A wetland in southeast Iraq, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden — the Ahwar of southern Iraq, has now become a UNESCO world heritage site, reports Reuters. Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marshlands of Mesopotamia are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to bird species such as the sacred ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.
Home to the Marsh Arabs, three archaeological sites and an array of species of birds and fish, the marshes are “unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment”, says UNESCO. It also contains the ancient sites of Uruk, Tell Eridu and Ur — the birthplace of Biblical patriarch Abraham.
Saddam Hussein, who accused the region’s Marsh Arab inhabitants of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran, dammed and drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out rebels hiding in the reeds. In the 1970s, the marshes, formally known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq, covered some 9,000 sq. km, but were reduced by Saddam to barely 760 sq. km. Iraq has said it aims to recover a total of 6,000 sq. km.
After his overthrow by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, locals wrecked many of the dams to let water rush back in, and foreign environmental agencies helped breathe life back into the marshes. Over the past decade, local efforts to re-flood the area and help from environmental agencies have replenished about half the wetlands. Wildlife and Marsh Arabs, native to the wetlands for about six millennia, have also since made a return.
The origins of the Marsh Arabs are still a matter of some interest. British colonial ethnographers found it difficult to classify some of their social customs and speculated that they might have originated in India.
Image Source: UNESCO