About Us
Contact Us
Previous PagePrevious Page  E-Mail This PageE-Mail This Page  Print This PagePrint

Environmental and Cultural Terrorism --The Destruction of Iraqi Marshes and Their Revival: Some Personal Reflections
Part Two (of Two Parts)
By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli

III.Basic Facts about the Marshes and the Marsh Dwellers

The marshes of southern Iraq were once the largest wetlands in southwest Asia and covered about 20,000 square kilometers or 7,725 square miles, an area nearly twice the size of the original Florida Everglades. The exact size of the marshes before their desiccation had fluctuated as a result of the seasonal flow of water reaching its peak in the spring. The three largest perpetual marshes are the Huwaiza, al-Hammar and al-Qurna, all of them located in the southern part of Iraq. (See below image.)

Marsh Dwellers

According to Iraqi-born anthropologist Dr. S.M. Salim, the marsh dwellers were partly descendents of the Sumerians and Babylonians, but their numbers had increased over time by the immigration of Bedouins and others who sought refuge at the marshes. [1] In fact, the marshes have always provided a sanctuary to two completely contrasting types of people: those who fled from persecution, most recently the flight of the Shi’a following the collapse of their revolt against the Saddam regime in 1991, and those who fled legal prosecution Thesiger, in his classic work on the marsh Arabs called the marshes “a center for lawlessness and rebellion.” [2]

The number of marsh dwellers in the 1980’s stood at about 500,000. With the desiccation of the marshes in the 1980s, 100,000 people crossed to Iran, 200,000 people were forcibly removed to other parts of Iraq and the remaining dwellers either stayed in what was left of the original marshes or continued to live in nearby cities and towns in an entirely alien environment. By the time the Saddam regime fell in 2003 it was estimated that no more than 30,000 had continued to live in the marshes, which were reduced to about 7% of their original size.

The Magic of the Place

As one writer fittingly described them, the Mesopotamian Marshes are a “rare aquatic landscape in the desert.” [3] The magic of the place has inspired rich poetry and mythic stories transmitted from one generation to the next. One such story was that Gilgamesh wrestled buffaloes in the marshes. The central themes of both the poetry and stories are always water, fish, reeds and water buffalo, the four most significant elements that have caused the preservation of the marshlands and their unique culture for thousands of years.

The reed beds in the marshlands once played a crucial environmental role, cleaning the water flowing down river of impurities and providing a breeding ground and stop-over point for migratory birds. The dense marsh vegetation, mainly phragmites, or marsh grass, has performed a similar function, but it also provided food for the buffaloes and spawning ground for the fish.

The marshes were home to half of the world’s population of the rare marbled teal and more than 90% of the world population of the Basra reed warbler. Some Iraqis would suggest that Tchaikovsky’s swans, as in his Swan Lake ballet, were actually hatched in the summer in the marshes and hence they are Iraqi, rather than Russian. The marsh dwellers often used the swan’s neck skin to make drums.

Life in the Marshes

Life in the marshes was never easy. High temperatures, high humidity and seasonal flooding, often severe, in addition to the daily struggle with a variety of insects, poisonous snakes and sudden attacks by wild boars turned the life of the marsh dweller into a constant struggle for survival. Government presence was minimal and tribal laws ruled supreme. The marsh dwellers never paid any taxes and they received hardly any government services. Medical services were minimal and, like many traditional societies, marsh dwellers resorted to herbs to treat ailments. Schools were difficult to build because of the dispersion of the marsh dwellers in large areas separated by bodies of water. Potable water was not available and the marsh dwellers drank the marsh water, and it is not surprising that many of them were afflicted with dysentery, diarrhea and bilharzias. Electricity was but a gleam on the horizon.

