Home > Abdulamir > Cultural Heritage of Iraqi Marshlands






[Prepared by Rizlaine Touili & Abd ulamir Al Hamdani]

UNEP-UNESCO joint project “World Heritage Inscription Process as a tool to enhance natural and cultural management of IraqiMarshlands”

I. Introduction

Coming from the Lake Van in the Turkish mountains, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates travel thousands of miles before they join each other south of Basra and form the Shatt-el-Arab flowing into the Arab/Persian Gulf. This region of southern Iraq shelters the Iraqi Marshlands and their unique natural and cultural components. Theses marshes are mainly fed by the Tigris floods which can be unpredictable and devastating. The inhabitants of the marshes, the Marsh Arabs or Marsh dwellers, have therefore evolved in an original environment that led them to develop a unique lifestyle intimately bound with it. Iraqi Marshlands offer a special opportunity to discover but also protect an outstanding cultural heritage, both intangible and tangible, along with its exceptional natural environment.
Numbers of problems are threatening not only the natural settings of the Marshlands but also its population and their culture which Marsh Arabs have succeeded to perpetuate throughout centuries. The World Heritage Convention of 1972 is an international tool designed to preserve any outstanding cultural and natural heritage. The Government of Iraq, aware of those threats, proposed Marshlands of Mesopotamia for the Tentative List of Iraq for World Heritage as a mixed cultural and natural site. Since 2003 the mixed site of the Marshlands of Mesopotamia is on the above-mentioned Tentative List. Next step would be to prepare the Nomination File for the inscription of the Marshlands on the World Heritage List. The process itself is extremely complex and meticulous, starting with the challenging identification of the boundaries of the site at both levels -boundaries of the core protected area or areas and boundaries of the buffer zone either for each area or including all protected areas, and ending with the construction of an institutional framework for the management of the future World Heritage property, Marshlands of Mesopotamia. One of the crucial requirements for the preparation of the nomination file is the proper documentation of all natural and cultural components of the proposed site which we are calling mapping of cultural and natural resources of the Marshlands of Mesopotamia. Moreover, the nomination process itself constitutes an invaluable tool to enhance cultural and natural management of Iraqi Marshlands.
Iraqi Heritage Law N 55 of 2002 legally preserves Iraqi cultural heritage in accordance with the national inventory of antiquities and heritage. It should be noted that currently the only available publication that directly reflects the national inventory or, more specifically forms a baseline data for such a national inventory is the Atlas of Archaeological sites in Iraq published in 1970 by the Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Iraq, Directorate of Antiquities. This Atlas and its second volume with the catalogue of the sites are considered as the legal base for the application of the Law 55. For the three Governorates of Basra, Thi-Qar and Missan where the Iraqi Marshlands are located, the overall number of sites, in accordance with the above Atlas, is of 798. The sites are distributed in those Governorates, as follows: Basra 84 sites; Thi-Qar 522 sites, and Missan 192 sites. Since 1970 by 2010, in 40 years, number of new cultural heritage sites has been discovered; therefore an updated cultural resource mapping for Iraqi Marshlands is absolutely critical.
The proposed work is a preliminary survey of the bibliographical resources available on Iraqi Marshlands. It constitutes the first step toward the gathering of data, indispensable for the localization and documentation on the Iraqi Marshlands Cultural Heritage.

