Still between the Tigris and the Euphrates

Second instalment about Mesopotamia. We are now situated throughout the 20th century, political and social changes caused massive forced migrations by people of the area and the uncontrolled exploitation of marshes populated by the Ma’dam tribe.

Marsh Arab Village
Ma’dam village in 1974. Font: Corbis – Spiegel

After the legend, when Gilgamesh was buried the Euphrates was diverted temporarily and it covered the grave when left come back to his bed. This way of burying has been applied to other people, such as the Visigoth Alaric, who died in Cosenza after sacking Rome: to protect his tomb, the Busento course was diverted, the tomb was dug and the river was then allowed to return. Those who did the work were sacrificed to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s place (a not infrequent, unfair practice in some cultures).

The Sumerian paradise was east of the sources of the “world’s four rivers”, two of which are the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this mythology, Enki was the god of water and wisdom, construction and art. He gave water to the rivers, fishes and reeds to the marshes, and created the herds. He protected nature by warning about the deluge decreed by the other gods, worried with the proliferation and noise oh human beings. Sumer, in the original language, meant “the land of the lord of the cane fields” and Enki was represented as a human figure pouring water from a jug.

Map of the Sumer Dynasty. Fuente: Wikipedia

The world’s oldest texts have been found in Mesopotamia and were written 4000 years ago. The Ur’s civilization lasted 3000 years. Then came the Assyrians and, two centuries later, in the south, Babylon. Those empires lasted 14 centuries and, at their maximum, went from the Caucasus to Arabia. In the sixth century BC, Cyrus the Great invaded Mesopotamia and included it in the Achaemenid Empire. Almost two centuries later, Alexander the Great conquered it, then the Parthians and the Romans. In 224 AD, Ardashir incorporated Mesopotamia to the Persian Sassanid Empire. At the end of the third century, Assyria was the center of the East Christian Church. In the seventh century, the Muslims arrived and many Arabs and Kurds settled in the region. The following century they founded Baghdad as the headquarters of the Caliphate, and it soon became the largest medieval city, with over one million inhabitants. But in 1258 the Mongols of Hülegü, one of the Genghis Khan grandsons, razed Baghdad and other cities. In 1401, Tamerlane did it again. It is a history of collapses of advanced civilizations. Building a complex system is a huge and long task, destroying it can be done in a sudden and catastrophic way.

The rivers of Mesopotamia frame and nourish the remote beginnings of civilization, but humans have learned to live in flooded areas in many other parts of the world. The deltas, estuaries and other wetland areas, due to their wealth, have been occupied for many centuries and diverse cultural solutions have been developed in them. Think of the Nile delta, which made Egypt the granary of the Roman Empire. They are highly productive systems, although the presence of water favors mosquitoes, which are diseases vectors. El Prat de Llobregat, near Barcelona, was known as “the village of the fevers”: malaria, typhus, hepatitis, dysentery were frequent… Water was unsafe; there was misery, abandonment by administrations, lack of culture and a lot of violence (Codina, 1966). Today, live conditions are much better but environment has been changed, but sometimes natural features have been ignored and this entails risks. Even so, the floodplains are still sometimes flooded and we discover, with indignation, that they are buildings where they did not might be, that some infrastructures act as a barriers for rainwater that goes where it can and wreaks havoc. In addition, urbanizations have reduced the permeable surface. Groundwater sometimes rises to the surface and slows the drainage to the sea. Wetland’s wildlife is threatened by urbanization, intensive agriculture, drying out, changes in river’s courses and flows and sea level’s rise.

An overhead image of the Mesopotamian Marshes with annotated features. Fuente: NASA

