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  • 2/7/2006

History of Ta"zieh in Iran

By: Freydoon Arbabi

Ta"zieh had reached its peak during the

Qājar era, especially during the reign of Nasser-edin Shah. However it has been declining ever since to a vanishing point. Except for an occasional performance at a remote village, Ta"zieh has all but disappeared.

The associated term

aza darÌ (=mourning) also refers to commemorating the Karbala event, by recounting story of martyrdom, but without theatrical representations. These are solemn and tearful events designed to bring salvation to the believers by shedding tears for the martyred Imam. The two types of events ta"zieh and aza dari had been conducted in parallel or in consort. Whereas ta"zieh is all but forgotten, the latter has increased in frequency after the Iranian (Islamic) revolution. This is because aza dari does not employ any image making or stimulating, which is considered sacrilege by many religious scholars. The portraiture and sculpture of both men and animals are prohibited by Islam. It may be because fighting idolatry was Islam’s main aim. It should be mentioned, however, that at the height of ta"zieh a well known religious leader, Ayatollah Qasem Ghomi, testified (fatva) that there was nothing wrong with ta"zieh performances.

Unlike the Greek and Indian cultures that developed advanced forms of theater, for some unknown reason theater did not take root in Iran before Islam. In modern times a form of popular theater,

Rou Howzi, usually comedy, was performed at weddings and circumcisions. Another type wasNaghali (=story telling), which consisted of reciting the epic poems ofShahnameh at tea houses.

The purpose of this article is to review the origins and history of ta"zieh, its characteristics, and the role of Persian music in it. It is concluded with a sample ta"zieh, that of Qasem which seems to have all the elements of drama.


Commemoration of the Karbala events appears to have started during theBuyids (Ale Buyeh). Ale Buyeh have their root in Daylaman, Northern Iran. At the weak point of the Abbassid Caliphs they rose against them and ruled from Baghdad.They used azadari as a means of exciting the Shi’a communities and organizing them against the Sunni rulers. The declaration of Shi’a as the official religion of Iran by the Safavids in the 16th century had a similar purpose of organizing the country against the Sunni Ottomans.

The form of ta"zieh, that is commemoration of a martyr in Iran, goes much farther back to the pre-historic era. Two prominent stories, Kin’e Siavash and Zarer, show similarities to that of ta"zieh.

Siavash is sent by his father Kaykavus, king of Iran, to fight Afrasiab of Turan. When Afrasiab agrees to a peace treaty favorable to Iranians, Siavash sends word to his father suggesting cease fire. However, because of the intrigues of his step mother, who does not want him returned, Siavash is ordered by Kaykavus to reject the peace treaty. Siavash is disillusioned and disheartened and seeks refuge in Afrasiab’s camp. However he is eventually killed by Bidarafsh, the wily brother of Afrasiab. The news of Siavsh’s murder makes the Iranians including their hero Rostam very sad. Rostam is said to have stood in mourning for a week. Eventually Siavash’s murder is revenged, but a song commemorating his death is said to have been sung until the Iran invasion of Mongols.

The term rozeh khani was first coined by Molla Hossein Va’ez Kashefi, who published a book in the 16th century, titled Rawzat al-Shohada, or the garden of the martyrs. Ta"zieh khani was a synonym. Later,

during the Qajar era, the term ta"zieh was specifically used to refer to the enactment of the story of Karbala, as a religious theater.

Iran is the only place that ta"zieh, the theatrical form was performed. This may be partly due to the influence of the West during the Qajar era, and partly because Iranians were more lax about religion than most other Moslem countries. In pre-Islamic period also religious tolerance had its ups and downs. Kourosh and Yazdgerd III were examples of tolerant leaders, while Darius and Anushirvan were examples of intolerance.

Takieh Dowlat, interior without cover

Ta"zieh was mainly conducted in halls called

Takieh. The best known and the most elaborate takieh in Tehran was that ofDowlat, an extravaganza building constructed during Nasser-edin Shah. It uses the same plan as Albert hall in London that Nasser-edin Shah had brought back from his trip there. In fact Mostowfi, a writer of the period, states that Nasser-edin Shah’s aim was to use the hall for Western Style Theater. When the religious leaders objected it was used for ta"zieh. Many foreign travelers to Iran during this period have commented about ta"zieh. For example Edward Brown, professor of Eastern Literature at Cambridge University, and author of the authoritarian book“a Literary History of Persia” in his book, “A year Among Persians’” describes a ta"zieh that he saw in Iran.

Originally the term takieh was used by the

sufis for the tomb of their leader. The actual tomb, ghabre khajeh (Pious man’s tomb), was constructed as a platform, raised a few feet in the middle of a hall. Such a platform can be seen at Menar Jonban, in Isfahan, which houses the tomb of a Sufi, Amu Abdollah. The followers of the sufi leader visiting his tomb performed their rituals at takieh.

