by Andy Khong
The Mesopotamian Marshes (also referred to as the Iraqi Marshes, or Al-Ahwar in Arabic), are a wetland region located in southern Iraq recognized for their unique beauty and ecological importance; historically stretched up to 20,000 square kilometers (7,750 square miles) in the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Anthropologists believe this is the cradle of civilization where humans about 12,000 years ago, started its transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering, to agriculture and settlement.
Part of the marshes were drained from 1950ies to 1970ies for agriculture and oil exploration. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, drained the Mesopotamian Marshes in the 1990ies as part of a campaign to assert control over the area’s population and resources. The marshes, which had been home to the Marsh Arabs for thousands of years, were seen by Saddam Hussein as a hotbed of dissent, and sanctuary for opposition forces. The drainage was accomplished by building dams and canals to divert water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which fed the marshes. The resulting loss of habitat led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs (known as “Madan” – meaning dweller in the plains), as well as significant ecological damage to one of the world’s largest wetland ecosystems. The marshes have since been partially restored, but the ecological and social impacts of their draining remain a major concern. Drought, and damming in Turkey, Syria, and Iran have cut off water flows and biodiversity is collapsing.
The Mesopotamian Marshes are home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, including reeds,
water lilies, fish, and migratory birds. The marshes also support local communities who rely on fishing
and agriculture for their livelihoods. The intricate network of waterways, reed beds, and floating islands
create a stunning landscape, making the Mesopotamian Marshes a visually stunning wetland ecosystems in the world.
In addition to their beauty, the Mesopotamian Marshes hold important cultural significance as well. The
region has a rich history, dating back to ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and the Babylonians, and
it has been the site of human habitation for thousands of years.
Despite the destruction of much of the marshes in recent decades, efforts are underway to restore the
ecosystem and preserve its unique beauty for future generations. Conservation organizations and local
communities are working together to plant new vegetation, build dams and dikes, and restore the
natural flow of water to the region.
The marshy soil in the Mesopotamian Marshes is made up of mud and decaying plant matter (peat),
when combined with salt water makes it hypoxic (low oxygen), resulting in the smell of a rotten egg.
Massive amounts of pollutants and sewage are also dumped into the Tigris and Euphrates, degrading
the water quality, and exacerbating the pungent and putrid smell. Some animals like the water buffalo
here die of sickness from poor water quality, which is visibly off-coloured with pollution – be wary if you
are thinking of taking a dip in the Mesopotamian Marshes.
Reeds are harvested from the Mesopotamian Marshes by the Marsh Arabs to build houses. There are 3
different kinds of houses that are built here. The Raba which is the family home, then the Bayt which is
a single-room home, and the Mudhif being a Guest House. The Mudhif is used to symbolize generosity
and hospitality – welcoming guests (with food and refreshments), weddings, and funerals.
The long and narrow boats used in the Mesopotamian Marshes for fishing, transporting goods, and Overall, the Mesopotamian Marshes are a beautiful and important region with a rich history and cultural heritage. The Mesopotamian Marshes became Iraq’s first National park in 2013, and the United Nations
named it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 – it is an awesome place to visit!
For more information on tours to Iraq.