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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Marsh Arabs

Posted on Friday 19 January 2007

Sennacherib, persuing Merodach-Baladan:
"He fled like a bird to the swampland. I sent my warriors into the midst of the swamps … and they searched for five days'. But the King of Babylon could not be found. (703 BC)


A Sumerian reed house


Another Sumerian reed house


A modern Iraqi reed house (called a mudhif)


Marshland (Hawr) in Southern Iraq

All the lands were sea...
Gilimma bound reeds upon the face of the waters,
He formed soil and poured it out beside the reeds.
He filled in a dike by the side of the sea,
He made a swamp, he formed a marsh
and he brought it into existence,
Reeds he formed, trees he created.

Sumerian creation myth

At that moment, on that day, and under that sun...
from the mouth of the waters running underground,
fresh waters ran out of the ground for her.
The waters rose up from it into her great basins.
Her city drank water aplenty from them.
Dilmun drank water aplenty from them.
Her pools of salt water indeed became pools of fresh water.
Her fields, glebe and furrows indeed produced grain for her.
Her city indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land.
Dilmun indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land.
At that moment, on that day, and under that sun,
so it indeed happened.

Enki and Ninhursanga c. 2500 BC

Shuruppak, a city that you surely know,
situated on the banks of the Euphrates,
that city was very old, and there were gods inside it.
The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood.
Their Father Anu uttered the oath of secrecy,
Valiant Enlil was their Adviser,
Ninurta was their Chamberlain,
Ennugi was their Minister of Canals.
Ea [Enki], the Clever Prince, was under oath with them
so he repeated their talk to the reed house:
'Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall!
O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.
Roof it over like the Apsu.
I understood and spoke to my lord, Ea:
'My lord, thus is the command which you have uttered
I will heed and will do it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI): The Story of the Flood
c. 700 BC but based on the much older myths of Ziusudra and Atrahasis.
Here's a summary of Atrahasis and a handy table with cross-references to the Noah flood myth.


The swamps are full of huge reeds, bordered with tamarisk jungles, and in its lower reaches, where the water stretches out into great marshes, the river is cloggedwith a growth of agrostis.

To obtain a correct idea of this-region it must be borne in mind also that the course of the river and the features of the country on both banks are subject to constant fluctuation. The Hindieh canal and the main stream, the ancient Sura, rejoin one another at Samawa. Down to this point, the bed of the Euphrates being higher than that of the Tigris, the canals run from the former to the latter, but below this the situation is reversed.

At Nasrieh the Shattel-Hal, at one time the bed of the Tigris, and still navigable during the greater part vf the year, joins the Euphrates. From this point downward, and to some extent above this as far as Samawa, the river forms a seccession of weedy lagoons of the most hopeless character, the Paludes Chaldaici of antiquity, el Batihlt of the Arabs. Along this part of its course the river is apt to be choked with reeds and, except where bordered by lines of palm trees, the channel loses itself in lakes and swamps.

The inhabitants of this region are wild and inhospitable and utterly beyond the control of the Turkish authorities, and navigation of the river between Korna and Suk-esh-Sheiukh is unsafe owing to the attacks of armed pirates.
Encyclopædia Britannica (1911 edition)


...the extensive marshes which cover the southern part of the Tigris-Euphrates delta also form a special district, widely different from the rest of Mesopotamia. With their myriads of shallow lakes, their narrow waterways winding through dense thickets of reeds, their fauna of water-buffalos, wild boars and wild birds, their mosquitos and their stifling heat, they constitute one of the most strange, forbidding and fascinating regions of the world. Although they may have varied in extent and configuration, anicient monuments and texts prove that they have always existed, and indeed, the Ma'dan, or marsh-Arabs, appear to have preserved to some extent the way of life of the early Sumerians established on the fringe of the swamps more than five thousand years ago.

From an archaeological point of view, the Iraqi marshes are still largely terra incognita. Reports from travellers suggest that traces of ancient settlements are exceedingly rare, probably because they consisted of reed-hut villages similar to those of today, which have completely disappeared or lie buried beneath several feet of mud and water. It is hoped, however, that modern methods - such as the use of helecopters - will eventually open to exploration a region which is by no means lacking in historical interest.

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, 1964. Reprinted in 1992

...Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me...Firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flying in to feed, a boy's voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds, narrow waterways that wound still deeper into the Marshes...

The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger,1964


Below Al Chabaish: "Reed huts in Euphrates flood plain. View from water. We went up the Euphrates all morning. It is the most curious sight. The whole country is under water, the villages, which are mainly not sedentary, but nomadic, are built on floating piles of reed mats, anchored to palm trees, and locomotion is entirely by boat."
Photo taken by Gertrude Bell in 1916


Above 'Akaikah: Reed huts and brick building next to Euphrates channel. View from water
Photo taken by Gertrude Bell in 1918

View of dhows on river, palm trees on riverbanks
Photo taken by Gertrude Bell in 1916

Now the Shamiyah is the garden of Mesopotamia, the pleasure ground, if you like. I had almost forgotten how lovely it is in winter. The willows and Euphrates poplars which edge the bank of river and canal are gold and golden green, and as a background forests of palms, all about 15 years old, i.e. at the most charming moment of their life before they become leggy. (It's curious to reflect that the palm acquires the physical peculiarities of a Backfisch with age.) It was dark when we reached our camp, which was pitched in open ground half way between the trees of two canals and about 2 miles from the river. Major Norbury is the most lavishly hospitable creature and the camp was luxurious - every comfort, carpets, baths, oil-stoves, excellent meals. Next morning when I woke and stepped out of my tent into the bright sun and saw all the trees and things I wondered how anyone could live in Baghdad, or anywhere but the Shamiyah.

