It was Iraq’s ‘Garden of Eden’; unique wetlands in southern Iraq where a people known as the Ma’dan, or ‘Arabs of the marsh’, lived in a Mesopotamian Venice, characterised by beautifully elaborate floating houses made entirely of reeds harvested from the open water.
These little-known architectural wonders are known as a ‘mudhif’; built without nails, wood or glass in under three days, even the islands the houses rest on are made of compacted mud and rushes.
It’s a construction method that has been used by the dwellers of the plains for thousands of years, but in recent decades, this exotic architecture has almost completely disappeared, and at risk of being lost along with it of course, is the ancient knowledge of the unique building technique itself.
Why would such a beautiful waterworld disappear, you ask? As with most of the injustice that marred Iraq during the late 20th century the destruction of this Middle Eastern paradise came at the hands of one defiant dictator, Saddam Hussein. The marshes and their floating reed homes had for some time been considered a refuge for those persecuted by the government of Hussein, and in past centuries they had been a refuge for escaped slaves and serfs.
During the 1991 uprisings in Iraq, Saddam Hussein drained the unique wetlands of southern Iraq as a punishment to the marsh arabs who had backed the uprising and allegedly given refuge to militiamen the government regarded as terrorists.
The Iraqi government aggressively revived a 1970s irrigation project that had initially been abandoned after it began to disrupt the flow of water to the marshes. Very quickly, their food source was eliminated, their villages were attached and burnt down and their lush paradise systematically converted into a desert. What little water remained was reportedly poisoned.
Residents in their thousands were forced from their settlements, abandoning their traditional lifestyle in favour of towns and camps in other areas of Iraq or to Iranian refugee camps. Only 1,600 of of the nearly half million Marsh Arabs recorded in the 1950s were estimated to still be living in the traditional housing in the new millenium.
It was considered a lost culture until a remarkable recovery began to take place in 2003 when local communities began breaching Saddam Husseins’s dikes after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A four year drought also came to an end that same year and the wetlands have now been restored to cover more than 50% of the 1970s water levels (pictured above). The ecosystem however may take far longer to restore than it took to destroy and many of the Marsh Arabs have moved on and those that return are greeted with no clean drinking water, poor sanitation, and no health care or education facilities.
Only miles away from cities devastated by war, there are few willing to risk their lives to save a marsh and its dwindling eco-friendly community, however, there is hope. 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.
One of their most recent efforts to rebuild the Ma’dan community saw the organisation re-construct a traditional mudhif, to demonstrate how the alternative, low-cost and sustainable building methods could work once again.
In the spirit of the Ma’dan community, which throughout history has given refuge to those in need, the reed abode acts as a guest house, offering accommodation for long-term stays, as well as a community centre where locals and travellers alike can have meals and share discussions about the future of Iraq’s garden of Eden. You can follow the progress on Facebook with Nature Iraq here.
Who knows? One day you might be gliding through the channels of Iraq’s wetlands lined with beautiful reed houses as flocks of birds fly through the reddish evening sky above.