The Imam Hussein and 72 of his companions, including his brother Abbas, were slain by Yazidi forces at the Battle of Karbala on Oct. 10, 680. Shiite Muslims view the occasion with particular significance as the Imam Hussein is considered the successor to the prophet Mohammed.
Shiite pilgrims flock to the holy city, located about 100 miles south of Baghdad, to take part in the Ashura commemorations.
"Everyone is clad in black and brandishing their hands and swords in the air while uttering enthusiastic words indicating their willingness to march in the footsteps of al-Hussein's revolution in the face of injustice," said historian Hayder al-Sayed Salman in an interview with the Voices of Iraq news agency.
Pilgrims practice flogging with an instrument called the Zanjil and take part in the ritual of Tatbir, in which the faithful cut their heads with their swords to commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein. Pilgrims also enjoy traditional foods of rice with qimiya, a dish using minced meat, chickpeas and tomato paste.
Ashura, meaning 10 in Arabic, is the 10th day of Muharram, the first month on the Islamic calendar, marking the end of a mourning period for the grandson of the prophet Mohammed. It begins Wednesday on the Gregorian calendar.