Shia pilgrims in their thousands joined bloody parades on Saturday in Iraq's shrine city of Karbala, slicing their scalps with swords and knives to commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein.
The rite of "tatbir", which leaves its followers drenched in blood, is the climax of 10 days of ceremonies marking Muharram, which marks Imam Hussein's death at the hands of armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.
About two million Shia pilgrims were in Karbala, 100 kilometres south of Baghdad and site of a revered shrine dedicated to Imam Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, for Saturday's ceremonies, Karbala governor Akil al-Khazali told a news conference.
His numbers could not be independently verified.
Drums and trumpets sounded from early morning around the two shrines, announcing the start of the day's processions and prayers.
The streets quickly filled up with the throngs of pilgrims — men and women dressed mainly in black who have invaded the holy city for the past week.
But, unlike other days, zealots forming up behind red and green streamers had exchanged the black clothing of mourning for white, the colour of sacrifice.
And as soon as the first rays of dawn glinted on the gilded domes of the two shrines, the penitents launched into rhythmic dancing to the sound of drums, striking their foreheads with each drum beat with a large blade.
Before the fascinated eyes of tens of thousands of pilgrims, still shivering from having spent a freezing night under the stars, the faces and white breastplates of the
devotees were quickly dripping with blood.
"I do this to pay homage to Imam Hussein," said a man who gave his name only as Hassan, explaining that it is an act of atonement.
"I cry the tears of blood and of love for he who was sacrificed," added Hassan, a plumber from Karbala, his face covered in dried blood.
The entire 10-day period of Muharram is devoted to the memory of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who having died in an unequal battle, has come to symbolise the fight for justice in the face of tyranny.