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.
The Ahwar is made up of seven components: three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh areas in southern Iraq. The archaeological cities of Uruk and Ur and the Tell Eridu archaeological site form part of the remains of the Sumerian cities and settlements that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BCE in the marshy delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq – also known as the Iraqi Marshlands – are unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.
The Ahwar of Southern Iraq evolved as part of the wider alluvial plain during the final stage of the alpine tectonic movement, which also led to the creation of the Zagros Mountains. Several factors intertwined to shape the property including; tectonic movements, climatic changes, river hydrology dynamics, precipitation variation, and changes in sea level. The sea level variation and the climatic changes had a significant role in influencing the quantity and quality of water entering the Ahwar through rivers and their branches, in addition to advancement and regression of the sea and intrusion during dry to semi-dry to wet conditions during the last 18,000 years.
Between 5000 and 3000 BCE, sea water level reached its maximum extent some 200 km inland of the present coastline with marshes stretching further inland. The marshy and moving landscape of this deltaic plain was the heartland where the first cities flourished. Uruk, Ur and Eridu, the three cultural components of the property, were originally situated on the margins of freshwater marshes and developed into some of the most important urban centres of southern Mesopotamia. These cities saw the origin of writing, monumental architecture in the form of mudbrick temples and ziggurats, and complex technologies and societies. A vast corpus of cuneiform texts and archaeological evidence testifies to the centrality of the marshes for the economy, worldview and religious beliefs of successive cultures in southern Mesopotamia.
Starting in 2000 BCE, the sea regressed towards the south. This led to another climatic change towards a more arid environment leading to the drying up of the ancient marshes and in turn to the decline of the great cities of southern Mesopotamia. Today the mudbrick ruins of Uruk, Ur and Eridu are dominated by the remains of ziggurats which still stand within the arid but striking landscape of the desiccated alluvial plain.
With the regression of the sea water, new marshes formed to the southeast. The main marshes of the Ahwar as we know them today were formed during this period around 3,000 years ago. The Huwaizah, East and West Hammar and Central Marshes of the Ahwar are predominantely fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
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.
Hat Tip: UNESCO