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Niños San Isidro 2007



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....Noticias sobre mi en UNED,   Entrada

Misterios1.¿Luz en Egipto,

Misterios 2.Pila de Bagdad

Misterios.3.El sofisticado mecanismo de Antikhithera

Misterios 4.Aviones en la Antigüedad

Misterios.5.Mecanismo de Antikithera

Misterios 6.Lentes asirias

Misterios 7.Calendario sumerio

Misterios.8.Zigurat con cuernos

Misterios 9.Zodiaco de Dendera

Misterios.10.Columna de Asoka




Gender in the Marshes,  www.laputanlogic.com/

Posted 531 days ago #

..."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
Wilfred Thesiger lived with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq for many years. He was a keen observer and this excerpt provides a fascinating glimpse into how gender and trans-gender issues were dealt with in this traditional society. Unburdened by much of the baggage of more connected and modern societies these attitudes were straightforward, sensible and humane. This quote was taken from a post by emily0 at quench zine.
One afternoon, a few days after leaving Dibin, we arrived at a village on the mainland. The sheikh was away looking at his cultivations, but we were shown to his mudhif [guest house made of reeds] by a boy wearing a head-rope and cloak, with a dagger at his waist. He looked about fifteen and his beautiful face was made even more striking by two long braids of hair on either side. In the past all the Madan [Marsh Arabs] wore their hair like that, as the Bedu [Bedouin] still did. After the boy had made us coffee and withdrawn, Amara [one of Thesiger's boat boys] asked, 'Did you realize that was a mustarjil?' I had vaguely heard of them, but had not met one before.'A mustarjil is born a woman,' Amara explained. 'She cannot help that; but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man.'

'Do men accept her?'

'Certainly. We eat with her and she may sit in the mudhif. When she dies, we fire off our rifles to honour her. We never do that for a woman. In Majid's village there is one who fought bravely in the war against Haji Sulaiman.'

'Do they always wear their hair plaited?'

'Usually they shave it off like men.'

'Do mustarjils ever marry?'

'No, they sleep with women as we do.'

Once, however, we were in a village for a marriage, when the bride, to everyone's amazement, was in fact a mustarjil. In this case she had agreed to wear women's clothes and to sleep with her husband on condition that he never asked her to do women's work. The mustarjils were much respected, and their nearest equivalent seemed to be the Amazons of antiquity. I met a number of others during the following years. One man came to me with what I took for his twelve-year-old son, suffering from colic, but when I wanted to examine the child, the father said, 'He is a mustarjil.' On another occasion I attended a man with a fractured skull. He had fought with a mustarjil whom I knew, and had got the worst of it.

Previously, while staying with Hamud, Majid's brother, I was sitting in the diwaniya (brick guest house) when a stout middle-aged woman shuffled in, enveloped in the usual black draperies, and asked for treatment. She had a striking, rather masculine face, and lifting her skirt exposed a perfectly normal full-sized male organ. 'Will you cut this off and turn me into a proper woman?' he pleaded. I had to confess that the operation was beyond me. When he had left, Amara asked compassionately, 'Could they not do it for him in Basra? Except for that, he really is a woman, poor thing.' Afterwards I often noticed the same man washing dishes on the river bank with the women. Accepted by them, he seemed quite at home. These people were kinder to him than we would have been in our society.

— The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger pp. 168-170
Alas, much of this ancient way of life was destroyed when Saddan Hussein drained the marshes and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Given the hold of doctrinaire religious groups over the politics of post-Saddam Iraq, I can only guess that this tradition of acceptance would have become an early casuality of this tragedy.

If you are interested in reading my earlier postings about the Marsh Arabs start here with a post about the continuity of the role the marshlands played in Southern Iraq from the time of ancient Sumerians right up until the mid-20th century when it was occupied by Shia Ma'dan.

Then follow the sad tale of the marshland drainage carried out by Saddam as part of the plan to fight the 1991 insurgency and as collective punishment of an entire population — all under the watchful eyes of forces patrolling Iraq's southern "no fly zone". The article goes up to the attempts to partially restore the marshes since the overthrow of Saddam. An update on these efforts can be found here.

Finally, a reprint of a 20 year long anthropological project led by Edward Ochsenschlager to document the traditional marshland way of life as a way of informing and providing social context to archaeological digs in this ancient region.

You may also be interested reading this background on the marshy origins of the Noah's Ark story, Noah's archetype, Ziusudra, was a marshland sheik!
Life on the Edge of the Marshes

Posted 200 days ago #

By Edward Ochsenschlager
Source: Expedition, 1998, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p29, 11p
In 1968, archaeologists digging at the mound of al-Hiba in Iraq were struck by the fact that the people living in the surrounding area depended on many of the same resources, and seemed to use them in the same way, as the people who had lived there in the 3rd millennium BC. So while archaeological excavations continued, they initiated an ethnographic study of the modern villages around the mound (Fig. 1). The ethnoarchaeology project was carried out under my direction and lasted twenty years. Its goal was to cast light on the use of locally available raw materials, and on the function and manufacturing technology of the same or similar artifacts in antiquity.
The materials we focused on were mud or clay, reeds, wood, cattle, and sheep. We eventually added bitumen–a natural tarlike hydrocarbon–to the list because it appeared so often in conjunction with wood, reeds, and mud in the villages, as well as in the archaeological record. There was abundant evidence that many of the details of village life had parallels in the archaeological record. We hoped that knowing how people in the present day made and used the objects they needed for survival could help us make sense of the isolated bits of archaeological evidence and weave them into a coherent tapestry of ancient life.

The 2-mile-long mound of al-Hiba was in antiquity the ancient city-state of Lagash (see map on p. 3). It stood on the edge of a permanent marsh bordering a tributary of the Tigris, in southern Iraq, and lay about 75 kilometers north of Ur. Like Ur, Lagash was a major Sumerian city. It reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III period (2600-2350 BC), at the same time as the Royal Cemetery of Ur was in use. At that time Lagash was the capital of the Sumerian empire and probably the largest early Sumerian city.

The early years of the project were marked by the on-going removal of the sheikhs (local hereditary leaders) by the central government of Iraq. As a result of the inevitable disruption in the management of the farmlands, these were times of unbelievable poverty for the people of al-Hiba. With the draining of the marshlands initiated in 1992, many thousands of marshland residents moved deeper into the swamps or fled to Iran. The way of life that we documented, and that I describe briefly here, no longer exists in the area around al-Hiba.


When the project began, a number of small villages existed alongside the marshes near the site of al-Hiba (Fig. 2). Each contained the homes of either the Mi'dan (also called the Marsh Arabs) or the Beni Hassan. The Mi'dan villages were sometimes built directly in the marshes on platforms or islands they constructed of alternate layers of reed mats or reeds and silt.

The Mi'dan made a living by fishing with spears. They also kept water buffalo, technically undomesticated, which foraged for reeds and sedge in the marshes during the day and returned to the family shelter in late afternoon to give up their milk and spend the night under protection. The Mi'dan kept water buffalo primarily for milk, dung, and hides. Of the three, dung was the most important for it provided fuel for warmth and cooking, and was a waterproofing agent, a plaster for wounds, and a cure for headaches.

The Beni Hassan kept sheep and cattle and grazed them on the banks of the marsh. They raised crops of vegetables and animal fodder on plots of land which were sometimes irrigated. They also fished, but with set or throw nets.

Both tribes kept chickens, caught wild birds in nets or shot them with guns, and grew rice in small beds on the edges of the marshes. They moved between settlements by donkey or camel, or in bitumen-covered wooden boats (tarada) propelled through the water with long poles (Figs. 3a, b, 4).