But I must tell you the camp was pitched quite near the little village which is the headquarters of the principal shaikh of the district, Ibadi al Husain - I knew him before, of course. So after dinner he invited us to his mudhif, his guest house. Now a mudhif you can't picture till you've seen it. It's made of reeds, reed mats spread over reed bundles arching over and meeting at the top so that the whole is a huge, perfectly regular and exquisitely constructed yellow tunnel 50 yards long. In the middle is the coffee hearth, with great logs of willow burning. On either side of the hearth, against the reed walls of the mudhif, a row of brocade-covered cushions for us to sit on, the Arabs flanking us and the coffee-maker crouched over his pots. The whole lighted by the fire and a couple of small lamps, and the end of the mudhif fading away into a golden gloom. Glorious.

So there we sat and drank coffee and talked for an hour.

We spent next day in camp, Major N. and another man shooting - there's a mass of game - while Captain Mann and Wigan and I took horses from Ibadi and with the latter's brother rode down to the Hor, the marsh, half lake, into which all canals empty themselves. It's a rice country and they have had this year a bumper crop. The yellow reed villages lay fat and comfortable in the winter sun, banked up with rice straw. The great golden heaps of rice were not all housed or shipped away but lay on the harvest floors. Did I say glorious before? I'm afraid I did. When we reached the Hor we got into tiny sajahs, the local canoe-like boat, and rowed out by passageways through the reeds to the open water. There were thousands of duck and teal and other water birds. The osprey breeds here. The water was covered with the dying leaves of a small water lily on which buffaloes were peacefully browsing, standing belly-deep in the Hor. Of all incongruous diets for a buffalo, water lilies are certainly the most preposterous.

We rode home and lunched with Ibadi in his mudhif. The lunch wasn't ready till past 3 by which time we were hungry but we couldn't make so much as an impression on the mountains of food provided. All the tribe must have been fed that day from what was left. As a concession I was allowed a spoon for my rice - I do drop it about so. The others eat with their fingers.

Gertrude Bell in a letter to her father dated 4th January, 1920



The mudhif of Sheikh Abdul Wahid.
Photo taken by Gertrude Bell in 1918

Telegrams and reports come in from the provinces all saying that Sir Percy's action [his brutal suppression of the 1920 revolt] is universally approved. Sharp action has been taken in Diwaniyah and Shamiyah to establish law and order, and after bombing raids by air all the extremist tribal leaders have made submission - except 'Abdul Wahid who has no tribal following and will probably give way in the the next day or two. In fact it has been decisively proved that we were right and the King wrong when we said that firm action with the extremists would bring them instantly to heel. Sir Percy's greatest triumph has been with the two dangerous 'alims of Kadhimain, Saiyid Muhammad Sadr and Shaikh Muhammad Mahdi al Khalisi. He sent them word that he was ever careful to safeguard the honour of religious dignitaries and that to save him from the painful duty of exiling them by force, he advised them to travel to Persia (they are Persian subjects.) They left on the night of the 29th.

Gertrude Bell in a letter to her father dated 31st August, 1922
(this quote I originally spotted over at Juan Cole's excellent site: Informed Comment)


Photograph taken by Wilfred Thesiger
The Zair [one who has made the pilgrimage to the tomb of the eighth Imam at Meshed in Iran in Shi'a Islam] fetched the tea things and sat beside the fire, washing the glasses, saucers and spoons in an enamelled bowl. The tea was in a screw of paper and the sugar in a small tin. While the Zair and Sadam discussed the levy of reeds which Falih had demanded for his father's new mudhif [guest house], the Zair's son arrived back. He unloaded the hashish [animal fodder], feeding some of it to the buffaloes and then piling the rest just inside the house. He looked about twenty, was bare-headed, his short hair cut in a pudding-bowl style, and was naked except for a cloak wrapped around his waist. Leaning his fishing spear in a corner, he put on a shirt before joining us.

"I will go to Bu Mughaifat and see Sahain tomorrow," Sadam said. "He must produce two more boatloads of reeds from his village."

"Yes, by God, Sadam, so far we have produced it all," the Zair exclaimed.

"Sahain's people always get out of everything," his son added. "It is the same with the Feraigat. All they can do is to make trouble."

That evening, back at Sadam's mudhif, I stood watching the sun go down behind reedbeds that stretched to the world's end. High overhead, banks of cirrus cloud, blown to tattered streams, ranged from ebony to flaming gold and the colour of old ivory, against a background of vermilion and orange, violet, mauve, and palest green. From all around, as if the Marshes breathed, came the massed voices of frogs, an all-pervading pulse of sound, so sustained that the mind ceased to take note of it. More than any other, even the crying of geese in winter, this was the sound of the Marshes. A dog barked; a buffalo grunted with a noise surprisingly like a camel's; a man called out a long, and to me, unintelligible message; a pause, and someone answered. More buffaloes swam across the open water towards the village, only their heads showing and each leaving a wake. Among the houses columns of dense smoke spread upwards from small fires, lit to keep the mosquitoes away from the herds. A boy, late back from the reedbeds, paddled down a waterway, a path of shining gold leading from the setting sun. He sang softly as he came towards me, the notes lingering in the air.

Sadam called and I went inside.

The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger,1964


Aerial view of a Ma'dan ("Marsh Arab") floating village near Nasiriya


A Ma'dan village


Inside a mudhif


View from the top of a mudhif
These photos were taken in 1974 by Nik Wheeler



..."I lived in the Marshes of Southern Iraq from the end of 1951 until June 1958...I spent these years in the Marshes because I enjoyed being there...Soon the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear."

The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger,1964

Click here to read Part II and the tragedy that overtook the marshlands.