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Thursday 19 May 2011: Heading for Najaf

Not something you will see on the roads of Europe but a regular sight in the middle East

For the worlds 150 million Muslim Shias, Najaf is the ideal burial place. Its chief attraction is the tomb of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, who was assassinated near by in Kufa 1,400 years ago.

it has the worlds largest graveyard with some 1.8 million tombs. Proximity to Ali is supposed to improve chances of avoiding Gehenna, the abode of the fallen, according to the Koran. Believers spend a lifetime?s savings to have their corpses transported to Najaf for burial close to Ali's mausoleum.

Complicated rituals must be carried out to prepare a body for burial which include washing the body many times over whilst reciting verses from the Koran.

The coffins are only used to transport the dead and are returned empty to the local Mosque the next day, this one is from Basra. The writing on the rear of the coffin tells you this whilst the writing along the side is a small prayer stating "All dead shall be in Heaven" or words to that effect.

Death is at the centre of life here. Tens of thousands of grave-diggers, undertakers, masters of funeral ceremonies, tomb watchers, givers of prayers for the dead, intercessors, Koran reciters, mediums for communication with the departed, and so on make up the bulk of the workforce.

Najaf is also big business. For centuries wealthy Shias have left part of their fortune to the foundation that runs Ali's mausoleum. That foundation owns large tracts of farmland and property in both Iran and Iraq, hostels for pilgrims, and the freehold of hundreds of shops in two dozen cities.

The mausoleum's treasury of gold, jewellery and precious carpets is believed to be worth more than $1 billion.

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