The Mi'dan and Beni Hassan built their houses and attendant structures from the same easily obtainable materials used to make similar buildings in ancient times–mud and reeds (Figs. 5a, b, 6). In 1968 reeds grew everywhere in the marshes and were considered the cheapest building material. Because of its size and architectural splendor, the mudhif, a grand arched structure built entirely of reeds by sheikhs, would dominate the horizon as one approached a village lucky enough to preserve one. Justice was no longer dispensed here as it had been in the historical past, but issues were debated and consensus reached on local issues by the heads of families with or without the sheikh being present. The mudhif also still served as a guest house for the occasional traveler. (For details of reed construction, see Ochsenschlager 1992:47-58.)

Except in the fortified compounds of major sheikhs (who built with baked bricks as well), mud-brick structures were very rare, for they required the services of professional builders and were quite expensive. Family members could build pise (compressed or packed mud) houses without any assistance, however, and a small number of these existed in every village, where they were a status symbol indicating above-average material resources. The raba (Fig. 1) was an arched reed structure smaller than the mudhif, while a one-room dwelling called a bayt was made of reeds, mud brick, or pise. Most of the village houses were made of reeds. The typical house was usually a little more than 2 meters wide, about 6 meters long, and a little less than 3 meters high. Houses built of reeds had the additional advantage of being portable. In the spring, if the marsh waters rose too high, a five-arched raba could be taken down, moved to higher ground, and re-erected in less than a day. With proper care and repair, reed dwellings could last for well over 25 years, and mud dwellings for two or more generations.

The raba had an entrance at both ends with a partition (bench or screen) in the middle. One end was used as a dwelling, the other end could be used to house animals in inclement weather, as a part of the dwelling, or as a workshop if either the wife or husband were craftspeople.

In villages where no mudhif existed, the second room of the largest raba often served the same purposes: as a meeting place and guest house. None of these uses were mutually exclusive; a thorough cleaning followed by laying reed mats over the dirt floor and placing colorful carpets for people to sit on quickly converted a workshop or barn into a reception room.


To protect the family's water buffalo during the inclement weather of late winter and early spring, a Mi'dan household built an adjoining sitra, another type of reed structure. Rows of tall reeds were buried in the ground with their tops tied together to form a sort of roof. Holes or trenches were dug around the interior of the wall to keep the buffalo at bay and protect the comparatively fragile structure. These structures had a particularly shaggy appearance since neither the reed leaves nor plumed tops were removed. At the end of winter the sitra was often dismantled and used as fuel.

Livestock pens were built of tall reed fences and used by the Mi'dan for their water buffalo and sometimes by the Beni Hassan for their cattle and sheep. As such a fence was called a sitra, it is not surprising to find that its method of construction was the same as for the building of that name. The sole difference is that the reed walls were left upright, perpendicular to the ground, rather than bent inward and joined to form a roof (Fig. 6).

Most Beni Hassan made their walls of mud lumps or of pise. When the structure was situated alongside a canal or irrigation channel, it was made of lumps of mud set on edge in herring-bone pattern. Each lump consisted of a shovelful of mud, and its plano-convex shape, which resulted from the form of the shovel paddle, was almost identical to the shape of mud bricks used in ancient Sumerian times. Whenever possible, this was the kind of wall a villager preferred to build and maintain for it was much simpler and less time-consuming than erecting a wall of pise or reed.


Houses were divided in two different ways. A reed mat tied to a reed frame could be fastened to the sides and top of one of the arches. If both rooms were intended for living, the partition had a doorway or opening. Such partitions, however, were most often used without doors for separating living space from animal quarters. Living spaces were usually subdivided by a wide bench made of a tied reed framework and reed bundle top which jutted into the room from one of the long walls.

A chest made of wood, usually studded with iron or brass and with a domed lid, was placed on the women's or kitchen side of the bench. Towards the center of the women's side was a permanent place for the cooking fire. Mud bricks or narrow walls of pise supported the vessels used for cooking or heating. The coffee pot (aluminum or brass) and tea kettle (aluminum) stood in close proximity, as did a variety of aluminum containers including a large, deep tray used for washing up and mixing, and one or two large bowls used for mixing, cooking, and sometimes serving. Conical bowls of various sizes made of aluminum, porcelain, or even plastic were also stored nearby. These were used for drinking water and for serving food. Those with bright, multicolored decorations, bought in market towns, were much sought after. To one side were the useful sundried mud objects made in every household. An aluminum or brass water jar or perhaps an old tea kettle stood near the door filled with water. This was carried by members of the family answering the call of nature and provided the water necessary for a thorough washing. If water was not available, one scrubbed oneself with sand.

Also near the door were the baskets used for collecting fresh animal dung, a job allotted to the youngest girls in the family. Women mixed the fresh dung with straw and molded it into disks to serve as the primary fuel for cooking and keeping warm. Along one side of the kitchen space was a shallow well dug in the floor and lined with bitumen in which sat two jars of similar shape and size: a water jar with drinking water and a jar for salt. These were made from coils of local clays by the village potter, and fired in a trench.

Near the bench, or perhaps even under it, were homemade baskets (either plaited or coiled) with staples such as wheat, rice, or dried fish, and perhaps a narrow-necked basket (sabat) with a variety of small packages of tea, coffee, and spices (Fig. 7). The latter three items might also be kept in the chest along with clothes, raw wool or wool spun into thread or yarn by family members, special amulets, jewelry, and money.

Some of these things were simply piled on the bench when not in use, as were woven bedclothes and pillows, carpets, paddles and poles for the boats used in the marshes, handmade fish and bird nets, agricultural or craft tools, and other family possessions.

The bench was seldom used as a sleeping platform at night except for the sick. Beds for small children were often made of piles of rushes with soft bedclothes on top. Swinging cradles for babies were made out of rushes and hung from an arch. A simple well was made in a bundle of rushes tied at both ends, and was lined with clothes, a sheepskin, or raw wool. Rattles made from sun-dried mud by fathers to amuse their babies were often inscribed with a simple smiling face, representing the child.

The other end of the raba was more sparsely furnished. When used exclusively as a part of the dwelling it contained a permanent hearth, otherwise a portable cooking dish (manqala) was used as needed. Reed mats made by the women of the household covered the mud floor for living or guests. When guests were present the mats were covered with carpets made by the village weaver and pillows made by one of the women of the household. Even in Mi'dan houses without provision for livestock, water buffalo shared the quarters at special times, such as in the case of a birthing cow or a young calf whose mother had gone into the marshes to graze. When water buffalo or other livestock were quartered in the living space, the mats were removed. Oftentimes the owner booby-trapped both entrances to the raba at night to keep out intruders.


Most of the year, the courtyard outside the raba was a hive of activity. Women prepared most of the food here. They cooked wheat bread disks on the insides of tanurs (mud beehive ovens; see Fig. 1) where the raw dough was pasted on with a bit of water or spit. Rice bread and small cakes were cooked on a flat disk of mud whose surface was heated in a fire. Meat and fish were baked or smoked in the tanur or boiled over a hearth and, on special occasions, roasted on spits over an open fire.

The courtyard is where women made dung patties and where young children made and played with their toys of mud and reed (Fig. 8a, b), and older boys made balls of sun-dried mud to use for ammunition in their slings (Fig. 9). The courtyard is where older girls embroidered the blankets which would be part of their wedding trousseaux and where men and women alike spun cord (Fig. 10). It is where the oldest woman in the family made containers of sun-dried mud when needed. All families had storage jars or chests made of reeds and mud and waterproofed with dung. People slept outside in the courtyard in the extreme heat of summer. The outside beds consisted of reeds placed on top of parallel walls of mud from 40 cm to 1 meter in height (Fig. 11a, b).


