Although modernity has already made inroads: Life in the Mesopotamian marshes often reminds us of biblical times. (Reuters)
Marsh Arabs, Iraq marshes-boats-women. Photo: pinterest
The Marsh Arabs (Arabic: عرب الأهوار ʻArab al-Ahwār “Arabs of the Marshlands”), also known as the Maʻdān (Arabic: معدان), are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border. (wikipedia)
Marsh Arab Building a Reed House 1974, Iraq Photo: The Telegraph
Comprising members of many different tribes and tribal confederations, such as the Āl Bū Muḥammad, Ferayghāt, Shaghanbah and Banī Lām, the Maʻdān had developed a unique culture centered on the marshes’ natural resources. Many of the marshes’ inhabitants were displaced when the wetlands were drained during and after the 1991 uprisings in Iraq. (wikipedia)
Mudhif House in Iraqi Marshlands of the Madan / Ahwar People. Source: Michael Yamashita Photo: vernaculararchitecture.tumblr.
Madan means “dweller in the plains (ʻadan)” and was used disparagingly by desert tribes to refer to those inhabiting the Iraqi river basins, as well as by those who farmed in the river basins to refer to the population of the marshes. (wikipedia)
Marsh Arab woman picking reeds for house mudhif, Iraq Photo: pinterest
The Maʻdān speak a local variety of Mesopotamian Arabic and traditionally wore a variant of normal Arab dress: for males, a thawb (“long shirt”; in recent times, occasionally with a Western-style jacket over the top) and a keffiyeh (“headcloth”) worn twisted around the head in a turban, as few could afford an ʻiqāl. (wikipedia)
Village on the banks of the Tigris River in Iraq – showing the distinctive reed houses Source: YOONIQ
Marsh Arab Village Source: Spunkypedia
Campaign to save Iraq’s historic marshes gathers pace. Photo: AMAR Foundation
Reed House in Marsh Arab Village, 1974 Photo: pinterest
MA’DAN, THE LOST CULTURE
Try to imagine how life would change if your water supply suddenly vanished.
That’s what happened to the Ma’dan people of southern Iraq—the Marsh Arabs—when the water started to disappear from the Mesopotamian marshes, or “the land between the rivers,” where they had lived for more than 2,000 years.
Arab Marshman in 1967. A slender canoe filled to the rim with reeds in al-Auger village, Central Marshes.
The rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates, and these marshes of the Ma’dan are often said to have been the storied Garden of Eden. The marshes dried up after new upstream dams diverted river flow away from them, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein drained them as retribution for uprisings against his regime.
The undisturbed life of the Marsh Arabs—who for centuries lived in isolation from outside pressure—was lost. But a unique set of photographs has surfaced that reveals the watery world of the Ma’dan before the effects of development and political upheaval intruded.
A Marsh Arab floating village in Iraq is seen through the frame of a traditional mudhif house that’s under construction, 1967.
Norwegian photographer Tor Eigeland visited these marshes in 1967, and most of his pictures remained unseen until the publication of his 2014 book When All the Lands Were Sea: A Photographic Journey Into the Lives of the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.
Eigeland’s pictures offer a glimpse into this culture before it was destroyed when the water nearly vanished. As droughts and water scarcity increase globally due to climate change and increased demand for limited supplies, it’s useful to remember that without water there is no life.
Young Marsh Arab girls observe their mother weaving on an ancient and primitive loom.
Tor long career as a photographer and writer included contributions to several National Geographic books and to Traveler magazine. In an email exchange, Tor recalled his trip to the marshes of southern Iraq while that culture still thrived—and what its loss means for us.
The Al Beda village in the Eastern Marshes of Iraq was a large community with many huts and boats.
After Saddam Hussein was deposed, some people returned in hopes of restoring the drained marshes and reinhabiting their former homes.
According to Tor, Assam Alwash, an engineer who won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in the marshes, has worked for years to restore them and has done more to reflood the marshes than anyone else. He wrote me last month about the effects of ongoing drought and the loss of river flows from upstream dams.
He said the situation is dire. The marshes are half what they were six months ago. Some people are comparing today to 1995, when animals began dying due to lack of water. He said the government cannot be bothered with the situation.
Also, vast Turkish dams were built upstream without directly evil intentions but also without real concern for what would happen downriver. This fact alone, in the long run, would have reduced the marshes to a fraction of their former glory.
A typical Marsh Arab village scene. Water buffalos were essential to the Marsh Arab’s way of life.
Tor added that readers have expressed gratitude for my having recorded elements of a practically dead civilization before it was too late, and surprise about the mere existence—and disappearance—of the Marsh Arabs.