Ma’dan-True Guardians of the Environment

The marsh dwellers, particularly those who lived in one of the largest marshes [hor al-hammar], which bordered the southern port city of Basra, are called ma’dan (singular, m’aidi), a term often used by Iraqis to denigrate a person as a simpleton or primitive

But the true m’aidi is a genuine environmentalist who jealously protected the marshes and their culture for thousands of years. Nothing was ever deliberately destroyed or intentionally wasted. The fish and the bird were used for local consumption as well as for sale, but never for sport hunting or fishing; the water buffalo was cultivated for its milk, which is exceptionally sweet, and transformed into clarified butter [qaimar]. The reeds and phragmites were used to build their huts and for the weaving of mats and baskets for export; and the rice they cultivated in the naturally inundated marshlands, known as ‘ambar, was one of the most flavorful grains and the main staple food, varied by fish. Even the buffalo’s manure [called mattal] was used: mixed with grass and turned into small cakes, it was attached to the walls of the huts to dry and eventually to be used as fuel for their cooking fire. The Ma’dan culled wild boars as a means of maintaining environmental balance and for protecting themselves from sudden and unprovoked attacks by these beasts. Anyone who has observed closely this way of life can appreciate the true meaning of environmental conservation and a life lived in complete harmony with nature.

Wealth in the marshes was measured by the number of water buffaloes a family owned. Although Gavin Young, an Englishman who lived with the marsh Arabs, characterized the buffaloes as “the princesses of laziness” they actually performed an important navigational function of cutting through the reed beds and opening a path for the canoes to go through. [4]

The Marsh Women

The marsh women never fully covered their face and, unlike the Bedouin women, they were not shy of talking to strangers. In fact, most of the trading in the market was performed by women, and this practice has been intensified in recent years because so many of the men were killed in Saddam’s wars or punishment.

The isolated nature of the marshes with its high beds of reeds made liaison between the sexes more feasible although not necessarily permissible or risk-free. If a girl eloped the tribe was shamed until punishment was meted out in accordance with the tribal law- which is honor killing. But the marsh dwellers went one step farther by severing the hand of the transgressor and hanging it in public as a proof that honor was restored. Saddam was wont of accusing the marsh dwellers of low morals and promiscuity. In the words of D. Jamal Hussein, the marsh women were “women biologically speaking but they were men in their manners, shape and tastes and perhaps even in their desires.” [5]

Fishing in the Marshes

Fishing was the most significant occupation among the marsh dwellers, and the many kinds of fish were hugely abundant. The fish was so important that some of the tribes were named after two of the most abundant fish in the marshes -al-Qattan (pronounced al-Ghattan) and al-Shaboot. Before the drying of the marshes, marsh dwellers exported 500 tons of fresh fish daily, primarily to the southern provinces of the country.

In the old days, the marsh dwellers used fishing nets in small rivers or canals to trap the fish. Fisherman also used a special instrument called “fala”, which is a three-meter pole made of a reed attached at one end to tri-hooks. The fisherman stood in a canoe and speared the fish of his choice. With the help of a small lantern at night, and sometimes a special rhythmic beat on a tin, the fisherman was able to coax the fish near his canoe.

The re-flooding of some of the marshes caused the fish to return but in smaller quantities, and the older method of fishing was no longer productive. Fishermen are now inclined to use electric shocks or even explosives to catch fish and, in the absence of strong government authority, they are destroying what their ancestors have preserved with so much care over thousands of years.

Religion in the Marshes

Although the marsh dwellers are Shi’a Muslims, anthropologist Salim maintains that they are not “strict in the religious observance.” Salim points out that they have “abandoned many tenets of Islam and concentrate on their devotion to Imams,” meaning devotion to Ali, Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and his sons Hassan and Hussein. [6] As a result, those few who can afford it make a pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbala, the holy centers of Shi’ite Islam where the Imams are buried and, unlike Sunni Muslims, consider pilgrimage to Mecca as having only a second priority. Thesiger a well-known observer of the life in the marshes, was quoted as saying that during his many years with the Marsh Arabs he had met more people on their way to Mashhad [a Shi’ite shrine in Iran] than to Mecca, although the distance between the two cities is the same.

Ironically, the marshland dwellers nowadays go on religious pilgrimage to the tomb of the Jewish prophet Ezra the Scribe, known in Arabic as al-Uzair, located on the Tigris River, approximately 50 miles north of Basra. The grave sits under a blue, rather than the regular green, Muslim dome and its walls are covered with Hebrew letters. One possible explanation for this pilgrimage is the absence of mosques in most of the marshes and al-Uzair provides one solid building for the marsh dwellers for spiritual experience. Another is the belief that al-Uzair responds to prayers for relief from variety of ailments and personal problems. The old Jewish community in Iraq shared the same beliefs, and it was not uncommon for parents to take their sickly child to the site to seek the prophet’s blessings for the child’s quick recovery. [7]

Transportation in the Marshes

The most common means of transportation in the marshes was a canoe, known as mashhoof or tarrada, made of wood caulked with bitumen and able to maneuver in shallow waters without causing environmental harm. One could easily characterize them as the gondolas of the marshes.