II. Iraqi Marshlands: region and inhabitants.

The southern Iraq witnessed the development of one of the first urban civilization of mankind, Sumer, as well as the development of the first trading system with a .worldwide. dimension linking the ancient Meluhha (India), Magan (Oman), Dilmun (Bahrain) and Sumer. Lacking natural resources in sufficient quantity, Sumerians have taken advantage of their most important asset: their strategic position. During the 3rd millennia BC, the Gulf coast was much closer to the city of Ur, one of the most famous archaeological sites of that period, which enabled its development as a major trading harbor. In exchange for the raw materials, the Sumerians exported manufactured high quality product always attractive for Sumerians trading partners.
Later on, the coastline changed and a new story began for the Iraqi Marshlands. In Medieval times, this region will be an edge area, riding between two cultural entities that are the actual Iran and Iraq. Historical chronicles described a safe haven for rebels. Although Basra remains, over the centuries, an important trading center, the Marshlands will remain marginalized till the end of the Ottoman Empire. The remoteness was the key element for the Marsh Arabs enabling them to preserve and perpetuate their incredible culture and lifestyle.
The extent of the marshes has changed over the centuries. Numerous teams of researchers are further studying this phenomenon for better understanding. Despites the changes which have modified the natural landscape, the Marsh dwellers have managed to preserve and adapt their lifestyle and transmit it to the following generations. Until the .50s, the traditional subsistence lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs had been hardly disturbed. The gradual shrinking of Marshland.s in space and size begun at the end of .50s. Many dams were built upstream of Tigris and Euphrates, in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Over the years, the flow of the rivers diminished dramatically in the south of Iraq and therefore the amount of water in Marshlands also decreased significantly. This process severely accelerated during the 90s, particularly after the First Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein had undertook massive development work on the Tigris and Euphrates and drained the marshes. For its inhabitants, with a largely self-sufficient economy structured around aquatic elements, draining of swamps meant not only the destruction of their livelihood but also destruction of their entire lifestyle. Faced by growing poverty, the Marsh Arabs deliberately neglected by the government of Saddam Hussein, and also being a part from any policy of modernization, have been forced to migrate to urban centers of Iraq or Iran. It is estimated that the marshes have been drained to 95 percent, leaving its inhabitants in a major poverty.
Since 2003, various projects were undertaken in the Iraqi Marshlands in order to document and plan a proper development of the Iraqi Marshlands combining the needs of the population and the needs to protect the Iraqi Marshlands as cultural and natural treasure. The Italian Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea developed “New Eden” project, implemented since 2003 in coordination with Iraqi Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Municipalities and Public work, and managed through an Iraqi NGO, “Nature Iraq”. A “New Eden” Master Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management in the Marshlands Area. has been developed to assist Iraqi policy makers by providing information and analytical tools regarding water resource and environmental management. One of the objectives of this project is to create a Mesopotamia Marshlands National Park in order to improve the restoration, protection and development of the Marshlands and its population1.
The Canadian Initiative for Iraqi Marshlands2 (CIMI), supported by various Iraqi stakeholders such are central or governorates officials, tribal and community leaders, academics, and local NGOs, implements various activities focusing on the better understanding of the health of Iraqi Marshlands, of its past and future development, with final goal of devising sustainable management and development plan, community projects, improve capacities of local stakeholders and national institutions. This initiative aims to support a stable and prosperous southern Iraq and support the social, economical and environmental sustainability of Iraqi Marshlands based, as mentioned above, on the involvement of all actors intervening in the developments of Iraqi Marshlands.
These projects, among other works, provide us with update information on the health of Iraqi Marshlands. Thanks to these new data, we were able to further understand the consequences of the last decade.s policies in this area. It was estimated that, since 2003, only 10 % of the former extend of the marshlands were recovered. 10 % of the original marshlands extending in three governorates, Basra, The Qar and Missan, covering an area of 35 000 km2, including 9000 km2 of permanent marshes. It should be noted that among different scenarios the worst case scenario identified by CIMI anticipates the preservation of only c.391 km23 in the coming years.

Above-mentioned projects record some natural and also socio-economical data of Iraqi Marshlands. However, this data needs to be enriched with information about the cultural heritage dimension of Marshlands. It is particularly important to have detailed data on the cultural resource of the area for at least following reasons: 1) the universal importance of the cultural heritage of southern Iraq for the development of human civilization; 2) the initial commitment of the Government of Iraq to propose Iraqi Marshlands as mixed natural and cultural nomination; 3) the importance of the cultural dimension of Iraqi Marshlands for the protection and promotion of Iraqi cultural diversity.

Cultural heritage of Iraqi Marshlands, tangible and intangible, is only randomly documented due to the difficulty to undertake archaeological survey in the past years. For example, 60 archaeological sites had been relatively recently located in Al-Hammar marsh. Mounds (tells) located in the western part of these marshes, bordering with what appears to be the ancient flow of the Euphrates. These sites represent shelter settlements belonging mainly to the Early Dynastic Period of Sumer with some sites occupied until the Third Ur Dynasty and the Middle or New Babylonian periods. Other archaeological settlements have been located closer to the current flow of the Euphrates and at the east of Garraf River, and most of these belong to the Sassanid period reaching the Islamic periods. The survey on the ground needs to be completed and deepened but even partial information gives us evidences of continuous settlements from the Early Dynastic Period of Sumer until the Islamic times and thus provides with new examples of cultural richness of the Iraqi Marshlands.

The Sumerian civilization, one of the first urban civilizations developed by mankind, enabled the early development of elements essential for the Humanity such are writing, commercial exchanges, mythology, science etc. Sites like Ur, Uruk or Babylon display the glory of that civilization. Question is whether one can note any link between this legendary civilization and the present inhabitants of the Iraqi Marshlands? The answer is definitely positive. Several features in the culture of the Marsh Arabs are a living testimony of the persistence of some Sumerian traditions.

Due to its isolation and its environmental context, Iraqi marshlands also preserved part of the archaeological heritage of Sumer. Major Sumerian sites are on the bank of the marshes: Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Lagash and many others, but recent surveys indicate that more sites are available within the marshlands itself. Iraqi Authorities record number of completely unknown site discovered because of the wetlands draining. These sites have never been studied and it is possible that other new sites have not yet been discovered. These sites certainly contain precious information for the understanding of the Sumerian civilization.