Ta"zieh had also borrowed from Christian passion plays, or Cross Stations, such as those taking place in Guatemala today. The similarity can also be observed in religious ceremonies, or passion plays called

sineh zany and zanjeer zany (= chest beating and chain beating) that take place today. The former groups beating their chests with their hands, and the latter their backs with a chain set.

Style of Ta"zieh

Because ta"zieh  audiences were intimately familiar with the story plot and convinced of the innocence of the protagonists, Imam Hossein and his entourage, and certain about the guilt of the antagonists, Shemr, Bin Sa’d and Yazid. Thus, it is not possible to judge ta"zieh and ta"zieh writing by Western methods of theater critic. That is, ta"zieh has its own style which seems to work with its special audience. The writers of ta"zieh had many restrictions, not the least of which was their own belief in the righteousness of the Imam and the guilt of the villains of Karbala. That is these writers were openly biased. Therefore they de-emphasized the role of the antagonists and enhanced that of protagonists.

An interesting story

Another aspect of this prejudice was the disdain with which the protagonists spoke to the antagonists, and also the antagonists spoke to each other, and even about themselves recognizing their own position of being in the wrong. In an article published at the Shiraz Arts Festival of 1967, M.J. Mahjub recounts an anecdote from a city in the Caucuses where a group of Shi’as was trying to organize a ta"zieh. However, they could not find anyone to play the role of the main antagonist, Shemr. Eventually a Russian laborer agrees to do it for a fee. His role is to stand near a tub of water, representing the Euphrates River, preventing Imam Hosein’s people from approaching the water. The children and other companions of the Imam try to approach the water, but the Russian keeps them away. However, when Imam Hosein himself, played by a dignified old man, approaches the water the Russian hesitates to intervene. The director of ta"zieh shouts that he should not allow him near the water. "Oh, let him drink," replies the Russian, "he is an old man." This incident not only does not appear funny to the audience, but is the more proof of cruelty of Shemr. Because, they think, even this unbelieving Russian had mercy on the Imam, while the real Shemr did not show any mercy at all at Karbala.

Costume and Prop

Intimate familiarity of the audience with the story plot, their belief in the infallibility and righteousness of the Imam, their conviction of the savage behavior of the villains, and the power of their imagination, renders the need for prop and costume, for setting the mood, redundant. Only symbolic pieces of prop and costume were therefore used in most ta"zieh s. Only the ta"zieh s performed during the reign of Nasser-edin Shah at Takieh Dowlat were somewhat of an extravagant affair with props, costumes, and decor, including tents and horses. In general the protagonists" costumes were green, or black, the colors used by the descendents of the prophet. While the antagonists, especially Shemr and Bin Sa’d wore red or at least hung a red cape over their street clothing.  Incidentally, Takieh Dowlat has been the largest amphitheater ever built in Iran.

Ta"ziehs were usually written in the form of poetry and were chanted in carefully selected Persian musical keys. Most of this poetry was very simple and no great work of art. It was mainly dialogue between the individuals enacting the story. It is noteworthy that the role of women was also played by men who chanted in a soprano voice emulating women’s voice. At the height of ta"zieh, when audiences included dignitaries and foreign delegations, Amir Kabir, the able prime minister of Nasser-edin Shah, commissioned Reza Esfahani, a well known poet of the period, to compose some ten ta"zieh s. These were to be simple enough to be understandable by the masses while sufficiently sophisticated not to be boring to the educated public.

Music and Ta"zieh

Ta"zieh has been one of the means of preserving the classical Persian music (radif). Although no formal study of ta"zieh music has been undertaken, references have been made in some books, e.g. Religious Music of Iran, by Hassan Mashhun and History of Iran"s Music, by Ruhollah Khaleghi and My notes on Music, by Abol-Hasan Saba.

The question of legitimacy of music in Islam was raised again after the revolution in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had a few fatvas (judgments) in this regard the last of which,

as part of an eight item fatva, was finally declaring Persian music legitimate.

The term

gusheh used to refer to pieces of classical Persian music appears to come from ta"zieh as discussed above. Some radif pieces such as Rak-e Abdollah, which was sung by Abdollah, the nephew of Imam Hossein, during ta"zieh, have gotten their name from ta"zieh.

Musical Instruments and Modes

The musical instruments used in ta"zieh are primarily those of the battle field in the middle ages, such as trumpets and drums. As ta"zieh s became more sophisticated cymbals, horns, and clarinets were added. Gradually a carefully developed system was used taking advantage of the classical Persian music, with the variety of moods its pieces could invoke.  Music that had been frowned on in Iran since the Safavids era, found more interest under Nasser-edin Shah (1848-1896). He appointed Agha Aliakbar Farahani to the position of chief musician, and also established the position ofMir Azaa, or director of religious music. The latter chose music for and organized the singing of ta"zieh performers. They used gushehs of classical Persian music with some subtlety so that the audience was unaware of it. A version of this music, now known as radif of Persian music, was passed down through Mirza Abdollah, Agha Alikbar’s son, and has been documented in recent years.

