So strong are the passions that onlookers sometimes stone the actor playing Hussein's killer, Shimr. At a Baghdad shrine on Saturday, the play's "Shimr" broke character to weepingly ask the audience's forgiveness, pleading that someone had to take the role.
The day has often been a chance for Sunni militants to attack Shiites, whom they see as heretics. Iraq has seen repeated deadly bombings against Ashoura ceremonies in past years, though there were no immediate reports of violence this year. In Pakistan's tribal region on Saturday, a bomb blast struck an Ashoura procession, killing seven people, including three children.
The renovations at the shrine in Karbala are the latest evolution in what was once the austere, tree-marked grave of Hussein. Over the centuries, it became more ostentatious, culminating in the shrine built in the 17th century by artisans from the nearby Persian Safavid empire, according to Ghada Razouki, an expert in medieval Islamic architecture.
Under the shrine's gold-plated dome, Hussein's sarcophagus is drenched five tons of silver and 120 kilograms (260 pounds) of engraved gold. The mosque is etched inside and out with geometrical designs, verses from the Quran and the names of Muhammad's family in green, blue and yellow. Tiny mirrors reflecting light line the arched ceiling above the sarcophagus.
The current renovations, launched in 2005, aim to provide more room to crowds reaching some two million pilgrims, said Sheik Salah al-Haydari, head of the Shiite Muslim endowment, which has overall control of Iraq's Shiite shrines.
The plaza that surrounds the shrine has been covered over with the domed roof and will be expanded four-fold to 24,000 square meters (260,000 square feet) by 2013, said Mohammed Kadhem, who is leading the $50 million project. One extension of 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet) has been completed.
The ancient wall surrounding the shrine has been replaced with multi-level buildings with extra prayer spaces, offices and a museum. The shrine's minarets were coated in gold.
Al-Haydari countered the criticisms, saying, "We are continuing the architectural style that is there, like a river continuing its path."
To recreate the dramatic open space around the shrine, urban planners reviving Karbala's old city will increase plaza space outside the site's gates, said Mohammed al-Assam of Dewan Architects.
Shiite officials are also renovating the shrine of al-Abbas next to Hussein's, that of Imam Ali in neighboring Najaf, and the shrine of his descendants in Baghdad.
The rush to improve the shrines became more determined after al-Qaeda militants in 2006 blew up the golden dome of a shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The destruction of the al-Askari shrine — now rebuilt — underscored to Shiite officials the need to rebuild and glorify their shrines to demonstrate their growing power.
"Shiite areas are now in the hands of Shiites. What is happening is natural and it shows their control," said analyst Hadi Jalo.
In contrast to the architects, worshippers aid the changes to the once-neglected shrine should have been even grander.
"All these changes are but a little for the Imam Hussein," said Ahmad Ali, who just arrived in Karbala from Baghdad. "But thank God it's better than before: there's air conditioning, protection from the sun and rain," he said.
Speaking before walking from Baghdad to Karbala, Abdullah Ashraf, 25, said worrying about changes to the shrine misses the point.
"What makes the Hussein shrine alive is the memory of his story."
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