The Marshland homes the tribes of Mi.dan and Beni Hassan. Beni Hassans live on the banks of the marshes, mainly of cattle breading. Mi.dans are commonly known as the Marsh Arabs. Living in the heart of the marshes, they live from the exploitation of the environment. Mi.dans include different tribes

The authority of the village was held by the Sheikh who was tasked to maintain the Mudhif, center -political, social, religious and economic life of the village. Most Mi.dan houses were built on the same principle: architecture of arched reeds tied together to form large structure. Thanks to proper maintenance, a Mudhif or a Raba could be used for 25 years. Boats were also constructed from reeds. This material was available everywhere around the villages. Besides, being very economic for the inhabitants, the Mi.dan.s outstanding skill for the use of this material crossed centuries. The main advantage of the reed is its resistance to water. Moreover, it is easily transportable, easily disassembling and reassembling each structure whenever necessary. The reed was therefore an ideal material: accessible, economic and adapted to an aquatic environment.

The natural environment has not only impacted the lifestyle of Marsh Arabs, it also influenced their beliefs. In general, the majority of Marsh Arabs are Muslim Shiites, source of a certain historical mistrust from the rest of the country. However, some inhabitants of the Marshlands don.t belong to the Arab ethnic group and are still speaking Aramaic. In addition, some foreign observers noticed the existence of pre-or extra-Islamic beliefs. Unfortunately, considering the difficulty accessing the private sphere of the Marsh Arabs, they were not able to have more information. Nevertheless, we have examples such as the legend of Hufaidh, a mythic island lost somewhere in the swamps. It is a kind of Eldorado where buffalos are bigger and the land more fertile. The island was protected by Jinn and if, by misfortune, anyone discovered it, no one would be able to understand his words when he would return from this mythic “island”.

The culture developed in the Marshlands is an outstanding example of human settlement and land-use in direct interaction with surrounding natural settings (Fig. 8). In contact with other cultures, despites turbulent history, the Marsh traditional houses survived across the centuries being in harmony with nature and preserving their culture. Therefore, thanks to their lifestyle, the Marsh Arabs turned this land, originally hostile to man, into a prosperous and fertile land.

III. Methodology

The present survey is limited to the scientific libraries and institutes of Amman4 along with available resources on Internet like Jstor and ebscohost databases5. Number of articles from various scientific journals such are Iraq, Sumer and others (please refer to the list of journals in the Annex I) has been used along with specialized books6.

As we have seen, this area has always been a refuge, a territory apart with an original identity and specific cultures adapted to the unique environment. However, historically, the Marshlands are also a contact zone linking the rest of Iraq with south-west Iran and north of Arabia. That is why we included bibliography on these three areas. Bibliography on sites surrounding Marshlands, such are Ur, Uruk, Eridu and Lagash, have been also included in order to gather the maximum of data. Besides, this survey includes references in Arabic.

This bibliographical index is not structured by a chronological framework as it seems important to classify data according to various subjects and themes highlighting the continuity of certain cultural component throughout the history. Nevertheless, distinctions between pre-Islamic, Islamic and Ottoman periods are made since Islam.s spread has been a major bend in Iraqi History. However, in

order to have the same bibliography available with cross references an additional list of titles and references is built in chronological order.

Finally, in the Anthropological part, scientific texts focusing on Iraq have been used as it could provide precious data on Iraqi Marshlands. Moreover, all available travelers. narratives are in this index as they are a valuable source of data thank to descriptions, both textual and visual, provided by people who lived among Marsh population.

Despite the imperfection intrinsic to this kind of work, we hope that this bibliographical survey we.ll be the first step toward localization and documentation of all cultural assets of the Iraqi Marshlands.

IV. Analysis

Throughout the Prehistory, Protohistory and Antiquity, southern Iraq is well documented. Since the end of the 18th century, and particularly the publication of .The Description of Egypt. by Napoleon, Europeans were fascinated by the treasure of the ancient civilizations of Antiquity. Best sales of books during the 19th century were the testimonies of the few ones who visited these sites in Egypt or Middle East. This fascination stayed throughout the years and lead to a wide bibliography, excavation reports, studies of artifacts etc., documenting sites such are Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Lagash or Larsa. All these references on archaeology, artifacts, cuneiform inscriptions, and others provide us with precious information on southern Iraq history but also on the historiography which frames scientific researches. With the improvement of archaeological investigation techniques, but also with unfortunate alteration of the environment, mainly by the dry up of the Marshlands, most likely new data and new interpretation will nourish future research on cultural heritage of Iraqi Marshlands.