Arched reed houses and buildings of mud brick and pise are well attested in the archaeological record. We can conclude that in antiquity they were built in a very similar fashion to the way they have been built in modern times, in part because of the nature of the raw materials and in part because of direct evidence of manufacture from ancient strata (Ochsenschlager 1992: 54-61). Some of the forms of sun-dried mud pottery are attested in Sumerian times by finds from al-Hiba. Preserved details of construction show that they were made in the same way as modern examples. Mud storage containers, jars, tanurs, ammunition for slings, and children's toys are widely known in antiquity from many sites. Ancient models of beds, perhaps made as toys, show the same raw materials used in the same fashion as the beds in modern courtyards (see Fig. 11b). (See Ochsenschlager 1974a for a discussion of all these parallels.) Impressions of ancient reed baskets and mats exhibit the same techniques of construction as do modern ones (Ochsenschlager 1992:64-66). Models of ancient boats (see Fig. 3b) show that they were very similar to modern ones and built of the same materials (Ochsenschlager 1992:49-53).

Even without corroborating evidence, some ancient parallels with modern functions can be assumed. Although the materials did not exist in antiquity, some modern aluminum, tin, plastic, and porcelain containers probably have generally the same functions as the pottery of antiquity. The physical requirements of animals would lead us to believe that ancient animal husbandry had much in common with the modern (Ochsenschlager 1993a:33-42). In some cases, for instance in weaving, we can restore parts of the process and artifacts missing in the archaeological record (Ochsenschlager 1993b:54-55). Through knowledge of the process involved in the manufacture of an artifact we can estimate the actual value of that artifact to the people who made and used it by measuring the skill and time required for its production (Ochsenschlager 1998:129).

Other details of life in Sumerian times can be inferred from ethnographic information. We can understand and better appreciate, for example, the degree of coordination and skill required for everyday activities in ancient times because both ancient and modem peoples used similar artifacts for similar purposes. Indeed, the physical and mental energy expended by young men in mastering the throw-net, spear, and sling is akin to effort put forth by first-class athletes today. Like modern Iraqi villagers who, at the age of eight or younger, have jobs which are important to the survival of their families, Sumerian children were probably productive members of their society. In modern Western society where we appear to think that work deprives children of their "childhood," and there is little work that children can profitably do, children tend to live, by contrast, an undemanding parasitic existence, often to rather advanced ages.

More speculative, perhaps, are such things as the role of individuals or groups of people. For instance, Iraqi villagers and ancient Sumerian craftsmen dealt in raw materials and artifacts which were crucial to the survival of the entire community (unlike many modern craftsmen who make decorative accessories and think of themselves as artists). It is possible therefore that the two Middle Eastern groups may have enjoyed similar respect and played similar roles in preserving traditional morality and work ethics (Ochsenschlager 1998:130-33).

The findings of the ethnoarchaeological project were extremely helpful in interpreting the context of material remains and giving us some insight into everyday life at the site of ancient al-Hiba. But the acute and careful observation of the way of life of the Mi'dan and Beni Hassan also served to muddy the waters of archaeological interpretation. It brought home the complexity of behavioral and cultural choices and their impacts in ways that would be almost impossible to decipher from the archaeological record alone. Indeed, it soon became clear in the ethnographic study that one could not even easily understand the reasons for modern change unless one were present and privy to the conversations concerning it immediately before and during the process of the change itself. Shortly after change occurred the reasons for it often disappeared as part of a new mythology. Sometimes highly visible change is of little cultural significance, while major cultural change is accompanied by little or no change in the material record. Thus, these studies also serve to remind us that our knowledge of the past sometimes relies on shaky interpretations and cavalier assumptions, and show us that it is altogether too easy to misunderstand the significance of physical evidence (Ochsenschlager 1998).


The excavations at al-Hiba were conducted under the auspices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, and directed by Vaughn E. Crawford and Donald P. Hansen. Preliminary reports on the excavations can be found in the bibliography under their names and in the article authored by Robert Biggs.

FIG. 1. THE COURTYARD OUTSIDE A RABA, a dwelling constructed of reeds, in the Mi'dan village of Said Tahir. The two women, each garbed in an abaya (a long cloak which covers a person from head to foot), stand behind beehive mud ovens and an oil drum used as a table.

FIG. 2. THE BENI HAS SAN VILLAGE of Hagi Rachid was home to about 60 people. Beyond the village stretch their small farm plots.

FIG. 3A. MI'DAN FISHING FROM A TARADA. Wood is too costly, scarce, and poor in quality to make waterproof joins on ordinary boats. Applying bitumen to the outer surface waterproofs the boat and allows the boat builder to utilize whatever scraps of material are available for shipbuilding. Each year itinerant craftsmen visit the villages to strip the bitumen from boats, heat it to liquid consistency, and reapply the coating.; FIG. 3B. MODEL OF A SIMILAR BOAT FROM UR. Boats were as important for the transportation of people and goods in antiquity as they are now. The boat model from Ur is entirely made of bitumen. The shape of its upswung prow mirrors that of the tarada. UPM B 17706. Neg. S8-96719

FIG. 4. THE MI'DAN HAD ALWAYS FISHED WITH SPEARS, "THE MANLY WAY." During the 1970s, however, the Beni Hassan began to catch larger quantities of fish in nets. The solution for the Mi'dan is shown in this photo: they trapped fish in nets but harvested them with their spears.

FIG. 5A. MUDHIF UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure. From studying the physical properties of reeds used today, we have learned a great deal about the details of their use in the past.

FIG. 5B. CARVED GYPSUM TROUGH FROM URUK. Two lambs exit a reed structure identical to the present-day mudhif on this ceremonial trough from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. Neither the leaves or plumes have been removed from the reeds which are tied together to form the arch. As a result, the crossed-over, leathered reeds create a decorative pattern along the length of the roof, a style most often seen in modern animal shelters built by the Mi'dan. Dating to ca. 3000 BC, the trough documents the extraordinary length of time such arched reed buildings have been in use. (C) The British Museum. WA 120000, neg. 252077

FIG. 6. A SHAGGY REED ENCLOSURE CALLED A SITRA serves as a pen for water buffalo. The small reed hut within the fence is seen end-on and looks similar to the structure on the Uruk trough but without the plumed top (Fig. 5b).

FIG. 7. MANUFACTURING A REED BASKET. Reed baskets such as that being made here were probably woven in antiquity in exactly the same way.

FIG. 8A, B. (A) CHILD PLAYING WITH CLAY ANIMAL FIGURINES. Children make toys of all kinds out of sun-dried mud; men and boys also make rattles, whistles, drums, and watering troughs for livestock from the same material.

(B) PROCESSION OF ANIMAL FIGURINES FROM UR. In the past most of the figurines like those in (b) were thought to be votive objects. Today we think some of them are toys made by children long ago. (b) UPM B 17236, B 17239, 31-43-351. Neg. S8-8611

FIG. 9. A MI'DAN BOY MAKES SHOT FOR HIS SLING. Ammunition made of balls of mud dried in the sun was used in antiquity and in modern times. Huge quantifies of ancient examples outside a wall at al-Hiba record an ancient battle. Modern mud sling shots are used mostly by boys for hunting small animals and birds. Using a sling accurately is no small accomplishment. It requires a physical stamina and coordination of muscle and eye similar to that of American high school athletes. The difference is that in America in the 1970s failure resulted in embarrassment. In the marshes it could result in starvation.

