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A road trip across the cradle of civilisation

by Staff

It was from Basra that the fictional mariner Sinbad the Sailor set out on his voyages to supernatural realms in Arabian Nights. By comparison, the start of my own journey was far more mundane. After I met my driver, we joined Route 1 on the outskirts of the city and spent the first two hours stuck in heavy traffic crossing desolate landscapes dotted with oil fields firing gas flares into the skies. But after 150km, the desert eventually turned to green as we veered off the highway and entered the vast wetlands of Al-Ahwar, or the Marshes. Regarded by some as the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden, these southern Iraqi marshes are one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, and have been slowly recovering since Saddam Hussein ordered them drained in the 1990s.

There, in the town of Chibayish, fisherman Razaq Abu Haida was waiting for me on the dock sporting a traditional black-and-white chequered keffiyeh headdress. He fired up the outboard motor and we puttered off together into the labyrinth of shallow lagoons lined with bulrushes and papyrus where the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, have lived for more than 5,000 years.

Near a wallowing water buffalo, we pulled up at the mudhif (reed house) of the Alahwary family, one of just 25 families now living in the marshes near Chibayish. Razaq, the father, helped moor the boat while his wife, Naima, brought us drinks. “Milk, fresh from the udder,” she said, handing out cups of the warm, frothy liquid, complete with thick black buffalo hairs that had fallen into the urn. The couple told me they pass their days rearing buffalo, fishing for carp, baking bread over dung fires and scything reeds for housebuilding and thatching. Despite many people leaving for a more modern life in nearby towns such as Chibayish and Nasiriyah, they said they were happy with their simple existence, which had changed little since the Marsh Arabs settled the area and traded with the great city-states of the Sumerians.

The Sumerians were Mesopotamia’s earliest-known civilisation, credited with such inventions as the wheel, sail, plough, mathematics, hydraulic engineering and writing. According to Lanah Haddad, an archaeologist at TARII (The Academic Research Institute in Iraq), the Sumerians’ settling in the east of the Fertile Crescent was key to their success: the area’s rich soils not only provided people with plentiful food, which allowed them free time to innovate, but the region’s location between Africa, Asia and Europe enabled them to dominate world trade. “From 5,000 BCE up to the Mongol conquest in the 13th Century, this was the hub for the movement of all goods, and they became very rich and powerful as a result,” Haddad said.

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