New data also reflects the change in the scientific research approaches. Since the last decade, more studies focuses on the exchanges of southern Iraq with neighboring regions throughout history, particularly on trade network and commercial routes. Economical life of ancient civilization is attracting scholars also because of new kind of information emerging. For example, regarding the commercial routes of southern Iraq during the Antiquity, the new data appears from new studies in India and in the Gulf countries, indirectly increasing the knowledge on and the understating of processes in the history of southern Iraq and more specifically of Iraqi Marshlands.

Islamic and Ottoman periods of southern Iraq are much less reflected in the scientific bibliography. During these times, this region was considered as a marginalized region, neglected between actual Iraq and Iran. To look for information on the Marshlands of those periods, we had to pass though cross-references enabling us to deduct some variable indirect information.

At the end of the Ottoman Empire available bibliographical information becomes richer thank to the development of anthropological or ethnological studies. Since the 19th century, diverse descriptions of Iraqi Marshlands were done by number of travelers, who stayed with the local population or just passed through the Marshlands. These testimonies, accompanied sometimes with pictures, are precious for their detailed description of the lifestyle and of the environment. These travelers. journals provide invaluable information for the modern scientific investigation of Iraqi Marshlands.

List of Journals

American Historical Review: American Historical association American Anthropologist: Blackwell publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological association American Antiquity: Society for American archaeology American Journal of Archaeology: Archaeological Institute of America American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures: The University of Chicago Press Annual Review of Anthropology: Annual Reviews-USA Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research: American Schools of Oriental Research-Boston University Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History: Natural History Museum Fieldiana Anthropology-Chicago Arabica, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies: E.J.Brill-Leiden, Netherlands Ars Orientalis: University of Michigan and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

Asia: Asian affairs: Royal society for Asian Affairs-UK

Asiatic Journal Asian and African Studies: E.J.Brill-Leiden, Netherlands Baghdader Mittielungen: Deutsches Archaologisches Institut-Berlin Bulletin of the American Geographical Society: American Geographical Society Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales: Institut Francais d.etudes arabes de Damas (IFPO)-Damas Bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Economics and Statistics: Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of Oxford University Bulletin de la Société de Géographie : Société de Géographie-Paris Bulletin de la Société de Géographie commerciale de Paris : Société de Géographie commerciale de Paris-Paris Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies: University of London-Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and African Studies

Carnets de geologie/Notebooks on geology Current Anthropology: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wener-Green Foundation for Anthropological Research Economic Geography: Clark University

L’Explorateur Geographical Review: American Geography Society-New York Geographical Journal: Blackwell publishing on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society-UK Geological Magazine: Cambridge University Press-New-York

La géographie Hesperia: Culturas del Mediterraneo: Fundacion Jose Luis Pardo. Culturas del Mediterraneo and Fundacion Tres Culturas del Mediterraneo-Espagna

Islamic Culture: Indian Antiquary: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland-Bombay, Education Society.s Press Journal of Archaeological Science: Elsevier -Maryland Heights, USA

Journal of the American Society Journal of the American Oriental Society: American Oriental Society

JA Journal of the British Institute of International Affairs: Blackwell publishing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International-London Journal of Contemporary History: Sage Publication Ltd.-USA Journal of Cultural Heritage: Elsevier -Maryland Heights, USA Journal of Cuneiform Studies: American Schools of Oriental Research-University of Boston Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient: E.J.Brill-Leiden, Netherlands Journal of Field Archaeology: University of Boston Journal of Interdisciplinary History: The MIT Press-Cambridge, USA Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology: Taylor and Francis Ltd.-UK

Journal of Medieval History: Elsevier -Maryland Heights, USA Journal of Near Eastern Studies: The University of Chicago Press-Chicago Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and Cambridge University Press-UK Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society: Routledge Journal of the Royal Geographical Society: Royal Geographical Society with IBG-London Man: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland-UK


Middle Eastern Studies: Middle East Studies Association-The University of Arizona, USA Middle East Report: Middle East Research and Information Project-Washington DC

Nature and Resources:

Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science: Koninklijke Landbouwkundige Vereniging (KLV) / Royal Netherlands Society for Agricultural Sciences Orientalia: Eurasia Academic Publishers Osterreichische Monatsschrift fur den Orient: Österreichisches Handels-Museum Oriental herald: J.M.Richardson-London Quarterly Review: John Murray Publish.-London Revue Maritime : Ministère de la Marine and Librairie militaire de L.Baudoin-France Revue des deux mondes : FIMALAC group-Paris Rocznik orientalistyczny: The Central European Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities-Varsaw

Revue Assyriologie: Sumer: Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society: Oriental Ceramic Society-London Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society: Geographical Society-Bombay Visual resources: an international journal of documentation: Routledge Ltd. World Archaeology: Taylor and Francis Ltd.-London


Related subject: The Marshes of Southern Iraq