the marsh arabs


First posted in my blog, Iraq Update, December 2006: 

The Ma’dan:

A complex ecosystem created by the annual flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  Iraq’s marshes have sustained human civilization for more than 5,000 years. Some of the earliest settlements of Mesopotamia—”the land between the rivers”—were built on floating reed islands in these very wetlands. This was one of the first places where human beings developed agriculture, invented writing and worshiped a pantheon of deities.

In more recent times, the remoteness of the region, the near-absence of roads, the difficult terrain and the indifference of Baghdad’s governing authorities insulated the area from the political and military upheavals that buffeted much of the Arab world.

In his 1964 classic, The Marsh Arabs, British travel writer Wilfred Thesiger described a timeless environment of “stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine.”*

*Smithsonian Magazine, October 2006



…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… Wilfred Thesiger


Marsh Arabs*

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

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.

*with thanks to Laputan Logic

to go to Laputan site, click Marsh Arabs, above

site includes additional pictures and archaeological information

*also see Smithsonian site listed in right column of my blog

describing life among the Marsh arabs


3 responses to “the marsh arabs

  1. The lime was simpler 😉

  2. err I mean the life not the lime 😛

  3. Dear Sir,
    Thanks for sharing this spectacular place with fantastic photos. My name is Nuri Ozbagdatli. I am Networks Coordinator of Doga Dernegi (Nature Society), BirdLife partner in Turkey. We prepare a magazine, called Doga. We want to use your marsh arabs photo in the magazine. Can you please get in touch with me about this?

    Thanks a lot,

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