Let’s go back again to the cradle of civilization. Wilfred Thesiger (2001) wrote a remarkable book about life in the salt marshes. He described his experiences during several stages, in the 1950s, at the wetlands where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet to form the Shat-el-Arab, in Iraq. A part of the Mesopotamian marshes are permanent wetlands, another are seasonal and a third temporary. The marshes form an interior delta where the melting waters from the Persian and Turkish mountains scatter in spring. Around, there is the desert and during the dry season, the desert comes back, except in the permanently flooded zone. The al-Bathài marshes of southern Iraq have special ecological and cultural importance as one of the ten most important wetlands in the world, according to the British Royal Society, especially those of Huweiza, Amara and Hammar, in Basra, Misan and Nasiriya respectively. The whole area is about 17,000 km2, the rest of a much larger area that was largely salinized and is now a desert. Many millions of birds, some of rare or endangered species, live in it or pass through there in their migrations. Whereas the neighboring sandy areas cover the remains of ancient civilizations, on the banks of the rivers and in the wetlands, throughout the generations, one of the oldest that survives, perhaps the oldest one, that of the Arabs of the Marshes, of Sumer ascendency, built ditches and locks. The destruction of the irrigation system forced them to become nomads and shepherds, while the desert gained space and the water remained in permanent or temporary wetlands. With the disappearance of urban life, a process similar to that in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, the tribal system of the Bedouins who came from the other side of the Euphrates became dominant. Much later, some Arabs resettled in cities, others continued to live in tends carried by camels or donkeys, in a precarious and difficult way.

Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof in the marshes of southern Iraq. Source: Hassan Janali, US Army.

After the Great War and the Arab revolt promoted by Lawrence, in 1919 Iraq became an independent state, separating from the Ottoman Empire, but continued for 13 years under British control. At the time described by Thesiger, the Arabs of the ancient nomadic tribes of the wetland environment had come back to sedentary life. The state lands administration was given to sheikhs, who acted practically as the owners, while the other people worked for them in exchange for a part of the harvest. The sheikhs decided on conflicts between farmers. Within the permanent wetlands lived the Ma’dan, a very poor society ruled by the Bedouin’s code of behavior as all the complex of tribes in the region. Their lifestyle was based on breeding buffalos and fishing, but they also have been trading for many centuries. The habitat was mainly water and reeds (Phragmites australis), the adobe houses were always half flooded and infested by mosquitoes, and people eat rice and suffer schistosomiasis and malaria. Buffalos can only live in shallow waters and, in the seasonal wetlands, they were allowed to graze in the planted crops when water dried, to fertilize them with their excrements. In the region there were bandits. Wild pigs could also be dangerous because they attacked coming out suddenly from the canes. The lakes were populated by enormous amounts of birds, but between 1951 and 1958 Thesiger observed a great decrease as a result of hunting with nets and shotguns.

In 1955 the oil fields were already fully operational. This gave work and allowed to build many roads and entire urban neighborhoods. The idea spread that, in the growing cities, it was possible to gain lots of money. Ma’dans started selling boats, cattle and grain to go there. Entire families and neighbors of the old villages or tribes settled together, by neighborhoods. They wanted to escape poverty. That year, the drought helped. In addition, young people who had received some education were pressuring parents to leave and stop working as slaves for the sheikhs, who took advantage of lands that were not legally theirs as feudal lords, mistreating their “subjects”. With the departure of the farmers, there was not enough labor left for the crop. Later, they learned that life in cities was not so easy, they had to pay for everything, so those salaries that seemed high were not enough for a decent life. The poor neighborhoods were extremely dirty, while side-by-side shone the excessive luxury of the riches. In the cities there were no sheikhs, but the police was a problem: from time to time, police evicted the barracks, demanded papers that those people did not had, forced them to do military service or simply robbed them their money, and as they did not understand the justice system they can not appeal against those abuses. In the countryside, one could live on rice working six months of the year, even paying the sheikh’s share. With the buffalo and chickens, plus fishing and hunting, the diet could be completed. Then, some returned to their villages with a feeling of frustration.

Meanwhile, the attacks against the natural environment increased. Food resources obtained from wildlife decreased by the action of urban hunters. Along the Persian frontier, with the connivance of the government agents, the gazelles were exterminated, fired from cars even if it was forbidden. But things had to get much worse for the Ma’dans… I’ll talk about it in a future article.



  • Codina, J. (1966). La gent del fang: 965-1965ed. Montblanc, Barcelona.
  • Thesiger, W. (2007). The marsh Arabs. Penguin (la versió original és de 1964).
  • Salim M.A., Abd I.M., Abdulhassan N.A., Minjal M.Sh. (2009). Nature Iraq Field Report. Key Biodiversity Survey of Southern Iraq. Editat: Daniel Hudson Burnham i Anna Bachmann. Nature Iraq. Sulaimani, Kurdistan, Iraq.

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