The Marsh Arabs of Iraq

Jul 12, 2018 0 comments

The two great rivers of ancient Mesopotamia—Tigris and Euphrates—rises in the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey, and after flowing through Turkey and then Syria, enters the vast desert kingdom of Iraq. Before it empties into the Persian Gulf, the rivers split into dozens of small streams and channels that meander across an enormous plain in southern Iraq forming what once used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia, covering some 20,000 square kilometers. In this vast fertile region, civilization was born some 5,000 years ago. The first literate societies emerged, cities developed and trade and complex state bureaucracies evolved.

After the Sumerians and Akkadians withered away, some of its descendants took to living in the marshlands. They are called Marsh Arabs or the Ma’dan. Over the centuries these people developed a unique culture centered on the marshes' natural resources. Much of this ancient way of life was destroyed in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people.


A traditional reed hut called mudhif in a Marsh Arab village in Iraq. Photo credit: The Sandstorm Magazine/Flickr

The Ma’dan live in secluded villages scattered throughout the marshes that’s only reachable by boat. They make elaborate reed houses called mudhif constructed from reeds harvested from the marshes where they live. A typical reed dwelling is usually a little more than two meters wide, and about six meters long. They are constructed either at the waterside or on floating artificial island of reeds called a kibasha. A more permanent island of layered reeds and mud is called a dibin

The Ma’dan keep water buffalo, which are critical for fodder, milk and dung, which is a major source of fuel. They also cultivate crops such as rice, barley, wheat and pearl millet. Some Ma’dans lead a nomadic life erecting temporary dwellings and moving buffalo around the marshes according to the season. Some fished commercially. As much as 60 per cent of all fish caught in Iraq's inland waters came from the marshes

But everything changed in the 1990s.


Photo credit:

Following the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein began draining the marshes in an attempt to flush out the guerrillas who had rebelled against his regime, and also as a collective punishment for the entire population for harboring the rebels. The marshlands had for some time become refuge for Shiite rebel groups and other elements persecuted by the government. On Saddam’s order engineers began to build large embankments and dug new canals to reroute the rivers and divert waters away from the marshes causing irreparable damage to these enormous, rich wetlands. Additionally, the Iraqi army burnt the villages down and forced the inhabitants out of the marshland. The diabolic plan—according to a series of propaganda articles by the Iraqi regime—was to convert the wetlands into a desert, and they were largely successful. By the turn of the century, an estimated 90 percent of the marshlands had disappeared. The Marsh Arabs, who numbered about half a million in the 1950s, dwindled to only 20,000.

After Saddam’s defeat in 2003, some of the Marsh Arabs returned to their homeland and destroyed the dams and dikes the dictator built to block the rivers. The provisional government along with the United Nations and US agencies also began restoring the marshes. Within months, the wetlands began to grow and by 2008, it had grown to a promising 75 percent. However, recent drought and continued upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria and Iran have reduced the amount of water reaching Iraq and the marshes have again decreased in size.


This series of images satellite images from 2000 through 2010 shows how the marshlands have dried up.

A large number of Marsh Arabs now live in camps in Iran where their prospects are far brighter than those still leaving in the marshes with no healthcare and limited food and water supplies. Life in the marshes had always been hard, and many marsh dwellers, particularly the young people, had already left for the cities during the prosperous years of the 60s and 70s.

According to Dr. Ernestina Coast, the chances of Marsh Arabs returning to their original area of residence are extremely slim. “As time goes on”, Dr. Coast wrote in an academic paper, “an increasing numbers of people of Marsh Arab descent will be born in refugee camps, or will at least have spent a large proportion of their life in a camp. This will (has) undoubtedly affect their future aspirations in terms of place of residence.”


The Iraqi marshlands in 1967. Photo credit: Tor Eigeland


The Iraqi marshlands in 1967. Photo credit: Tor Eigeland


A Marsh Arab floating village in Iraq is seen through the frame of a traditional mudhif house that’s under construction, 1967. Photo credit: Tor Eigeland


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