This is a classical example [of] how human greed and politics can in no time at all destroy an ancient human civilization and a vast, ecologically sound, and alive paradise. It clarifies this idea that without water there is no life. It’s something to think about very seriously—this could happen anywhere. (Source: Dennis Dimick, proof.nationalgeographic.com)
The Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs inhabit the marshy area at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. They are a seminomadic tribal people with their own distinct culture, whose way of life has changed very little in the past couple thousand years. They’re called Arabs of the marsh because they live in marshes created by the annual flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Their whole way of life revolves around the marshes – they live in floating houses made entirely of reeds harvested from the open water and Qasab , a kind of giant grass that looks like bamboo, which can grow as tall as 25 feet (7.6 meters). (Source: zmescience.com)
Iraq’s Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden
Publication Year: 2014
What can the present tell us about the past? From 1968 to 1990, Edward Ochsenschlager conducted ethnoarchaeological fieldwork near a mound called al-Hiba, in the marshes of southern Iraq. In examining the material culture of three tribes—their use of mud, reed, wood, and bitumen, and their husbandry of cattle, water buffalo, and sheep—he chronicles what is now a lost way of life. He helps us understand ancient manufacturing processes, an artifact’s significance and the skill of those who create and use it, and the substantial moral authority wielded by village craftspeople. He reveals the complexities involved in the process of change, both natural and enforced.
Al-Hiba contains the remains of Sumerian people who lived in the marshes more than 5,000 years ago in a similar ecological setting, using similar material resources. The archaeological evidence provides insights into everyday life in antiquity. Ochsenschlager enhances the comparisons of past and present by extensive illustrations from his fieldwork and also from the University Museum’s rare archival photographs taken in the late nineteenth century by John Henry Haynes. This was long before Saddam Hussein drove one of the tribes from the marshes, forced the Bedouin to live elsewhere, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who tried to stay.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Reviving an Ancient Technique in the Iraq Marshlands Photo: you tube
The ‘Garden of Eden’ Becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Iraqi marshes just received the official designation.
Saad Shalash / Reuters
Iraq’s marshlands, which lie in the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are believed to be the inspiration for the Bible’s Garden of Eden. The wetlands once spread 3,500 square miles, but Saddam Hussein drained most of the water in the 1990s in order to choke out a rebel group. It has slowly recovered since, and on Sunday, July 12, 2016, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The announcement means the land and animals in it will receive international protections. The marshlands, also called Ahwar, are made up of seven sites: three archaeological ruins and four wetlands marshes that represent one of the world’s largest inland deltas. The area is home to the Maʻdān, or Marsh Arabs.
As Reuters reported:
The Marsh Arabs have lived in the wetlands for millennia, but are on the fringes of Iraqi society. A study put their population at 400,000 in the 1950s but several hundred thousand fled Saddam’s repression or become economic migrants.
Estimates of the numbers returning vary wildly. Many Marsh Arabs are illiterate and have struggled to find work outside the marshes.
The water in the marsh had been irrigated and dammed for decades, but especially so during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s. In retribution for an uprising, Saddam drained the wetlands, forcing the Marsh Arabs to move away, and shrinking the wetlands to 290 square miles.
The wetlands, which supports about 40 species of birds, is an important migratory stop as they fly from Siberia to Africa. In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, locals destroyed many of the dams Saddam built, and the water returned. More than 40 percent of the wetlands have now been re-established.
zmescience.com: Nature Iraq, founded by an Iraqi-American hydraulic engineer who gave up his life in California to help restore the country’s lost garden of eden, is leading efforts with financial support from the United States, Canada, Japan, and Italy. Already, him and a group of old Ma’dan people have rebuilt a traditional mudhif, to demonstrate how these alternative, low-cost and sustainable buildings are still as viable today as they ever were. You see, going back to the point I was trying to make at the beginning of the piece, we need not necessarily complicate ourselves with smart materials, solar panels or what-not sensors. Of course, if you want Wifi and a sustainable home, be my guest. But the point is, people knew how to live sustainably already thousands of years ago. This isn’t a new thing and there’s so much we can learn from the Ma’dan. My best wishes go to these noble people, unfortunate enough to live in a still war torn country. Join me – these people need all your blessings!
Images and story via Messynessychic
Iraq marsh drought photo (Source: Green Prophet)
bbc.co.uk: Marsh flooding brings new life to Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’
Reed architecture: a mid-twentieth century mudhif of Abdullah of the Al-Essa tribe, in the marshes of S. Iraq.
Woman outside her reed house, Mesopotamian Marshes, Iraq, 2012 (Credit: Esme)
The Mesopotamian Venice: The Lost Floating Homes of Iraq (zmescience.com)
The islands on which the Ma’dan build their elaborate floating houses are called tuhul, and while they might look stable, they aren’t. The ground is very soggy and villagers often need to anchor their islands to avoid drifting into a neighbor.
Ma’dan houses are architectural marvels – all built without any nails, wood or glass. It takes as little as three days to build a house, using a method that has remained unchanged for the thousands of years since these people have inhabited the marshes.
Houses built of reeds had the additional advantage of being portable. In the spring, if the marsh waters rose too high, a five-arched raba could be taken down, moved to higher ground, and re-erected in less than a day. With proper care and repair, reed dwellings could last for well over 25 years.
Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure.
Almost every village has a guest house, or a mudhif. In fact, since the Ma’dan follow the traditional Arab code of honor, they welcome all guests as equal. They provide food and housing without expecting or accepting any payment. A host never helps to carry a guest’s belongings out of the house because that would imply that the host wanted the guest to leave. It’s this rare display of hospitality – one that may have brought their demise.
Iraqi Marshman reed house construction
What are your thoughts?