66. Ayegl D. Erdemir and ztan ncel, Development of the Foundations of Quarantine in Turkey in
the Nineteenth Century and Its Place in the Public
Health, Journal of the International Society for the
History of Islamic Medicine 2 (2003): 424 4.
67. Hormoz Ebrahimnejad, Medicine, Public Health,
and the Qajar State: Patterns of Medical Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Iran, Sir Henry Wellcome
Asian Studies Series, 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 3149.
68. Harrison, Disease, 199; and Valeska Huber, The
Unification of the Globe by Disease? The International Sanitary Conferences on Cholera, 18511894,
Historical Journal 49 (2006): 456.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

523

Bones of Contention:

al-Fonun, the Iranian polytechnic, had received


medical education. However, public health measures outside Tehran remained in dismal condition. As a result of pressure by the International
Sanitary Conferences, the government established a Majles-e Hefz al-S ehheh, or Sanitary
Council, in 1868, under the presidency of the
shahs chief physician, Joseph Desire Tholozan,
but it only lasted a few months. Yet by the early
1880s, sanitary councils had been established in
most major cities.67
Until that time, methods to fend off the
epidemic diseases were ad hoc at best, and quarantine stations were isolated and their practices
irregular. 68 However, quarantine gradually
came to be identified with national interests
and the welfare of humanity in general, at the
same time that sanitary matters began to figure
prominently in international relations.69 The
globalization of what was called Asiatic cholera
required global measures for the prevention
of its further spread. The problem was exacerbated by the continuing growth of steamship
technology, which allowed people, but also diseases, to travel speedily. Because of the lack of
uniform guidelines for dealing with the resultant epidemics, there arose a need for an international convention.70 Because European states
wanted the first line of defense against contagious diseases to be as far to the east as possible,
Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran were pressured to
take necessary measures.71
This pressure was exerted at a series of
International Sanitary Conferences, the first of
which was convened in Paris, in 1851, to find
a modus operandi befitting an age of technical
and industrial progress, and to strike a mutually beneficial balance between the needs of
commerce and public health.72 The conference

Sabri Ate

with its religious implications were only one side


of the coin. About two decades before the preceding observations were made, cholera appeared in
the region. Although it could be considered just
another, more novel, addition to the rather unhealthy state of public hygiene, choleras appearance fundamentally changed negotiations surrounding the transition of the Ottoman-Iranian
frontier into a boundary and the transfer of
corpses from Iran to Ottoman Iraq.
In 1821, while the plague was still pervasive in the Ottoman Empire, cholera arrived via
Russia. In the next three decades, seven epidemics of cholera spread through the Ottoman
world, having arrived with pilgrims to the holy
cities of Mecca and Medina.62 Similarly, from
1820 to 1902, seven deadly outbreaks were identified in Qajar Iran.63 Immediately following the
initial cholera epidemic in Istanbul, in 1822, the
first quarantine stations were established around
the city. Fifteen years later, in 1837, the Higher
Commission of Quarantine and the Higher
Quarantine Bureau were established.64 In 1838
the sultan asked the Austrian government to
send experienced quarantine officials to assist
in establishing quarantine stations throughout
the Ottoman provinces, and various medical
bodies were combined under the name Karantina Nezareti (Ministry of Quarantine).65 Two
years later, with the participation of European
powers, the Constantinople Council of Health
was established. European representatives were
included on the council to address the recurrent
complaints of European states. In 1851 the first
Quarantine Regulation required that travelers
with contagious diseases be put under quarantine.66 Similar waves of cholera and the plague
awakened consciousness about public health in
Iran. By 1858 some of the first graduates of Dar

69. Harrison, Disease, 198202.


70. Huber, Unification of the Globe, 457.
71. Marcel Chahrour, A Civilizing Mission? Austrian
Medicine and Reform of Medical Structures in the
Ottoman Empire, 18381850, Studies in History and
Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38
(2007): 694.
72. The conference was convened with delegates
from Austria-Hungary, France, Great Britain, Greece,
the Papal States, Portugal, Russia, Sardinia, the Two
Sicilies, Spain, Turkey, and Tuscany.

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failed to reach conclusions on key issues, but


participants agreed in principle upon the basic
aim of achieving agreement internationally over
sanitary regulations, as well as the desirability of
some specific measures, including the strengthening of sanitary surveillance in Egypt and the
Ottoman Empire.73 Increasing surveillance was
only possible with the demarcation and delimitation of the frontiers and by marking the limits
of Ottoman and Iranian sovereignties. Indeed,
concurrent with the conference was the first survey of the Ottoman-Iranian frontier (184952),
carried out over the frontier region by British,
Russian, Ottoman, and Iranian technical and
diplomatic teams.
While such conferences and commissions
were at work, a contemporary observer described a corpse caravan she spotted in January
1851, between Hamadan and Tehran:
A number of mules were laden with long narrow boxes attached upright, one on each side of
the mule. A most dreadful and almost unendurable smell proceeded from the caravan... these
boxes contained corpses which have been collected from various towns for a length of time,
and were now on their way to Kerbella for interment. It is a revolting practice. The boxes are
nailed in the most imperfect manner, admitting
of the free exit of the most dangerous exhalations.74

