The Shi'ite Muslim ceremony that pilgrims were marking yesterday commemorates the death of the seventh imam, one of 12 imams revered in the Shi'ite branch of Islam. That imam, Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, died in the year 799. Each year, on the date on the Islamic calendar that marks his death, devout Shi'ites gather at the site of a mosque in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya that is believed to sit atop his tomb.
Dressed in black, the pilgrims walk in groups to the shrine, flogging themselves with iron chains and slicing their foreheads with swords. The self-flagellation slowly turns their cloaks red with blood in a ritual of grief that was banned under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Most shops are closed, and pilgrims who travel from around the country to attend the ceremony often sleep on carpets laid out in the streets. They cook camels, cows, and sheep in enormous pots shared by neighbors and visitors.
After the imam's death in 799, a pilgrimage site grew up around his tomb. For centuries, devout Shi'ites also have gathered to live near the site, making the district of Kadhimiya heavily Shi'ite.
The name of the neighborhood, Kadhimiya, means the town of the Imam Kadhim. The name of the imam himself, Kadhim, means ''the enduring one."
Its holy status was later reinforced by the burial in 835 of the ninth imam, Mohammed ibn Ali al-Taqi al-Jawad. He was buried by the side of his grandfather, the seventh imam.