FIG. 10. A BENI HASSAN MAN SPINS THREAD USING A SPINDLE AND RAW WOOL. Men use the "drop and spin" method to create Z-spun thread, women rub the spindle on their thighs to create S-spun thread. Men create yarn by rubbing the threads together between the palms of their hands, while women use larger spindles which they rub on their thighs. The spinning of animal fibers into thread and yarn is attested in ancient times at al-Hiba (and Ur) by spindle whorls, impressions of cloth, and two- and four-ply yarn found on jar sealings. Although spindles for making thread and yarn have not survived, one can infer their existence from the clay whorls that served to provide the weight.

FIG. 11A. BED IN AN OUTSIDE COURTYARD AT AL-HIBA. Bundles of reeds laid on low walls of mud and covered with reed mats provide safe places to sleep during the hottest weather. The raised beds share the courtyard with domestic animals and protect the sleepers against cattle, sheep, chickens, creepy-crawlers, and other things which go bump in the night.

FIG. 11B. TERRACOTTA BED MODELS FROM UR. Hundreds of these bed models have been found in ancient strata and some of them may well have been children's toys. Note that the top surfaces of the models have been sculpted to represent woven reed mats. UPM 31-43-361 (left and center), 31-16-701. Negs. S4-74059, S8-8637


Biggs, Robert D.

1973. "Pre-Sargonic Riddles from Lagash." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32(1-2): 26-33.

Crawford, Vaughn

1974. "Lagash." Iraq 36:29-35.

Fernea, Elizabeth W.

1969. Guest of the Sheikh: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. New York: Anchor Books.

Hansen, Donald P.

1970. "Al-Hiba, 1968-1969, A Preliminary Report." Artibus Asiae 32:243-50.

1973. "Al-Hiba, 1970-1971, A Preliminary Report." Artibus Asiae 35(1-2): 62-78.

1992. "Royal Building Activity at Sumerian Lagash in the Early Dynastic Period." Biblical Archaeologist 55(4): 206-11.

Maxwell, Gavin

1957. People of the Reeds. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Ochsenschlager, Edward L. 1974a. "Modern Sun-Dried Mud Objects from al-Hiba." Archaeology 27(3): 162-74.

1974b. "Modern Potters at al-Hiba, with Some Reflections on the Excavated Early Dynastic Pottery." In Ethnoarchaeology, ed. C.B. Donnan and C.W. Clewlow, Jr., pp. 149-57. Monograph 4, Institute of Archaeology,, University of California. Los Angeles.

1992. "Ethnographic Evidence for Wood, Boats, Bitumen and Reeds in Southern Iraq: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba."

Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture [BOSA] 6:47-48.

1993a. "Sheep: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba." BOSA 7:33-42.

1993b. "Village Weavers, Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba." BOSA 7:43-62.

1995 (with Bonnie Gustav). "Water Buffalo and Garbage Pits: Ethnoarchaeology at alHiba." BOSA 8:1-9.

1998. "Viewing the Past: Ethnoarchaeology at Al-Hiba." Visual Anthropology 11:103-43.

Thesiger, Wilfred

1964. The Marsh Arabs. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Young, Gavin, and N. Wheeler 1977. Return to the Marshes. London: William Collins.
Marsh Arabs

Posted 200 days ago #

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.
Marsh Arabs Part II

Posted 200 days ago #

Continued from Part I of this article
In 1968, archaeologists digging at the mound of al-Hiba in Iraq were struck by the fact that the people living in the surrounding area depended on many of the same resources, and seemed to use them in the same way, as the people who had lived there in the 3rd millennium BC. So while archaeological excavations continued, they initiated an ethnographic study of the modern villages around the mound. The ethnoarchaeology project was carried out under my direction and lasted twenty years. Its goal was to cast light on the use of locally available raw materials, and on the function and manufacturing technology of the same or similar artifacts in antiquity. The materials we focused on were mud or clay, reeds, wood, cattle, and sheep. We eventually added bitumen–a natural tarlike hydrocarbon–to the list because it appeared so often in conjunction with wood, reeds, and mud in the villages, as well as in the archaeological record. There was abundant evidence that many of the details of village life had parallels in the archaeological record. We hoped that knowing how people in the present day made and used the objects they needed for survival could help us make sense of the isolated bits of archaeological evidence and weave them into a coherent tapestry of ancient life.

The 2-mile-long mound of al-Hiba was in antiquity the ancient city-state of Lagash (see map on p. 3). It stood on the edge of a permanent marsh bordering a tributary of the Tigris, in southern Iraq, and lay about 75 kilometers north of Ur. Like Ur, Lagash was a major Sumerian city. It reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III period (2600-2350 BC), at the same time as the Royal Cemetery of Ur was in use. At that time Lagash was the capital of the Sumerian empire and probably the largest early Sumerian city.

The early years of the project were marked by the on-going removal of the sheikhs (local hereditary leaders) by the central government of Iraq. As a result of the inevitable disruption in the management of the farmlands, these were times of unbelievable poverty for the people of al-Hiba. With the draining of the marshlands initiated in 1992, many thousands of marshland residents moved deeper into the swamps or fled to Iran. The way of life that we documented, and that I describe briefl y here, no longer exists in the area around al-Hiba.

MUDHIF UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure. From studying the physical properties of reeds used today, we have learned a great deal about the details of their use in the past.

CARVED GYPSUM TROUGH FROM URUK. Two lambs exit a reed structure identical to the present-day mudhif on this ceremonial trough from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. Neither the leaves or plumes have been removed from the reeds which are tied together to form the arch. As a result, the crossed-over, leathered reeds create a decorative pattern along the length of the roof, a style most often seen in modern animal shelters built by the Mi'dan. Dating to ca. 3000 BC, the trough documents the extraordinary length of time such arched reed buildings have been in use.

Life on the Edge of the Marshes, Edward Ochsenschlager, 1998


"Fire in a reed house cannot be extinguished!"

Gilgamesh and Huwawa

Growing Hardship The marshes provided ample refuge for rebellious tribes increasingly at odds with outside authorities, from British colonial rulers to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. One day during Ochsenschlager's first year at the excavation site, the crew heard faraway drum sounds, a warning from a neighboring tribe of the approach of outsiders.

"The entire group of local men who worked for us dropped what they were doing, picked up their guns and cloaks and disappeared into the marshes," he said. Men who were drawn to cities for work often returned to the marshes after running into trouble with the government

Threats from outside were starting to take a toll by the time of Ochsenschlager's first encounter with the Ma'adan in 1968. The government was in the midst of a campaign to get rid of sheiks, eroding traditional leadership. Traders were increasingly demanding money for some commodities and refusing barter.

Dam and irrigation projects executed in the 1970s cut the annual flow of water in the Euphrates by more than one-third. That began the depletion of the marshes, reducing permanent wetlands and spring floods that had carried nutrient-laden sediments.

The coup de grace came after the 1991 Gulf War, when Shiite Muslims in the south rose up against Saddam. After their defeat, the regime's soldiers burned and bombed marsh villages, while its engineers completed massive dikes and canals to divert the entire flow of the Euphrates away from the marshes.

Satellites beamed ghastly images of the unfolding ecological catastrophe. By 2000, marshes that had covered nearly 4,000 square miles – comparable to Florida's Everglades – had almost disappeared.

Iraq's Marsh Arabs, Modern Sumerians

The Marshlands of Lower Mesopotamia

The extensive but shallow marshlands of the lower Tigris-Euphrates basin represent an outstanding natural landmark of Mesopotamia. They comprise the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. A rare aquatic landscape in desert milieu, the marshlands are home to ancient communities rooted in the dawn of human history. They also provide habitat for important populations of wildlife, including endemic and endangered species. The key role played by the marshlands in the inter-continental flyway of migratory birds, and in supporting coastal fisheries endows them with a truly global dimension. For these reasons, the Mesopotamian marshlands (called Al Ahwar in Arabic) have long been recognised to constitute one of the world's most significant wetlands and an exceptional natural heritage of the Earth. Most recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) placed the Mesopotamian marshlands in its select list of two hundred exceptional ecoregions in the world for priority conservation (the Global 200).