At a time that cholera epidemics were affecting


the whole world, such caravans were seen not
merely as a nuisance but also as a public health
risk that required a solution. To this end, more
than a dozen International Sanitary Conferences were convened between 1851 and 1912.
Following an inconclusive second Paris conference in 1859, the third conference was held in
Constantinople in 1866. It followed the fourth
cholera epidemic, which had traveled at an unusual speed into Europe after a cholera outbreak in Mecca in 1865.75 Even though it was

agreed that cholera originated in India, where


it exists permanently as an endemic, pilgrims
to Mecca were seen as one of the main agents
spreading the disease to the whole world. Consequently, clauses specifically related to Mecca
appeared for the first time in the resolutions of
the Constantinople conference. Moreover, the
transfer of corpses became a topic of discussion
at the conference. Additionally, the conference
raised the question of whether dead bodies of
cholera patients could import and transmit
the disease. Maintaining that Persian pilgrims
to the environs of Baghdad have the custom
of bringing with them a great number of dead
bodies in all degrees of decomposition, from
bones enclosed in sacks or boxes, to the dead of
the day before placed in badly joined coffins,
the conference report went on to argue: Often
enough, too, these pilgrims bring with them the
cholera, which spreads more or less in Baghdad
and throughout the province. The commission
concluded: Although it is not proved by conclusive facts that the dead bodies of cholera patients can transmit cholera, it is prudent to consider them as dangerous.76 Even if there was no
proof that Iran or Iranian corpses were a source
of contamination, the fear of contagious dead
bodies expressed in such clauses made corpse
transfer part of international sanitary concerns.
As the steamship significantly reduced the transit time between India and Mecca, and Mecca
and the Mediterranean basin, thus making the
European continent more vulnerable, pressure
on the Ottoman Empire, and consequently on
Iran, increased.77
Such conferences, as Valeska Huber argues, were prototypes of internationalism and
also venues in which to claim a share of modernity. Hence the delegates of the oriental powers of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran
tried hard to project the image of hygienically
trustworthy, reforming, and modern states

73. Harrison, Disease, 197, 21516.


74. Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manners, 197. Commander James Felix Jones also noted the not very
carefully sealed coffins and the unpleasant smell
arising from them. Jones, Memoirs of Baghdad, 166.
75. Huber, Unification of the Globe, 462.
76. International Sanitary Conference: Report to the
International Sanitary Conference of a commission
from that body, to which were referred the questions

relative to the origin, endemicity, transmissibility, and


propagation of Asiatic cholera, trans. Samuel L. Abbot
(Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1867), 5557.
77. Between 1831 and 1865 there were five outbreaks
in Hejaz. A medical report quoted by Saryldz indicates that in the 1893 cholera outbreak in Mecca,
30,336 persons died. Saryldz, Hicaz Karantina
Tekilat, 4.

78. This paragraph is adopted from parts of Huber,


Unification of the Globe, 47176.
79. Saryldz, Hijaz Karantina Tekilat, 2229.
80. The concept of state capacity is adapted from
Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Seen from this point of view, borders
are filters, which in transition from a frontier/border to
a boundary became less permeable through time.

81. Chahrour, Civilizing Mission, 690.


82. BOA, Hariciye Siyasi (HR SYS), 737/68, 20 April
1858. The first Ottoman Quarantine Commission was
established in 1838, and the first quarantine stations
were established on Iranian frontiers at Erzurum and
Trabzon in 1841.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

525

Bones of Contention:

tious bones and pilgrims that tied Iran to Iraq


had become too contagious. Something had to
be done, something more than the issuance of
yet another fatwa from the sheikh al-Islam denouncing Iranians.
The establishment of a regular civil sanitary system, which would not only direct military and commercial affairs but also regulate
the life of Ottoman citizens in a novel way, thus
became a concern of Ottoman politics, creating
a major incentive for the formation of a medical establishment.81 Additionally, following the
recommendations of the International Sanitary
Conferences, quarantines and lazarettos were
introduced at major entry points for Iranian
and Indian Shiis into Khanaqin, Qasr-i Shirin,
and Basra. By 1875 fourteen quarantine stations
were active between Erzurum and Basra. These
increased the Ottoman and Iranian states sanitary control of the pilgrim and corpse traffic,
allowing them not only to scrutinize, inspect,
direct, and, if necessary, impede dead or living
bodies from crossing the frontier but also to
closely follow the movement of epidemics.
However, such measures only created new
sources of complaint. In an 1858 memorandum
to the Ottoman Foreign Ministry, the Iranian
representative in Istanbul, Farah Khan, complained about the well-known treatment Iranians were receiving in the quarantine stations of
the Baghdad and Erzurum frontiers. He urged
the Bab- li to take necessary measures for the
security and well-being of the Iranian pilgrims
and passengers and to treat them like other foreigners.82 Event though Farah Khan implies that
his countrymen were singled out for maltreatment, others also complained about the quarantine regulations and the long periods they had
to spend in quarantine houses. Very much like
Iranians with insufficient papers, British ships
with invalid bills of health were held in quarantine for a minimum of ten days or until such

