Marsh Arabs in the Mesopotamian MarshlandsUNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has named the Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq, known locally as the Ahwar, a World Heritage Site. UNESCO said that “the archaeological cities of Uruk and Ur form part of the remains of the Sumerian cities that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BC.” The marshlands have grown up around a large inland river delta where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, forming a unique wetland in a hot and arid environment.
Village of the Marsh Arabs
Satellite photo of the marshes, 2000In the 1990s nearly all the marshes—already in decline because of land reclamation for agriculture—were forcibly drained by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, turning the wetland into desert. But in recent years the marshes have made an amazing comeback. The demolition of dams has allowed waters from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to come flooding back to the region. However, dams farther upriver in Syria and Turkey still limit the flow of water into the marshes.
The region in 2010, showing marsh regrowthThe marshlands now occupy more than half the area they filled 40 years ago. They were once home to millions of birds, and were used as a stopover for millions of other migratory birds, including flamingos, pelicans and herons as they migrated from Siberia to Africa. It is hoped the birds will one day return.
The Marsh Arabs once inhabited the marshlands in great numbers. They are the descendants of ancient Sumerians, so their civilization dates back 5000 years. They inhabit remote villages of arched reed houses built on islands of reeds throughout the marshes and live by fishing, cultivating rice and raising water buffalo. Their population shrank from around half a million to about 20,000 following the draining. Following the 2003 Iraq invasion, Marsh Arabs have begun to return to the marshes. But only a few thousand currently live in the region.
Marsh Arab girl
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