Al-Najaf, Najaf also spelled Nejef, also called Mashhad ʿAlī, city, capital of Al-Najaf muḥāfaẓah(governorate), central Iraq. Located about 100 miles (160 km) south of Baghdad, Al-Najaf lies on a ridge just west of the Euphrates River. It is one of Shīʿite Islam’s two foremost holy cities (the other is Karbalāʾ, also in Iraq) and is widely held to be the resting place of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib—Shīʿite Islam’s most-revered figure—whose tomb is located near the city’s centre.
The caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd is reputed to have founded Al-Najaf in 791 ce; its growth occurred mostly after the 10th century. Because the city is home to the shrine (mashhad) of ʿAlī, it has remained a pilgrimage point for Shīʿite Muslims from throughout the world. It has also traditionally been the starting point of the hajj for pilgrims en route from Iran to Mecca. The tomb for which the city is famous is located near its centre. The dome of the shrine is plated with gold, and within it the walls and roof are covered with polished silver, glass, and coloured tiles. The resting place of ʿAlī is represented by a silver tomb with windows grated with silver bars and a door with a great silver lock. Inside is a smaller tomb of damascened ironwork. In the court in front of the dome are two minarets, which, like the dome, are covered with finely beaten gold upward from the height of a person to the top of each tower. The accumulated treasures of the shrine were carried off by Wahhābī raiders early in the 19th century. The building itself has also been damaged during periods of civil strife and warfare and has been rebuilt and renovated on numerous occasions.
Much of the city’s encircling wall still remains, as do the deep sirdābs (vaulted cellars) that sometimes connect multiple houses and extend, in places, beyond the city’s limits. These have provided both refuge from the midday sun and, often, sanctuary for political dissidents. Al-Najaf was long a hotbed of Shīʿite resistance to the Sunni rulers in Baghdad, but during Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy Al-Najaf was also a place of refuge for dissident Iranian Shīʿite clergy—notably Ruhollah Khomeini, who lived and taught there for nearly 15 years. After the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution, Shīʿite tension with Iraq’s Baʿth government often centred on Al-Najaf, a circumstance that exacerbated relations between the governments of Iran and Iraq (given the large number of Iranian Shīʿite clerics in the city). A number of clerics were expelled after the Iranian Revolution, and the Baʿthists arrested or killed numerous others during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). In quelling the insurrection that took place against the Iraqi government after the Persian Gulf War (1990–91), the Baʿthists killed many residents and Shīʿite leaders in Al-Najaf. (See Abolqasem al-Khoei.) During the Iraq War (2003–11) the city had little involvement in the initial fighting but was later the scene of vigorous anti-coalition activity.