Sabri Ate

that could carry out sanitary surveillance of


their frontiers. Since it was argued that the standardization of administrative structures and a
concomitant increase in their efficiency would
make cholera detectable and manageable, reform of the sanitary administration of the Ottoman Empire emerged as the central concern
at the conferences. Therefore when the conferences suggested the creation of various boards
and councils and the perfection of measures
of identification through visas, bills of health,
sanitary passports, verification cards, permits,
and so forth, the Ottoman government, also
desiring to stake its claim in modernity, and protect its population against contagious diseases,
wholeheartedly moved to act.78 One measure
taken was the establishment of the Hejaz Health
Administration to control pilgrim traffic.79
This was the time of Tanzimat in the Ottoman Empire, the period of reform and rise
in the capacity of the state, which resulted in
the institutionalization and standardization of
state practices, as well as the states penetration
of the peripheries, and therefore in a decrease
of the porosity of what I call the frontier filter.80 As the Ottomans continued to perceive
theirs as a modern empire on par with those
they saw as epitomizing modernity, maintaining a healthy public through proper sanitation
gained urgency, as did the need to distance
themselves from their unsanitary half brothers.
Hence the pilgrim and corpse traffic from Iran
and India to Hejaz and Iraq became a concern
that extended far beyond the Ottoman-Iranian
frontiers. Thenceforth, Ottoman control of
frontiers and of border crossings by Iranian
subjectsand, by extension, Ottoman perceptions of Iran in generalwould be articulated
in terms of sanitation and modernity. Literally
and figuratively designated as the sick man
of Europe, the empire needed to take action,
so that Europe would not get sick. The conten-

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time that the Quarantine Board authorities felt


reasonably certain that they were not carrying
persons sick with cholera who might bring yet another major cholera epidemic to the West. Such
measures were based on the medical-scientific
findings of leading experts on cholera.83
These processes affected discussions
about naql al-janaiz and forced Tehran to take
measures to improve sanitary conditions and
control pilgrim and corpse traffic. As a result,
when, in 1867, cholera appeared in Karbala, la
grande ncropole de Persans, the shah banned
the transport of cadavers.84 The order was revoked and reissued later depending on which
side of the frontier cholera or plague appeared.
Ottoman authorities also frequently raised the
issue, and Tholozan, the shahs chief physician,
requested the introduction of policies to prevent
the spread of epidemics caused by the practice.
Moreover, during his visit to Iraq in 1870, Nasir
al-Din Shah met the famous Ottoman reformist Ahmed Midhat Pasha, governor of Baghdad,
who raised the issue of sanitary problems created by the transfer of moist corpses from Iran
to the shrine cities of Iraq.85
As a result of such appeals, meetings,
and of course resolutions of the International
Sanitary Conferences, on 8 January 1871, the famous reformers and statesmen Mushir al-Dawla
Husayn Khan, on the Iranian side, and Midhat
Pasha, on the Ottoman side, signed a treaty
concerning the transfer of corpses, with the
purpose of confronting the dangers posed by
the corpses brought from Iran, protecting public health, and making the border region part
of the new sanitized international order. To
avoid the harmful medical consequences of the
transfer of moist corpses from Iran for burial in
the atabat, the treaty imposed a three-year wait-

83. Sheldon Watts, Cholera Politics in Britain in


1879: John Netten Redcliffes Confidential Memo on
Quarantine in the Red Sea, Journal of the Historical
Society 8 (2007): 291. The membership of the International Quarantine Board included representatives
from the European countries, the Ottoman Empire,
and Egypt.
84. Commission mixte charge de la rvision tarif des
droits sanitaires dans LEmpire Ottoman (Mixed Commission Charged with the Revision of Tariffs of Sanitary Rights in the Ottoman Empire) (Constantinople:
Typographie et Lithographie Centrales, 1882), BOA Library, no. 5296, 7.

ing period. To ensure that corpses crossing the


frontier had lain buried for three years, an official, dated burial document was to be produced
upon request. It was agreed by both parties that
corpsesor, rather, bonesnot accompanied
by documents would not be allowed to leave Iran
or enter the Ottoman Empire. Only exhumed
bones with a certificate of burial date could be
transferred, and they were required to be placed
in a wooden coffin stored inside of a lead chest
(kurun sandk). Those transferred overland
would need to pass through Kermanshah, and
those coming by sea through the Basra port, so
that medical officers could examine them. In
the case of the existence of contagious diseases
in Iran, pilgrims and corpses would not be allowed to enter at all.86 Similarly, the fourth article of Tarif des droits sanitaires dans LEmpire
Ottoman of 1876 fixed the sanitary tax of ten
piastres per pilgrim-v isitor and fifty piastres per
cadaver. Table 1 gives the number of Iranian pilgrims and cadavers taxed at various quarantine
stations along the frontier from 1872 to 1884
and 1898 to 1904. Gathered from the reports
of the Administration sanitaire de LEmpire Ottoman: Bilans et statistiques these numbers show
that in the twelve years following the Midhat
PashaHusayn Khan treaty, annually, at an average, 5,744 corpses were brought from Iran to
Iraq, while the median number of pilgrims and
visitors was 37,665 per annum.87 The average
number of pilgrims-v isitors from 1898 to 1904
was 48,672 and that of corpses was 6,255. Even
though we lack the necessary data to compare
these numbers with the preceding years, there
is no doubt that these were considerably high
numbers. To give an idea, when compared to
the number of pilgrims to Mecca who advanced
to the holy city through the ports of entry in

85. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 198. At the recommendation of his reformist ambassador to Istanbul, Nasir
al-D in Shah conducted his first foreign trip to the
Shii holy cities of Iraq under the authority of Midhat Pasha. Nikki Keddie, Iran under the Later Qajars,
18481922, The Cambridge History of Iran, ed. Peter
Avery, G. R. G. Hambly, C. P. Melville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 7:185.
86. BOA, Yldz, Sadaret Hususi Maruzat Evraki (YA
HUS), 288/47, 9 Receb AH 1311/16 January 1894, signed
by the sadrazam. Also Ottoman Foreign Ministry to
Prime Ministry, Y A HUS 289/19, 14 Kanun-u Sani AH
1309/26 January 1894; and in BOA, Divan- Humayun, Name-i Humayun Katalogu (A DVN NMH),
19/16, 23 evval AH 1278/17 January 1871.

87. Administration sanitaire de LEmpire Ottoman:


Bilans et statistiques (The Sanitary Administration of
the Ottoman Empire: Inventory and Statistics) (Constantinople: Typographie et Lithographie Centrales
and Typo-Lithographie du Journal La Turque), vol.1
(1March 1872 2 9 February 1884), vol. 2 (1 March
189929 February 1904). These statistics and the
records of the Ottoman Sanitary Administration are
available at the BOA Library, Istanbul.

Sanitary taxes
collected, in piastres

No. of cadavers,
50 piastres each

Sanitary taxes
collected, in piastres

187273

30,013

300,150

5,085

254,100

187374

66,789

667,890

12,202

610,050

187475

24,333

243,340

1,158

57,900

187576

24,197

241,970

841

42,050

187677

23,061

230,610

1,715

85,750

187778

15,566

1,647

1,647

82,350

187879

33,523

325,230

5,592

279,600

187980

34,871

348,710

7,895

394,750

188081

41,610

416,100

7,676

338,800

188182

26,393

263,930

4,259

212,950

188283

71,883

718,830

11,977

598,850

188384

59,741

597,410

8,882

444,100

189899

35,789

357,890

5,296

264,800

18991900

40,822

408,220

5,478

273,900

19001901

47,685

476,850

6,866

343,300

19012

71,804

718,040

7,905

395,250

19023

37,131

371,310

4,743

237,150

19034

58,801

588,010

7,245

362,250

Figures in table are collected from Administration sanitaire de LEmpire Ottoman.

Hejaz and Yemen, it appears that at times the


number of zuvvars to the atabat rivaled them.88
In spite of such numbers and the possible revenue that could have accrued from them, building and maintaining quarantine stations staffed
with doctors and other auxiliary and administrative staff were costly, and at times there was
a deficit in the budget of the sanitary offices of
the Turco-Persian Frontier. However, in some
years the sanitary tax surpassed expenses, and
the surplus was transferred to different items of
the budget such as retiree funds. Given that the
only tax pilgrims paid was not sanitary tax, it
is no exaggeration to claim that Ottoman state
and society considerably benefited from the pilgrim and corpse traffic.
Because of the geographic distribution of
Ottoman land, many states were interested in its
88. For example, in 187273, the number of pilgrims
to Mecca was 51,738, while that of zuvvars to the atabat was 30,013. In 187374 the number of pilgrims was
65,401 and that of zuvvars was 66,789. In 18767 7 the
number of pilgrims was 61,856 and that of zuvvars
was 23,061. In 188283 the number of pilgrims was
46,519, while the number of zuvvars was 71,883. No
doubt some individuals proceeded from atabat to
Hejaz and should be counted among the number of
pilgrims to Mecca.

sanitary surveillance and, as a result, put pressure on the Ottoman Empire to introduce a serious quarantine regime. In May 1882, commissioners from various countries came together
to revise the tariff des droits sanitaires of the
Ottoman Empire.89 In the ensuing discussions,
one delegate argued that, even though les
progrs et la civilisation voudraient bien la suppression du transport des cadavres et du plerinage, because traditions and beliefs have their
place, controlling the agents of contagion was
a necessity.90 One delegate, a certain Dr. Dickson, went even further. He argued that, unlike
going to Mecca, visiting the atabat was not an
obligation for Muslims and was only carried out
because of religious devotion. Hence visitors to
the atabat were not called Hadji but Zouvar. At the same meeting of the joint commis-

89. In addition to the Ottoman Empire, these countries were Germany, Austria-H ungary, Belgium,
Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands,
Russia, and Norway. See Commission mixte charge
de la rvision.
90. Ibid.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

No. of pilgrims,
10 piastres each

Sabri Ate

Year,
1 March2 8 February

Bones of Contention:

527

Table 1. Iranian pilgrims and cadavers taxed at various quarantine stations of the Ottoman Empire
(187284 and 18981904)