Situated for the main part in southern Iraq (29°55' to 32°45' N and 45°25' to 48°30' E), the wetlands covered in 1970 an estimated area ranging from 15,000 - 20,000 square kilometres. The eastern margins of the marshlands extend over the border into southwestern Iran. In terms of custodianship, they therefore constitute a transboundary ecosystem under shared responsibility. 3.1 Formation of the Marshlands Understanding how the marshlands of lower Mesopotamia were formed historically is crucial to grasping how they have been affected by water management projects. The topography of the lower Tigris-Euphrates

Space view of the Mesopotamian Marshlands taken by the earth observation satellite Landsat in 1973-76. Dense marsh vegetation (mainly Phragmites) appears as dark red patches, while red elongated patches long river banks are date palms.

The marshlands support the inter-continental migration of birds. Pelicans congregate in marshland lagoon.
valley is distinguished by an extremely flat alluvial plain. The Euphrates falls only 4 cm/ km over the last 300 km, while the Tigris has a slope of 8 cm/km (Scott, 1995). As a result of the level terrain, both rivers deviate from a straight course, meandering in sinuous loops and eventually divide into distributaries that dissipate into a vast inland delta. This is particularly true of the Euphrates, whose velocity rapidly diminishes as it lacks tributaries along its lengthy course, and begins to develop a braided pattern nearly 520 km upstream of the Gulf. Immediately south of Al Nasiriyah, the Euphrates main channel dissolves into the marshes, only to re-emerge shortly before its confluence with the Tigris at Al Qurnah. The Tigris, which is drained along its eastern flank by several tributaries from the mountains and hills of the Zagros chain, has a relatively stronger hydraulic force, enabling it to maintain a more stable course. Nonetheless, in its lower stretches around Al Amarah, the Tigris also rapidly begins to lose its velocity and flares out into multiple distributary channels feeding directly into the marshes. Water extraction by an elaborate irrigation network criss-crossing the alluvial plain between the two rivers significantly reduces water flow, and contributes to the rivers' splitting into a diffuse array of shallow waters in their final stretches.

Another important factor contributing to the formation of the marshlands is that the lower Mesopotamian plain becomes very narrow towards the Gulf. This is created by the large alluvial fan of Wadi Batin and the Al Dibdibah plain drawing in from the Nejid in the west, and the Karkheh and Karun river systems descending from the Zagros Mountains in the east. The Karkheh disperses into the marshes on the eastern bank of the Tigris, whose waters eventually overflow into the Shatt-al-Arab via Al Suwaib River. For its part, the Karun joins the Tigris-Euphrates system below their confluence in the lower section of the Shatt-al-Arab, at the port city of Khorramshahr 72 km from the Gulf. Both rivers, but particularly the latter, carry a large sediment load. By fanning out at the head of the Gulf, the Wadi Batin/Al Dibdibah, the Karkheh and Karun constrict the lower Mesopotamian valley to a width of less than 45 km and prevent the twin rivers from flowing directly into the sea (Rzóska, 1980). In so doing, the natural drainage of the Tigris and Euphrates is impeded and they are forced to deposit their sediment loads inland. This results in the creation of a double delta composed of a continental marshland complex and a marine estuary. As mentioned earlier, a notable feature of both the Tigris and Euphrates is the large fluctuation in their water discharge volumes. Spring floods, occurring form February to May, are caused by snowmelt in the headwater region in Turkey and the Zagros Mountains in Iran and northern Iraq. These short-lived but intense seasonal floods, which formerly have been on the order of 1.5 to 3 meters (with a record of 9 meters on the Tigris in 1954) cause large-scale inundations (Scott, 1995). As a result of the flat topography, the flood pulses are able to maintain an extensive complex of interconnected shallow lakes, backswamps and marshlands in the lower Mesopotamian plain. The marshlands, which are of great though changing extent, may dry up completely in shallower areas under the influence of high summer temperatures, leaving salt flats and reverting back to desert conditions. This highly dynamic ecosystem is therefore dependent on spring floods for its replenishment and very existence.

The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem, United Nations Environment Programme, 2001



Diversion of Euphrates waters downstream of Al Nasiryah by the twin canals of the‘Third River' and ‘Mother of Battles River'. (May 2000).

Clearly visible in this SPOT image recorded in December 1993 is the 2-km wide and 50 km long ‘Prosperity River' which captures the waters of Tigris distributaries and channels them across the marshes to the Euphrates near its junction with the Tigris at Al Qurnah.

This satellite image taken in 2000 shows most of the Central Marshes as olive to grayish-brown patches indicating low vegetation on moist to dry ground. The very light to grey patches are bare areas with no vegetation and may actually be salt evaporites of former lakes.
The idea of draining the marshlands of southern Iraq is not a new concept, and certainly not the first time the Tigris-Euphrates river system has been harnessed for man's use. The delta/marsh area "was probably the first region of the world where humans gained mastery over major rivers. Irrigation and flood protection were vital to the farmers who fed the inhabitants of the world's first known cities, built in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago." The marshlands region was part of this development. Dams were built to harness water and energy for irrigation and electricity. Within Iraq, there are at least four dams on the Euphrates and three major dams on the Tigris, which are contributing heavily to a water shortage in the area.

The first major marsh-draining scheme was proposed in the 1951 Haigh Report, "Control of the Rivers of Iraq," drafted by British engineers working for the Iraqi government. "The report describes an array of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates that would be needed to 'reclaim' the marshes." The study's senior engineer, Frank Haigh, felt that the standing marsh water was being wasted, so he "proposed concentrating the flow of the Tigris [River] into a few embanked channels that would not overflow into the marshes. He proposed one large canal through the main `Amara marsh." In this way, Iraq would be able to "capture the marsh water for irrigation" purposes to aid in feeding the newly created State of Iraq.

Construction of the large canal, called the Third River, began in 1953. Further construction took place in the 1960's. It was not until the 1980's, however, during the Iran-Iraq War, that major work was resumed. Today, many of the water projects in the marsh area bear a striking resemblance to the Haigh Plan – the only problem is that the projects are not being used for agricultural improvement!

Various international organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the International Wildfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau, and Middle East Watch have been monitoring the Iraqi situation. All have found evidence to indicate that the Iraqi Government has been attempting to force the Ma'dan people from their homes through water diversion tactics copied from the Haigh Report. Iraq's majority Sunni government is attempting to weaken the Ma'dan because they are Shiite Muslims, maintaining religious links with Iran's Shiite leadership. They have also been accused by the government of harboring refugees from oppression in Baghdad.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the above-mentioned organizations have uncovered the following intelligence: 1) By 1993, the Iraqi Government was able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands. 2) The flow of the Euphrates River has almost been entirely diverted to the Third River Canal, bypassing most of the marshes. 3) The flow of the Tigris River has been channeled into tributary rivers (with artificially high banks), prohibiting the tributary water from seeping into the marshlands.

As a result, the environmental effects are thought to be "irreversible with disastrous ecological, social and human consequences for the region." The sparse water remaining has contributed to the salinization of the land. "Over-irrigation and poor drainage compound the problem: as the stagnant water evaporates, it leaves behind a crust of salt." The future for wildlife in the region looks bleak, as well. The marshes are home to fish and migratory birds from western Eurasia such as pelicans, herons and flamingos. Without fresh water, the ecosystem will easily become damaged.

