Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden


What can the present tell us about the past? From 1968 to 1990, Edward Ochsenschlager conducted ethnoarchaeological fieldwork near a mound called al-Hiba, in the marshes of southern Iraq. In examining the material culture of three tribes--their use of mud, reed, wood, and bitumen, and their husbandry of cattle, water buffalo, and sheep--he chronicles what is now a lost way of life. He helps us understand ancient manufacturing processes, an artifact's significance and the skill of those who create and use it, and the substantial moral authority wielded by village craftspeople. He reveals the complexities involved in the process of change, both natural and enforced.

Al-Hiba contains the remains of Sumerian people who lived in the marshes more than 5,000 years ago in a similar ecological setting, using similar material resources. The archaeological evidence provides insights into everyday life in antiquity. Ochsenschlager enhances the comparisons of past and present by extensive illustrations from his fieldwork and also from the University Museum's rare archival photographs taken in the late nineteenth century by John Henry Haynes. This was long before Saddam Hussein drove one of the tribes from the marshes, forced the Bedouin to live elsewhere, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who tried to stay.


Until the end of the 20th century a vast marsh existed in the south of what is now the modern nation of Iraq. For thousands of years people had lived on the edge of these marshes. the archaeological record shows that already by the middle of the 4th millennium bc a people of unknown origin, known to us as the Sumerians, occupied this land and built there perhaps the world’s oldest cities. By the end of the 3rd millennium bc the land had become absorbed into the first-known empire of history, that of the Akkadians. Over the next two thousand years, the area was controlled by the successive empires of the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Parthians.

Over time, perhaps due to an overworking of the land and an abuse due to arrogance or ignorance of the ecological realities, the populations dwindled and the cities deteriorated and were eventually abandoned. What we today refer to as the cradle of civilization had become a wasteland. Over some indeterminate length of time, among the mounds that were all that was left of the great ancient cities by the marshes, people began to eke out a subsistence from this exhausted land. Among them are those known today as the Beni Hasan, the Mi’dan (often referred to as the Marsh Arabs), and the Bedouin. Although they used the land differently, there evolved among them a mutual interdependence. Their way of life was documented by an outsider, an American, John Henry Haynes, at the end of the 19th century during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. By the third quarter of the 20th century their isolation along with their traditions of self-reliance had been broken. the inevitability of change in human affairs now became their reality. By the end of the 1980s their way of life, by now precarious, was given the coup de grâce by Saddam Hussein.

I now consider the great privilege of my life that all three of these peoples allowed me to observe their way of life and actively encouraged my . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.