The seven

dastgâhs and fiveAvazes (sub-dastgâhs) of radif music appear to have evolved sometime after the last golden era of Persian music, during the Abbassids dynasty. Excellent musicians and theoreticians of that era, Farabi, and Safi-edin Urmavi had laid the foundation of the Persian music based on a set ofmaghams, a specific series of note intervals, or modes. Since each mode produces a specific mood, musicians started to combine these modes to produce pleasant combinations that would not startle the audience or jarring their ears by abrupt changes of mode. Eventually the system of dastgâhs was developed with a set of gushes or pieces. In a dastgâh the transition from one gusheh to another takes place in such a subtle and smooth way that the audience is often unaware of the change.

 Mir Azas started using elements of radif music in ta"zieh. Young, valiant men, such Ali Akbar and Qasem, and Abbas sang in

Chahargah before heading off for battle. Chahargah is a dastgâh with an upbeat mood. It had traditionally been used inZurkhanehs (Persian Gymnasiums), to set the mood of the athletes and the audience during work out and before wrestling matches. For the more tender moments of lamentationdastgâh Segah orAvaz Esfahan was used. The somber, dignified and serious mood of Imam Hossein was depicted by dastgâh Nava, the reflective mode favored by the sufis. As an example in ta"zieh of Moslem (one of the characters at Karbala) Imam Hossein recites in Nava, while Moslem responds inMahoor, another upbeat mode. It is interesting to note that these two dastgâhs selected for the latter interaction, while different, are not drastically dissimilar as to make the transition from one to the other unpleasant. In fact Nava bears some similarity toRakand Aragh, two gushehs of Mahoor.

In general each character of the entourage of Imam Hossein was assigned a dastgâh or a gusheh according to the degree of melancholy its role required. Abbas, the brother of Imam Hossein, who was killed while trying to fetch water from Euphrates River for the thirst starved family, sang in Chahargah.

Hurr, the young Umayyad commander who was sent to fight Imam Hossein, but joined him, and was the first casualty of the war, sang in Aragh. Abdollah, the teenage nephew of Imam Hossein, sang inRak. A version of Rak in dastgâh Mâhoor is now called Rak-e Abdollah. Zaynab, the sister of Imam Hossein, sang in Gabri or in gushehs ofDashti. As mentioned earlierin ta"zieh the role of women was played by men, who sang in a high pitch in order to simulate women’s voice. It may be worth mentioning that azan, the piece chanted for calling Muslims to prayer is usually inruhol-arwah, a gusheh of Bayâte Tork, although at times it is also sung in Bayate Kord.

Different Ta"ziehs

At the height of ta"zieh performances a large number of ta"ziehs were composed. Enrico Cherulli, Italian ambassador to Iran during the 1950’s, collected over a thousand different ta"ziehs, which are kept at the Vatican Library. This collection includes some interesting mystic or Sufi ta"ziehs as well, such as Majles of Mansur Hallaj. Hallaj is one of the most interesting sufi figures who crusaded all his life for the down trodden folks. He was hung by Muslem zealots for his belief of unity of being, and the ability of humans to reach godliness. Another Sufi ta"zieh is titled Shamse Tabrizi and Jalal-edin Rumi. The latter reconciled Sufism with Islamic beliefs.

Another collection is one with 260 ta"ziehs at the

Library of Majles in Tehran. There are documentations and discussions of ta"zieh. Ta"zieh titles include,ta"zieh of Ali-Akbar, Imam Hasan, and ta"zieh Shahr Banu. Shahr Banu, daughter of Yazdgerd the third, the Sasanid king during the Arab invasion, is said to have been taken as a prisoner (slave) when Arabs overran Tisfune, the Sasanid capital. Subsequently she was married to Imam Hosein. Many of ta"ziehs are variations of one another. Nevertheless, there is a significant number of independent ta"ziehs.


The popularity of ta"zieh led to some variations of it. These so called gushehs were often performed before the main ta"zieh for warming the audience. They were performed at a corner of the hall. This may be the reason for the term gusheh (corner). Such pieces may depict the story of a more minor figure in the Karbala events such has Hurr, or Qasem.Sometimes they included stories other than those of Karbala, such as Yousef (Joseph) and Zolaikha. The story of Zolaikha trying to seduce Joseph and when he refuses her advances she blames him for trying to seduce her. Because victimization of innocent in this story bears similarity to those of Karbala it was appealing to the audience. A similar story is Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his devotion to God. In this case a lamb is sent by God as a substitute sacrifice, and loyalty of Abraham is not compromised. Other popular gushehs are Ta"zieh of Imam Ali and The Death of Prophet Mohammad.

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