In economic terms, the effects are just as severe. The marshlands region, is home to various crops, trees and livestock. The staple crops of the region are rice and millet. Date palms from the area have played an important part in Iraqi exports as well as the weaved reed mats and harvested cereals from the Ma'dan people. The marshes are also home to cows, oxen, and water buffalo. The recent scarcity of water in the marshlands has contributed to transport problems, which has all but put a stop to economic movement in the region. "Instead of moving...goods by boat the Ma'dan are often having to struggle through hip-deep mud on foot...in addition, hundreds of thousands of inhabitants have fled their areas. If this process continues, Saddam Hussein will become responsible for destroying not only the environment and culture, but one of the oldest and most important links with Iraq's past – the people of the marshlands.

Marsh Arabs, Water Diversion, and Cultural Survival, The Inventory of Conflict & Environment , 2001

In addition to the array of military and security techniques being deployed against the people of the marshes, the campaign with bulldozers and cranes was proceeding apace. What became strikingly clear in the second half of 1992 was the impact of the drainage works: ‘The Third River is draining the marshes', said Emma Nicholson in September. ‘I can give you first-hand visual evidence. I've seen it myself. For the first time ever, the level of water in the marshes has sunk. I was previously there in early June, and three days ago I was in Iraq, and in those weeks this Third River has started to achieve its objective of draining the marshes.' Not only the Third River: by November, according to SCIRI sources, engineering units around Amara had completed their blockade of the rivers coming off the Tigris and diverted their waters from the marshes. Six of the feeder rivers had been completely drained and were now passable on foot; ‘these atrocities took place when rice was being harvested and resulted in the total destruction of the crop'
That month, a team from the Organisation for Human Rights in Iraq became the first observers since the imposition of the no-fly zone to go deep inside the marshes. In the eastern Hawizeh marsh they found that because of the draining, ‘wide stretches of marshland have been reduced to a crazy paving of mud inimical to water buffalo'. The Third River was nearing completion, and the observers found that increasing dryness in many areas was making it more difficult to plant traditional crops. ‘"We saw a white line that extended like chalk on the reeds for dozens of miles"' said the team's leader. ‘"It was the old water level - at least three feet higher than the present level. Many, many people told us there is something wrong with the water, too."'

On 7 December 1992, Baghdad announced the completion, at 565 kilometres and after almost four decades' work, of the Third River. The Iraqi government would soon be able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands. The flow of the Euphrates at its seaward end was diverted to the Third River, thus bypassing the Hammar marsh, while the flow of the rivers and streams running southwards from the Tigris into the Central marshes was channelled into the ‘moat'. As the marshlands dried out, it was much easier for the Iraqi military to advance their land-based attacks on the villages. In January 1993 a number of villages in Amara marsh were reported burned to the ground; in April, government forces burned homes in two villages in Misan governorate; in June, villages in the Hammar marshes were bombarded for four days, and what was left of the inhabitants' homes was then flattened by tanks and armoured vehicles.

...the Observer journalist Shyam Bhatia became the first foreign journalist to be taken deep inside the marshes by the Shi'a resistance. He spent 10 days in the area, under constant threat of capture, or death by shelling, before bringing back a lengthy eyewitness account. He could see that water levels had dropped ‘alarmingly' and confirmed earlier accounts of the impact of the drainage scheme: ‘Massive earthen dykes erected in the north near the town of Amara have succeeded in turning the tributaries of the Tigris so that their precious water is now channelled into the massive new canal, Anfal 3 water levels in the northern marshes have dropped by as much as two metres, making it easier for the Iraqi army to move in. In the southern marshes, the Euphrates has been dammed, its lifegiving water channelled to flow uselessly into the Gulf at Khor Zubair.' Bhatia also heard about the dumping of toxic chemicals in the waters (referred to above), and he saw at first-hand the effects of the continued artillery bombardment of marsh villages: ‘The army's favourite tactic is to blow up villages selectively and then sow mines in the water before retreating. In Chabaish village they even planted butterfly mines disguised as toys, pens and cigarette lighters.'

Iraqi Marshlands: Prospects 2001 (AMAR)


Marshes: North of Basrah, 100,000 "Marsh Arabs" used to live in this swampy region short before Euphrates and Tigris merge. For a long time, Iran-backed rebels have used its treacherous waters as a safe haven. To put an end to their uprising (which finds little approval among the majority), Saddam has decided to drain the region. The result is an immense ecological and cultural tragedy. The Marsh Arabs had to flee to reservoirs in cities or across the Iranian border. Many of their villages were destroyed, few inhabitants remain.

The picture shows an empty ditch and a "mudhif" on the left, ie. an oblong reed hut.
All but desert. I gape incredulously at what is supposed to be marshes, according to my tourist map printed in Iraq only five years ago. Miles after miles of flat, barren, hostile nothingness. It does not even have the beauty of sand deserts, endless steppes or cracked earth. Why ?

- To favour agriculture! the army officers of Jubaiesh told me.

Only few areas show actually scarce wheat. And this does not explain the several destroyed houses along the road from Al-Qurna. The children in the school bus from Jubaiesh to Nassiriya do know the reason: the marshes were drained to deprive the Shia rebels of a safe den.

- How many Marsh Arabs were living here ?

- Don't know... 100,000 ? They now live in reservoirs in cities, but many have fled abroad, especially to nearby Iran.

- Why is there a soldier guarding at each bridge? (many such bridges from the time there was water).

- They control the road and arrest those who smoke hash.

A few nice reed houses (mudhif) are still standing. Many villages have been abandoned, only larger ones are still inhabited. Speak of a cultural genocide, of an ecological tragedy!


The marshes, now.
"To eradicate terrorism, we don't just catch one mosquito or another, we rather have to drain the whole swamp"; we all remember the radical stance of the Wolfowitz-cabal after Sept. 11. Little do they know that Saddam had long complied with their incitement...

Trip to Iraq: Marshes and Rebels 2001 Daniel B. Grünberg


after An had frowned upon all the lands...
after Enki had altered the course of the Tigris and Euphrates...

[so] that the marshes should be so dry as to be full of cracks and have no new seed,

that sickly-headed reeds should grow in the reed-beds,

that they should be covered by a stinking morass,

that there should be no new growth in the orchards,

that it should all collapse by itself

Lament for Sumer and Urim (Ur) c. 1950 BC


Marsh Arabs return
In mid-April [2003], a few days after Hussein's government fell, Ali Shaheen returned to his job as director of the Irrigation Department in Nasiriyah. Located about 25 miles northwest of Zayad, Nasiriyah was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the war. But with the hostilities over and Shiites firmly in control of the local government, he decided to try to reverse the damage Hussein had wrought. With a U.S. military escort, he drove to Garmat Bani Hassan, a town a mile away from Zayad. There, he ordered creaky metal gates on the Euphrates to be cranked open for the first time since 1991.

Shaheen, a short, balding civil engineer with a stubble-covered face, did the same thing with two other gates before embarking on a bigger engineering challenge – redirecting the Euphrates. He requisitioned several Irrigation Department bulldozers and smashed the dam Hussein had constructed to divert water to the Mother of All Battles River. For good measure, he had Hussein's river blocked off with a mountain of dirt.

He had no orders to redirect the rivers. There was no functioning Irrigation Ministry at the time. But he assumed he was doing what the Marsh Arabs wanted.

"Drying the marshes was a crime," said Shaheen, who joined the Irrigation Department in 1998, after the canals and dams were built. "I felt I needed to do whatever I could to restore what Saddam destroyed."

As the Euphrates returned to its original course, water surged toward Zayad and other villages on the western side of the marshes that are closest to the river's mouth. The arid flats were covered with more than three feet of water, swallowing the scrub brush and a few homes that were built after the marshes were dried.

