What's with all the Martyrs' Squares?

What's with all the Martyrs' Squares?

What's with all the Martyrs' Squares?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 9 2005 7:34 PM

What's With All the Martyrs' Squares?

Why they're all over the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have assembled near Martyrs' Square in Central Beirut. Last July, a major gun battle broke out in Martyrs' Square in Central Baghdad. Is there a Martyrs' Square in every city in the Middle East?

Martyrs' Squares are indeed ubiquitous in certain countries, though the exact martyrs who are celebrated vary from place to place. In Beirut, the site was named for Lebanese nationalists executed by the Ottomans during World War I. Both Lebanon and Syria commemorate this event on Martyrs' Day, May 6, but the Martyrs' Square in Damascus honors insurgents killed by the French in 1945.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Martyrs' squares, streets, and bridges abound in the Muslim world; many earned their names relatively recently. In the Palestinian city of Hamle, for example, a Martyrs' Square memorializes five boys who were killed by Israeli soldiers. (Famous Martyrs' Squares and streets exist in Nablus and Hebron as well.) In Pakistan, residents of Kohat renamed a local square after security forces killed four Chechen members of al-Qaida there.

Prominent Martyrs' Squares also exist in Tripoli, Baghdad, and Port-Said (in Egypt). One of the many Martyrs' Streets in the world runs through Kuwait City, and the Martyrs' Lane in Baku, Azerbaijan, commemorates those who died fighting the Russians and the Armenians. In Sudan, a presidential palace sits on Martyrs' Square in Khartoum.

But the Islamic Republic of Iran leads the world when it comes to Martyrs' Squares. At the very least, you can find them in the cities of Tehran, Qum, Rasht, Ahwaz, Tabriz, Gorgan, Shiraz, Arak, Ardebil, and Kerman. Many commemorate the events surrounding the revolution in the late '70s: The Martyrs' Square in Qum used to be called the Fatimi Crossroads but was renamed to honor protesters killed there in January 1978. The square in Tehran honors the victims of a massacre the following September. The sacred city of Mashhad has another Martyrs' Square, associated with the shrine to the ninth-century martyr Imam Reza, who is said to have been killed with poisoned grapes.

Martyrdom has long held particular importance for Shiite Muslims (like those in power in Iran). The religious festival of Ashura commemorates the murder of Imam Ali and his son Husayn; the decapitation of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 contributed to the split between Sunnis and Shiites. In the past century or so, the concept of martyrdom has taken on some secular and nationalist connotations as well.

Explainer thanks Ibrahim Abu-Rabi of the Hartford Seminary, and Tony Sullivan of the University of Michigan.