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sion it was reported that from 1873 to 1879 the


sanitary administration of the Turco-Persian
Frontier suffered an average deficit of 119,764
piastres. To put an end to the deficit and to limit
the number of corpses and zuvvars crossing the
frontier, it was even suggested that corpses be
taxed at two hundred piastres each and zuvvars
at fifty piastres.91
In spite of such calculations and continuous complaints, it appears that the terms of the
1871 treaty were largely upheld and the sanitary
tax remained the same. Hence during a cholera outbreak in 1892, pilgrims and corpses were
not allowed to cross the frontier. However, the
following year the Meclis-i Shhiye, or Public
Health Commission, informed the governor of
Baghdad that the epidemic was limited to the
eastern parts of Iran and, as it took a month to
travel from those regions to the frontier, such
restrictions were unnecessary. The ban was cautiously lifted, and, after careful inspection of
their goods and clothes, Iranians were required
to spend only five days in the tahaffuzhane (quarantine house) of Khanaqin instead of the usual
ten. Such times of epidemics were costly to the
Baghdad province. For instance, when the border was closed to pilgrims and visitors to the
atabat for the seventeen months between June
1892 and November 1893, only 5,831 individuals, or an average of 12 persons a day, were allowed to cross the frontier. After the ban was
lifted, the average daily flow of individuals required to spend five days in quarantine before
crossing rose to ninety-seven.92 No doubt larger
numbers were desirable, as they meant greater
opportunity for trade and transactions. Yet it
was also apparent that the cost of an epidemic
surpassed the benefits of pilgrim and corpse
caravans.
Consequently, in spite of complaints, government doctors in Kermanshah and Basra
did not bend the rules; they checked bones
and burial papers for every group before allowing them to cross the border. In one case,

after being petitioned by the Iranian representative in the Ottoman Public Health Commission, the minister of health urged the sadrazam
(prime minister) to allow the remains of the
ranking Iranian administrator Vakil al-Dawla
to pass through Khanaqin before a three-year
burial period. Special permission was granted
because Vakil al-Dawla was buried for two and
a half years, and his remains were perfectly
sealed in a wooden coffin that was put inside
a lead chest; however, underscoring the special
circumstances of the case, the minister added
that it should not set a precedent.93 Yet despite
such efforts, in 1894 the Ninth International
Paris Sanitary Conference once again identified
pilgrims as the transmitters of cholera into Europe.94 Istanbul specifically ordered its representative at the conference, Turhan Bey, to inform
the participants of its seriousness about the
control of frontiers and especially corpse traffic. Such measures were not window dressing.
The Ottoman authorities continued to take the
issue seriously. Thus, for example, on 14 January 1894, the Prime Ministry asked the Ministry
of Health to promptly report what kind of scientific and preventive (tedabir-i fenniye ve tahaffuzn)
measures should be taken in relation to the
transfer of corpses from Iran, to ensure public
health (shhat-i umumyenin muhafazas nokta-i
nazarndan).95 Additionally, when pilgrimage
was at its peak, supplementary troops would be
sent to the region.96 Such measures meant that
the ghastly processions and caravans with an
almost unendurable smell were increasingly
difficult to spot. But they did not put an end
to corpse traffic, and it was not only states that
came up with additional measures when it came
to crossing the borders.
Pilgrims, Corpses, and Carpets

As parties variously introduced scientific and


preventive measures, tightened border controls,
and raised fees, a group of people near the border posts emerged, whose task was to dry moist

91. Ibid.

94. Huber, Unification of the Globe, 469.

92. Baghdad Governor to Prime Ministry, 20 September [1895], BOA, "Sadaret Mektubi Muhimme Kalemi,"
A MKT MHM 570/9, 1311.8.7.

95. BOA, Irade Hususi (I HUS), 20/1311/B/19, 2


Kanun-u Sani AH 1309/14 January 1894.

93. Minister of health to sadrazam, Y. A. HUS, 289/33,


11 Receb AH 1311/18 January 1894.

96. BOA, Sadaret Mektubi Muhimme Kalemi (A


MKT MHM), 576/25, 16 June 1898.

97. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 19091.


98. Minister of health to sadrazam, 17 Rebi-ul Ahir
AH 1317/25 August 1899, BOA, "Sadaret Mektubi
Muhimme Kalemi," A MKT MHM 578/34.
99. BOA, Dahiliye Muhaberat- Umumiye Idaresi
(DH MUI), 281 /67, dated October and November
1909.

100. Various correspondences between the governor


of Baghdad and the Ministries of Interior, Finance,
and Foreign Affairs and the Prime Ministry, 191113,
BOA, Dahiliye Idare (DH ID), 59/59.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