Shaheen calculated that more than 1 quadrillion gallons – a 1 followed by 15 zeroes – were needed to fill the Euphrates side of the marshes. But the flow at Nasiriyah, which had been 106,000 gallons per second before 1991, was down to 21,000 gallons per second because of new dams and irrigation canals built in Iraq, Syria and Turkey over the past decade. "The water we have is not enough," he said.

'A Gift From God' Renews a Village

Luckily, Saddam didn't quite finish the job. The easternmost of the three main wetland areas, the Hawizeh marsh, was damaged in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, and parts are still mined and dangerous. But a section of it remains pristine and could provide a valuable model for restoration efforts, says Suzie Alwash, senior project adviser for Eden Again.
Another bright spot: Because the damage to the land is relatively recent, even parched areas may have intact sediment beds, which could hold seeds from the vanished marshes. This ecological legacy could be supplemented, says Alwash, by seeds and plants from the Hawizeh marsh. And because Saddam drained the marshes rather than filling them in, the original depressions and channels remain, ready to be reflooded. The marshes' dominant species–reed–is as tough as nails and may be easy to reintroduce to newly inundated lands, says Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers.

Yet a shattered ecosystem can never be fully reconstructed, wetlands experts say. "I prefer the term 'rehabilitated' to 'restored,' " says Thomas Crisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida. " 'Restored' means putting it back the way it was–and that's unrealistic." He believes success should be defined as rebuilding a landscape that performs the same basic ecological functions as its predecessor, such as providing habitat for birds and fishes.

That's starting to happen in a few newly reflooded areas, although scientists worry that the meager flows in some spots could do more harm than good by creating lifeless ponds. But it will take determination–and a lot more water–to go further. "It's a great cause," says Duke's Richardson, "but it will take the political will of the new Iraqi government, the United States, and international organizations to make it happen."

Water World: Can Iraq's vast marshes be brought back to life?

"Saddam Hussein was a master 'brown field generator,'" said Richardson, referring to a term for environmental decimation. "He churned that country upside down. It looks like you let a child loose in a sand box with hand grenades." Of the three remnant marsh areas, he found the Central Marsh to be in the worst shape. "It's just a complete dust bowl," he said. Locals had broken a Hussein-built drainage dike in one area in an effort to return some water, but "nothing was growing there yet," except for a few remaining desert plants, he added. In another recently re-flooded area, too much salt had been drawn out of the long-dry soils to support freshwater vegetation, and this area was now turning into a salt-flat

His group found the Hammar Marsh area, nearest Basra, to still have some remaining lush areas where some stately date palms are still in cultivation. But Richardson said Hussein, in his vendetta against the Marsh Arabs, "basically wiped out" the local date palm industry, once the world's largest exporter. The largest remaining wetland areas are the Haweizeh Marshes along Iraq's border with Iran. That's where Richardson and his colleagues reached a place where locals had reintroduced their traditional water buffalos and were seen fishing.

While Marsh Arab villages are beginning to be reconstituted in areas adjacent to the Haweizeh marsh, in some cases reoccupying still-roofless former dwellings, "all of the communities we talked to are desperate for clean water," he reports. That's because rivers feeding the marsh areas are currently contaminated, and upstream utilities could take years to repair.

"They're having all these problems with poor water, and they're surrounded by the answer," he said. That's because, with the proper knowledge, Iraqi scientists and engineers could build special "constructed wetlands" within marsh areas, he added. By so engineering nature there, the filtering properties of natural vegetation could be harnessed to clean some of the polluted water.

Duke Ecologist Finds Devastation, Hope in Iraqi Marshes

That the Tigris and Euphrates should again carry water:
may An not change it.

That there should be rain in the skies and on the ground speckled barley:
may An not change it.

That there should be watercourses with water and fields with grain:
may An not change it.

That the marshes should support fish and fowl:
may An not change it.

That old reeds and fresh reeds should grow in the reed-beds:
may An not change it.

May An and Enlil not change it.

May Enki and Ninmah not change it.

Lament for Sumer and Urim (Ur) c. 1950 BC

Back to Part I of this article

Posted 200 days ago #

This stela (KUDURRU)comes from the Temple of Marduk in Babylon and dates from around 800 BC. It is a commemorative monument set up in honour of a private individual called Adad-etir. He was an official in the temple, known as 'the dagger bearer', and this stela was erected by his son Marduk-balassu-iqbi.

The figures carved in relief on the front represent the father and son together. Their shaven heads show that they are both priests, it being normal in ancient Mesopotamia for a son to adopt his father's profession.

There are three divine symbols above the two priests: a winged solar disc representing the sun-god Shamash, a crescent of the moon-god Sin and a lion-headed mace on a pedestal.

The cuneiform inscription includes a curse upon anyone who defaces the stela. It translates:

"May Marduk, the great lord, in anger look upon him, and his name and his seed may he cause to disappear.

May Nabu, the scribe of all, curtail the number of his days.

But may the man who protects it be satisfied with the fulness of life."


One of the last authentic voices of the ancient Mesopotamian culture was a Babylonian priest by the name of Bel-re'ušunu. He is better known to posterity as Berossus.

He was a priest at the Temple of Marduk in Babylon and held high office within the temple organisation. Having direct access to temple archives, he was in a position to be able to write a history of Mesopotamia starting from its earliest days and running right up to his own time (a period covering more than three thousand years). His history was named Babyloniaka and was written in Greek. In it he sought to explain Mesopotamian culture and religion to the new Hellenistic rulers of his country. He dedicated his book to Antiochus I Soter (323-261 BC).

Unfortunately, none of Berossus' books have survived and what we know about his writings has only come down to us from quotations made by later authors. One of these was Abydenus who, as a disciple of Alexander the Great's one time teacher: Aristotle, was probably a contemporary of Berossus. Another was Alexander Polyhistor, a native of the Anatolian kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea coast. He had originally came to Rome as a slave captured during the war with Mithradates of Pontus but he was eventually freed and became a Roman citizen. As indicated by his name, Polyhistor wrote numerous history books and he quoted extensively from Berossus when he came to write about Mesopotamia.

Alas, none of the works of these two authors has survived either except in the form of quotations from later authors. Chief amongst these was Eusebius Pamphilius (264 - 338 AD), Bishop of Caesarea, delegate to the Council of Nicea and one of the most eminent scholars of his time. Through this remarkable chain of writers and despite being heavily edited and summarised according to the agendas of his preservers, the voice of Berossus the priest of Marduk can still be heard. He speaks of stories and traditions that have only been confirmed in modern times through the work of archaeologists.

One story in particular (via Polyhistor), undoubtedly would have made Eusebius sit up and pay attention:
After the death of Ardates, his son Xisuthrus reigned eighteen sari. In his time happened a great Deluge; the history of which is thus described. The Deity, Cronus, appeared to him in a vision, and warned him that upon the fifteenth day of the month Dæsius there would be a flood, by which mankind would be destroyed. He therefore enjoined him to write a history of the beginning, procedure, and conclusion of all things; and to bury it in the city of the Sun at Sippara; and to build a vessel, and take with him into it his friends and relations; and to convey on board every thing necessary to sustain life, together with all the different animals; both birds and quadrupeds, and trust himself fearlessly to the deep. Having asked the Deity, whither he was to sail? he was answered, "To the Gods:" upon which he offered up a prayer for the good of mankind. He then obeyed the divine admonition: and built a vessel five stadia in length, and two in breadth. Into this he put every thing which he had prepared; and last of all conveyed into it his wife, his children, and his friends.
After the flood had been upon the earth, and was in time abated, Xisuthrus sent out birds from the vessel; which, not finding any food, nor any place whereupon they might rest their feet, returned to him again. After an interval of some days, he sent them forth a second time; and they now returned with their feet tinged with mud. He made a trial a third time with these birds; but they returned to him no more: from whence he judged that the surface of the earth had appeared above the waters. He therefore made an opening in the vessel, and upon looking out found that it was stranded upon the side of some mountain; upon which he immediately quitted it with his wife, his daughter, and the pilot. Xisuthrus then paid his adoration to the earth: and having constructed an altar, offered sacrifices to the gods, and, with those who had come out of the vessel with him, disappeared.