IV. The Efforts for Restoration

The fall of the Ba’th regime has ushered in a new hope for the Mesopotamian Marshes. Most studies of the Marshlands since 2003 have hailed the Marsh Dwellers for their efforts to breach the embankments holding back the floodwaters and “the water complied, slowly yet faithfully flowing back in its ancient pathways.” [8] After seven years of drought the year 2003 was doubly blissful because, apart from the disappearance of the Ba’thist rule, it was a year of high floods which helped the efforts to re-flood the marshes. It is estimated that as much as 35% or perhaps even 40% of the marshes have been re-flooded, but any further re-flooding will require water that is in short supply. For example, the average flow of water in the Euphrates between 1938 and 1973 was 2,600 cubic meters per second, but this declined to 830 million cubic meters per second between 1973 and 1998 due to the construction of many dams by Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The reduction in the flow of water has also meant that the remaining water is of poor quality and carries less silt and alluvium which are necessary to fertilize the marshlands. During the years of UN sanctions, 1991-2003, many water treatment facilities in Iraq were not properly maintaining which resulted in chemical and human waste flowing freely into the Tigris and the Euphrates and eventually into the marshlands.

Returning the marshes to their old glory is almost impossible for many practical reasons. Population pressures in the three countries that share the Euphrates will increasingly use more water for basic needs, which will result in a declining quantity of water flowing into the marshes. And even if water were to be made available it would not be simple to restore a culture and a way of life that were permanently damaged. Thomas Chrisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida and a member of a team that reported on the feasibility of restoring the marshes put it thusly: “It’s not instant coffee where you just add water. It’s the quality and quantity of water available and the timing of the flow of that water, as well as the willingness of the people to return.”

Promises Unfulfilled

Like many things since April 2003, promises to restore the health of the marshes, to build homes and provide electricity, health and veterinarian services to the marsh dwellers have remained unfulfilled, partly because so much of the funds allocated for these purposes have been misused, squandered or stolen. Even some of the drainage equipment was stolen.

Some of the dams built on the Tigris and the Euphrates in the 1950’s were designed to control flooding, which caused considerable annual damage to agriculture and often interrupted city life by flooding streets and neighborhoods. With so many dams upstream, the flow of water into Iraq has been sharply reduced. The flooding control dams are no longer useful and they should be abandoned to help the water flow with fewer interruptions.


There are signs of revival in areas that were inundated by water. Despite deliberate efforts to destroy reed beds, including the use of chemical agents, the forces of nature appear to be gaining the upper hand, although slowly and haltingly.

The challenge facing those committed to the environmental restoration of the marshes is to design a system that would allow both for the preservation of traditional lifestyles and for modern development, including the provisions badly needed by the health and educational system.

Given the shortage of water, it is not clear that the marshes can ever be returned to their old ecosystem. The young generation of marsh dwellers born in towns following the expulsion of their families two or three decades earlier need to be encouraged to restore the traditional way of life; otherwise, the history of the marshes may just be considered another chapter of the epic of Gilgamesh.

[1] Salim, S[hakir] M[ustapha], Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta. London: The Athlone Press, 1962, p.8

[2] Thesiger, Wilfred, The Marsh Arabs. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1964, p.95

[3] www.edenagain.org/marshlandinfo.html

[4] Young, Gavin, The Return to the Marshes [Arabic version], 1978.

[5] Al-Qabas, November 25, 2005

[6] Salim, op.cit., p. 12

[7] Some of this information was provided to the author by a friend who visited the religious site n 2003. The author has been to the site a number of times.

[8] www.edenagain.org/publications/pdfs/newslet0704.html

Previous ArticlePrevious Article |Next ArticleNext Article
    MEMRI holds copyrights on all articles. Materials may ONLY be cited with proper attribution. For Copyright Information, click here