529

Bones of Contention:

ing various goods, especially the qali (carpet),


ghilim (rug), and seccade (carpet prayer mats) of
the pilgrims, which were for personal use. Rejecting these accusations, Ottoman authorities
of the frontier provinces claimed that Iranian
pilgrims, pretending that they were personal
belongings, also brought aba (cloaks), firuze
(turquoise stones), and saffron to sell in the
markets and that these commercial goods alone
were taxed. Additionally, Ottoman authorities
maintained that Iranians were asked to deposit
a certain amount of money for their beasts of
burden and goods deemed commercial. If they
returned with the registered goods and animals, the money deposited was returned; if not,
legal taxes were requested. When the Ottoman
Ministry of the Interior asked Baghdads governor about the complaints, he informed Istanbul
that complainants were those caught smuggling
and assured the Bab- li that Iranian visitors
were treated respectfully and neither taxed
multiple times nor taxed for their personal belongings. Out of the one hundred thousand
ghurush in deposits paid on goods registered as
personal items in 1912, only eighteen thousand
were taken back to Iran, the governor alleged,
adding that the amount of unpaid dues from
smuggled goods and animals was in the hundreds of thousands.100
In its meeting of 31 May 1913, the Ottoman cabinet evaluated the complaints of foreign
embassies and supported a previous decision of
the Reform Legislation Department (Tanzimat
Meclisi) that held that, except for the medical
examination fee, no fee should be charged to
bury foreign bones in the general cemeteries of
the holy cities, located outside the four consecrated cemeteries. The same rule was valid for
the bones of deceased Ottoman citizens as well.
Days later, the sultan signed the Bill regarding
the Burials of Corpses in An Najaf al-Ashraf, Karbala, and Al Kazimiyah. Regarding the high number of Iranians living in Karbala and An Najaf,
the first article stipulated that foreign nation-

Sabri Ate

corpses so that they could pass the inspection of


the Ottoman health officials. Additionally, new
restrictions and fees gave rise to the development of a brisk illegal transfer of corpses.97
In his memo of 25 August 1899 to the
sadrazam, the Ottoman minister of health observed that, despite the rule that no corpse be
transferred before three years of burial, the
smuggling of moist corpses continued to pose
a serious health risk. Such smuggling, the memorandum noted, was carried out to evade layovers at quarantine stations and fees levied by
the treasury. Even though the number of moist
corpses smuggled from Iran was very low, the
memorandum continued, the Baghdad Quarantine Inspectorate reported that Iraqi Shiis
bringing their putrefied moist corpses to bury
in the atabat constituted a grave health risk for
the routes through which they traveled. This,
the inspectorate went on, violated the articles
of related regulations. Since the plague was
ravaging parts of Iran at the time, the General
Board of Health asked the ministry to order authorities in Baghdad province, via the sadrazam,
to take strong measures to put an absolute end
to the trafficking of corpses from Iran and to
the transfer of moist corpses within Iraq.98 Nevertheless, smuggling persisted, and Ottoman
authorities, aware of the phenomenon, argued
that the main reason for it was to avoid the fees
charged by the ministry.99
Meanwhile, those Iranian pilgrims and
corpse carriers/caravans who opted to pass
through the customhouses complained almost continuously about maltreatment and illegal taxation, which, it was claimed, started
at Khanaqin customs and continued at Qizil
Rabat, Karbala, and elsewhere. At the turn of
the twentieth century, the interpretation of a
clause of the Erzurum Treaty (1847) stipulating
that noncommercial goods of Iranian visitors
would not be taxed was particularly at issue.
Iranian representatives claimed that Ottoman
custom officials were forcefully and illegally tax-

530

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als who had been living in those cities, or in Al


Kazimiyah, for more than one year, need not
pay any taxes for burial in general cemeteries.
The second article specified that the transfer of
moist corpses from Iran or anywhere in the Ottoman Empire was forbidden and that only dry
corpses (bones) could be transferred after taxes
had been paid. Annulling a previous rule, the
following article maintained that the members
of the staff of the atabat and their family members were required to pay the necessary dues
for burial in the sahn al-sharif (chambers or on
the grounds of the courtyard).101 This injunction points to yet another bone of contention,
beyond that of Iranian pilgrims and corpses:
namely, the Ottoman Shiis of lower Iraq and
their burial problems.
Constitution and Coffins:
Iraqi Shiis and Transfer of Corpses

Shiis from the Basra and Baghdad provinces


also transferred their dead to the consecrated
cemeteries. Yet after the Mushir al-D awla
Husayn Khan and Midhat Pasha agreement
of 1871, Istanbul changed the rules for them
as well. Only those living inside a twelve-hour
radius of the sacred grounds were allowed to
transfer moist corpses. Those living beyond
that radius were subject to the same rules as
Iranians: their corpses had to spend three years
at the place of origin before being transferred
to holy grounds. As to be expected, much complaint ensued, and pressure was placed on the
governor of Baghdad. In 1894 Governor Namk
Pasha informed the sadrazam that Jafaris in the
city of Baghdad and Al Kazimiyah, together
with the people of Karbala and the Diwaniya
sanjaks (administrative districts), had no place
to bury their dead but in the cemeteries in the
atabat. Moreover, since most of the places inhabited by the Shiis were marshes, there were
many complaints about sanitary restrictions regarding the transfer of corpses. Since forcing
them to abandon their tradition was politically

