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The Marshes, Iraq

The Marshes (Al-Ahwar in Arabic) is a unique region to Iraq where nature seems to preserve its virgin aspect. It covers a large area surrounding Shatt El-Arab waterway and the union of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers just below Qurna, stretching from Kut in the north to Basra in the south. This vast expanse of marshland dotted with shallow lagoons occupies a total area of about 10,000 km2 and is the home of endless variety of birds, fish, plants, reeds, and bulrushes.

Marshes House from Inside

Old Arabic books suggest that the Marshes were the aftermath of a devastating flood which took place around 620 AD, but archaeological indications suggest that they were formed long before Sumerian times, when the Arabian Gulf waters began to recede southwards, leaving behind all those marshes alongside the Tigris and Euphrates.

Marsh Arabs (the Madan) who inhabit the area live in huts (known as Sarifa's) built from reeds with elaborate latticework entrances and attractive designs that goes back to ancient times. It looks like hundreds of islands clustered together into small townships. Most prominent among them is Chebayish on the left bank of Euphrates.

Marshy lowlands surrounding Shatt El-Arab waterwayEach "island" is in fact a man-made mixture of earth and papyrus pressed hard (to form a base of a hut) and called Chebasheh. The watery "streets" are plied by boats of different kinds and sizes, the most popular being the mash-houf, which is made from reeds and bitumen.

The main mode of transport through the reedy waterways is a long, slim canoe, known as a Mashuf. It is thought that this way of life has continued unchanged for about 6000 years.

A delightful scene there is a Marsh Wedding, when the bride is carried in a lovely "regatta" made up of her own mash-houf and those of her party, all loud with men's lilting songs and women's joyous cries.

For taking trips in the Marshes, the best months are March and April. The weather then is pleasant, and the whole place is chock-full of plants and flowers. Reeds may rise 6 m high and papyrus, 3 m. In the winter season, water birds of all kinds migrate to the Marshes, which then become a hunter's paradise. Fish, however, are always plentiful and the local inhabitants catch them with nets or spear them with a five-pronged 'fala', peculiar to the area.

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