They, who remained within, finding that their companions did not return, quitted the vessel with many lamentations, and called continually on the name of Xisuthrus. Him they saw no more; but they could distinguish his voice in the air, and could hear him admonish them to pay due regard to religion; and likewise informed them that it was upon account of his piety that he was translated to live with the gods; that his wife and daughter, and the pilot, had obtained the same honour. To this he added, that they should return to Babylonia; and, as it was ordained, search for the writings at Sippara, which they were to make known to all mankind: moreover that the place, wherein they then were, was the land of Armenia. The rest having heard these words, offered sacrifices to the gods; and taking a circuit, journeyed towards Babylonia.

The vessel being thus stranded in Armenia, some part of it yet remains in the Corcyræan mountains of Armenia; and the people scrape off the bitumen, with which it had been outwardly coated, and make use of it by way of an alexipharmic and amulet. And when they returned to Babylon, and had found the writings at Sippara, they built cities, and erected temples: and Babylon was thus inhabited again.

Berossus from Alexander Polyhistor.

Xisuthrus is a rendering into Greek of the ancient name Ziusudra (or Ziudsara), the last king mentioned in the Sumerian King List before the Great Flood. According this list, several versions of which have been found, he did indeed reign as a king of the city of Shuruppak on the Euphrates for eighteen saris. A sari is equivalent to 3,600 years so his reign was said to be a mere 64,800 years long! It's worth recalling at this point that Noah was said to be 600 years old when he set sail on his boat.

The deity who came to visit him was, of course, not the Greek god Cronos but a Sumerian one, Enki (it was a common practice in the syncretic world of antiquity to replace the names of foreign gods with more familiar ones). Enki had come to warn Ziusudra that the lord of the gods, Enlil (Lord Air, later Marduk or Bel) had become so annoyed by the constant racket being made by the people on the Earth that he had decided to destroy them all.

Ziusudra (who in other texts is known as Atrahasis "Exceedingly Wise" or Ut-napishtim "He Who Saw Life") already knew about this because this was the fourth time that the gods had attempted to wipe out the entire human race. The first time was by disease, the second time was by drought, the third time was by famine. In each case Enki foiled Enlil's plans by either getting his servant on Earth, the king Ziusudra, to instruct his people to pray to various gods in order to shame them into helping them or by directly intervening himself.

Enlil became so enraged by Enki's continual meddling that he demanded that Enki should be the one to create a great flood to wipe out humanity. To this Enki refused saying, "Why should I use my power against my people?...This is Enlil's kind of work!" but he did agree to be bound by an oath not to interfere the plan.

Knowing that this time he would not be able to save everyone, Enki decided that he must try a different approach. He was bound by an oath to Enlil so he knew that he would have to find another way to warn Ziusudra. He did this by exploiting one of the lamest loopholes imaginable. The King of Shuruppak lived in a reed house (probably one quite similar to the mudhifs of the modern Marsh Arabs) and Enki, fully within earshot of Ziusudra, directed his instructions to the walls of his house!

Wall, listen constantly to me!
Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!
Dismantle the house, build a boat . . .

Enki addressed Ziusudra's wall and gave the precise dimensions of a vessel and instructed that it should be filled with every kind of animal. Ziusudra explained to the the elders of the city of Shuruppak that Enki was at war with Enlil and that as a partisan on the side of Enki he would have to leave immediately. The people of the city built him a vessel and he selected the best examples of every animal.

He then held a feast for his people but he became so upset about what he knew was about to happen that he felt ill. It was then that the weather changed and Ziusudra brought his family inside the vessel with him. He sealed it shut with bitumen.

The [violent storm] went against the people like an army.
No one could see anyone else,
They could not be recognized in the catastrophe.
The Flood roared like a bull,
Like a wild ass screaming, the winds [howled]
The darkness was total, there was no sun.

When the gods saw the magnitude of the disaster they had wrought they began to weep. How could they have so wantonly destroyed their own creation? Worse still, the gods had created people for a specific purpose: so that they would never have to toil again. Who was now going to do their work? Who was now going to sacrifice and make offerings in their name?

And just what kind of smart decision maker was this Enlil, anyway?

The world was now completely covered in water and like reeds floated the corpses people. After seven days and seven nights the waters had begun to recede and Ziusudra's vessel became grounded on top of a mountain in the country of Nizir (later tradition places this in the mountains of Urartu or Ararat. George Smith, however, thought it was more likely to be somewhere east of Assyria).

I sent forth a dove, and it left. The dove went and searched and
a resting place it did not find, and it returned.
I sent forth a swallow, and it left. The swallow went and searched and
a resting place it did not find, and it returned.
I sent forth a raven, and it left.
The raven went, and the corpses on the waters it saw, and
it did eat, it swam, and wandered away, and did not return.
I sent the animals forth to the four winds...

When Ziusudra started laying out food and burning offerings of thanks for his survival the gods, who were now hungry and thirsty, began to gather "like flies over the offering" and inhale its sweet fragrance.

But just then the shit really hit the fan:

The warrior Ellil spotted the boat
And was furious with the [the other gods].
"We, the great Anunna, all of us,
Agreed together on an oath!
No form of life should have escaped!
How did any man survive the catastrophe?"

Anu made his voice heard
And spoke to the warrior Ellil,
"Who but Enki would do this?
He made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order."

Enki made his voice heard And spoke to the great gods,
"I did it, in defiance of you!
I made sure life was preserved...
Exact your punishment from the sinner.
And whoever contradicts your order

Enki then went on to explain why the gods should never have tried to destroy humanity. People were useful servants who were essential for keeping the gods living in the lap of luxury. If the problem was that there were too many of them then this could be easily fixed through a smart policy of birth control. Enki made a deal with Nintu, the goddess of birth and fertlity, that the human infant mortality rate would be made much higher and that one in three women would not be able to give birth successfully. He also established a caste of women priests who would not be allowed to have children.

Enlil thus satisfied went down to Earth to greet Ziusudra and his family and he gave them his blessing. He made a covenant never to try to destroy them again. Ziusudra, his wife and the ship's pilot (but not the rest of his family) were declared immortal and were taken away to live in a far off country, in the good and pure land of Dilmun (the island of Bahrain), the place where the sun rises.

Never again would the gods try to destroy mankind. The goddess Nintu made a memento of lapis-lazuli to wear as a necklace so that they would never forget.

The Sumerian Flood Story (1800 BC)
Babylonian version: Atrahasis (1700 BC)

Many centuries later, Ziusudra and his wife were visited by a great and illustrious king from Uruk. His name was Gilgamesh, the famous hero of Mesopotamian legend (although according to the Sumerian King List there really was a king by that name who ruled Uruk around 2700 BC). After the death of his close friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh travelled across the ocean to meet Ziusudra (Ut-napishtim) and to ask him how he obtained immortality.

The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI
The Chaldean Account of the Deluge by George Smith



Athanasius Kircher, Arcanae; printed in Amsterdam in 1675 - a delightfully imaginative book, suitable for children.
The dedicatee, Charles II of Spain was himself only 12 at the time.