undesirable, the provincial council of Baghdad


(meclis-i idare-i vilayat) decided that the Shiis
in the greater (i.e., within a radius that could
be traveled by a caravan in twelve hours time)
environs of the atabat could continue to transfer their dead as they traditionally had. The
Higher Board of Health, after the warning of
Baghdads quarantine inspector, disagreed. Because corpses brought from beyond the twelvehour radius posed a serious health risk, such
practices should be prevented and local governments should bury the corpses wherever they
were intercepted. The minister of health urged
the sadrazam to remind the governor of the
rules and regulations.102 Apparently, the governor of Baghdad knew better. At the turn of the
twentieth century, the minister was still warning
the sadrazam that the transfer and smuggling of
moist corpses posed a serious health risk.103
While measures regarding Iranian corpse
traffic were strictly adhered to, local administrators, feeling the pressure of their constituency,
were willing to bend the rules for Iraqi Shiis.
This created tension between administrative and
sanitary authorities. Various exchanges between
the Ottoman ministries show that, in spite of the
sanitary workers efforts, there were incessant
attempts to circumvent the restrictions. Often,
local authorities like the kaimmakam (district governor) of An Najaf or the quarantine officials of
Al Kazimiyah and Musayyib would forge documents to allow the transport of moist corpses. In
some cases, the corpses would be stored in a cool
place without burial and illegally transferred to
the atabat. In one such case, in 1905, fourteen
corpses intercepted in An Najaf were determined to be those of individuals who had died
of cholera a few months previously in Basra province, thus posing a serious health risk. Aware of
such practices among Ottoman Shiis, Ottoman
authorities also closely watched the customs center at Khanaqin, and sent extra health officials
there during the months that Iranian pilgrims
flocked to Iraq. This was necessary, they argued,

101. BOA, Irade Mesail- Mhimme (I MMS), 166.


The sultan, sadrazam, and the minister of foundations (Evkaf- Humyun Nezar) signed the bill on
2June 1913.
102. Namik Pasha to sadrazam, 20 Austos AH 1310/1
September 1894, BOA, A MKT MHM 578/34.

103. Ministry of Health to Prime Ministry, 17 Rebi l Ahir AH 1317/25 August 1899, BOA, A MKT MHM
u
578/34.

104. Royal Medical School to Ministry of Interior;


Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Health; director of Iraqi Health Commission to Ministry of Interior; Ministry of Interior to Ministry of Health,
MarchApril 1905, BOA, Dahiliye Mektubi," DH MKT
940/35, 1323.M.6.
105. Prime Ministry to Ministry of Interior, 22 October
1905, BOA A MKT MHM 588/31.
106. BOA, Dahiliye Muhaberat- Umumiye Idaresi
(DH MUI), 281 /67.

107. The board maintained that Iranian pilgrims pay


thirty ghurush and that per corpse they are charged an
additional fifty ghurush. Ottoman Shiis were required
to present documentation received from quarantine
houses or, if there was no quarantine house, documents to prove their Ottoman citizenship so that they
would not be confused with Iranians. Ottoman citizens paid one silver mecidiye for the visit and another
mecidiye for the transfer of the corpse.

Corpse Traffic and Ottoman-Iranian Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Iraq

531

Bones of Contention:

and were limited in their choice of burial place.


This practice, they contended, was against the
constitution (ahkam- merutiye munafi), which
guaranteed the equality of all. Aware of the political undertones of the petitions, and in light
of its long struggle with Shii propaganda in
Iraq, the Ottoman state did not leave such petitions unanswered.
Following extensive correspondence between the ministries, the Ottoman Sanitary
Board (Meclis-i Umur-u Shhiye) concluded
that Ottoman Jafaris paid comparably lower
fees than other Shiis, that the fees could not be
cancelled, and that the practice was not discriminatory.107 Moreover, the board maintained that
other communities buried their dead where they
died and that the Jafaris could do the same for
no fee. Additionally, when informed of the telegrams sent by the Ottoman Shiis, the Finance
Ministry maintained that, because the burial
fees were included among the governments
main budget items, they could not be lifted.108
Moved by the promises of the constitution, the petitioners did not give up. The most
persistent of them was the director of the Ottoman Jafari Progress School (Osmanl Terakkii Caferi Mektebi), a certain Shukrullah, who
signed or cosigned the petitions in the name
of all Jafaris (umum Caferiler namna) and asserted that because banning the transfer of
corpses is considered an attack on Jafari beliefs, allowing an age-old custom to continue
and lifting the ban will ensure the loyalty of the
ever-loyal Shis.109 Repeating the same clauses,
some petitioners added that the ban not only
violated religious freedoms guaranteed by the
constitution but also hurt the feelings of the
loyal Jafari millet. Likewise, others, as demonstrated in a petition signed by twenty-nine individuals, added that this age-old tradition is
a requirement and fundamental belief of their

Sabri Ate

because health services in Iran were debatable.104


In spite of such measures, toward the end of the
same year, Ottoman ministries informed one another that smugglers of bodies exhumed from
Al Kazimiyah to be buried in the holier grounds
of An Najaf and Karbala received protection
from the kaimmakam of Al Kazimiyah. Additionally, reports of corpses smuggled from Iran
through Khanaqin were reaching Istanbul. As a
result, it was even suggested that corpse traffic
be stopped altogether.105
The lack of cooperation between kaimmakams and sanitary officials, who helped facilitate the transfer of moist corpses, was the
subject of various memorandums exchanged
between the Bagdad Quarantine Inspectorate
and the Ottoman Ministries of Health and Interior in October and November 1909. Considering the serious public health risk and significant
loss of revenue caused by smuggling, the governor of Baghdad was ordered to take the necessary measures.106
No doubt such measures increased the
tension between Istanbul and its Shi citizens,
but the declaration of the constitution in 1908
gave Ottoman Shiis an opportunity to voice
their unease. The provisions of the constitution granting freedom of religion provided a
new venue for Iraqi Shiis to claim the equality
promised by the constitutional revolution and
to assert their citizenship as Shiis in the Ottoman body politic. Many individuals from Baghdad, Basra, Al Qurnah, Ad Diwaniyah, Al Hillah, and Musayyib telegraphed the Ministry of
Interior to ask for the annulment of the dafniyya
fees and the twelve-hour radius rule, as well
as for permission to transfer moist corpses to
the atabat. Describing restrictions and fees on
corpse traffic and burial as discriminatory, the
petitioners argued that of all millets it was only
the Jafari millet that paid to bury their dead

108. BOA, Dahiliye Muhaberat- Umumiye Idaresi


(DH MUI), 48/58, 11 Muharram AH 1328/23 January
1910.
109. BOA, Dahiliye Idare (DH ID), 18 Mart 1330/
31March 1914.

532

Co

ra
pa

ie
tu d

So

so

A
u th

ti v

si a

t
nd

he

a
frica
A
st
Ea

le
d
d
Mi

sect (zaruriyet-i madhabiyye, akaid-i Caferiyye) and


asked for a return to the old custom and the
abandonment of the regulations.110
Under pressure, the governor of Baghdad
told Istanbul that it was not possible to implement the rules: as it is a Jafari belief to bury the
dead in the atabat, he urged that rules should
be altered accordingly. In its answer, the Ministry of Awqaf maintained that the Temporary
Law of June 1913 was passed by the parliament
and that changing it would require the approval
of the same body. The correspondence makes it
clear that the Ottoman authorities did not leave
the petitions of their Shii citizens unanswered,
and all of the highest authoritative bodies of the
empire were consulted. It was agreed that, until
a new regulation was made, old rules should be
followed. In the summer of 1914, shortly before
Istanbul would lose Iraq for good, the Ministry
of the Interior was still sending orders about
preventing the transfer of moist corpses to the
atabat.111
With the end of the Ottoman government and the establishment of the colonial
regime and the subsequent monarchy in Iraq,
corpse traffic gradually came to an end. The
Iraqi Shiis continued to transfer their dead for
burial at sacred grounds, but foreign transfer of
corpses slowly died out. Arguing that the rise in
burial fees at Karbala benefited not Islam but
the British, in late 1924, the Tehran ulema issued a decree forbidding the transfer of corpses
from Iran to the shrine cities. In an attempt
to enhance the religious status of Mashhad in
1928, Reza Shah Pahlavi forced ulema at Qom
to issue fatwas forbidding the transfer, which
in subsequent years resulted in a gradual shift
of the Iranian corpse traffic from the atabat to
Mashhad and Qom.112
An examination of corpse traffic shows
that this curious border crossing constituted a
major point of contention between the Ottoman
Empire and Iran, while forming an insoluble
bond that bound together, through a sacred geography, the two sides of a frontier long in the

110. BOA, Dahiliye Idare (DH ID), 203/2, 12 Rajab AH


1332/6 June 1914, and various other correspondences
dating to 191314. Apparently, the government was
not so sure of the loyalty of the Shiis. When establishing courts of law in the sensitive cities of An
Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Al Kazimiyah, the gov-

making. Even if it was religiously unacceptable


to the Sunni Ottomans, the financial benefits
of corpse traffic for the Baghdad province were
not easily dismissible. The economies of the
holy cities and their hinterlands were heavily
dependent on Iranian Shiis flocking to the atabat for pilgrimage and burial. This connection
proved to be one of the most persistent religioeconomic activities of the borderland. A traditionfor many a fundamental beliefthat survived sectarian animosities, Ottoman-I ranian
wars, and the onslaught of cholera, came to an
end only with the emergence of authoritarian
modernization in the Middle East.
The emergence of cholera and discussions
on corpse traffic and pilgrimage to holy Shii
sites in Iraq helped transform one of the longest
running unresolved issues of the Islamic world:
the undefined border between the Ottoman
Empire and Iran. International Sanitary Conferences made the sanitary surveillance of the
boundaries a necessity. With the rise of the discourse of public hygiene began the discussion
about the serious inconveniences the transport
of cadavers caused and hence the need to build
a sanitary cordon around the possible sites of
contagion. No doubt religious animosity did
not die, yet from thenceforward the language
of separating the lands of the shah and the sultan will be couched in terms not of sectarianism
but rather of the larger benefit to humanity and
public hygiene.

ernment wanted to ensure that the appointees were


loyal and well versed in the niceties of governing
(hikmet-i hkmete malik) since the region was important for relations with India, Afghanistan, and
Iran. See also BOA, DH ID, 146/55.

111. BOA (DH ID) 203/2. The file contains various petitions sent from Iraq and the related correspondence
between the Ottoman authorities.
112. Nakash, Shiis of Iraq, 200201.