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Marsh Arabs

Marsh Arabs
Maʻdān معدان
Marsh Arab girl from Al Kuthra, Iraq.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Iraq 125,000-150,000[1]
Southeast Iraq/Southwest Iran unknown
Iraqi Arabic
Shia Islam, Mandaeism
Related ethnic groups
Iranian Arabs, Iraqis, Khorasani Arabs

The Marsh Arabs (Arabic: عرب الأهوارʻArab al-Ahwār "Arabs of the Marshlands"), also known as the Maʻdān (Arabic: معدان‎), are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border.

Comprising members of many different tribes and tribal confederations, such as the Āl Bū Muḥammad, Ferayghāt, Shaghanbah and Banī Lām, the Maʻdān had developed a unique culture centered on the marshes' natural resources. Many of the marshes' inhabitants were displaced when the wetlands were drained during and after the 1991 uprisings in Iraq.


  • Culture 1
    • Agriculture 1.1
    • Religion 1.2
    • Society 1.3
    • Link to Sumerians and Akkadians 1.4
    • Genetic Evidence 1.5
  • 1991–2003 2
  • Since 2003 3
  • Literature 4
  • Films 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The interior of an Iraqi mudhif

Madan means "dweller in the plains (ʻadan)" and was used disparagingly by desert tribes to refer to those inhabiting the Iraqi river basins, and normally people will call them as MAIDA (Anu) by those who farmed in the river basins to refer to the population of the marshes.[2] There was a considerable historic prejudice against the Maʻdān, partly as they were considered to have Persian or other "mixed" origin and partly due to their practice of temporary marriage.[3]

The Maʻdān speak a local dialect of Iraqi Arabic and traditionally wore a variant of normal Arab dress: for males, a long shirt or thawb (in recent times, occasionally with a Western-style jacket over the top) and a keffiyeh headcloth worn twisted around the head in a turban as few could afford an ʻiqāl.


The society of the Marsh Arabs was divided into two main groups by occupation. One group bred and raised domestic buffalo while others cultivated crops such as rice, barley, wheat and pearl millet; they also kept some sheep and cattle. Rice cultivation was especially important; it was carried out in small plots cleared in April and sown in mid-May. Cultivation seasons were marked by the rising and setting of certain stars, such as the Pleiades and Sirius.[4]

Some branches of the Maʻdān were nomadic pastoralists, erecting temporary dwellings and moving buffalo around the marshes according to the season. Some fishing, especially of species of barbel (notably the binni or bunni, Mesopotamichthys sharpeyi), was practised using spears and datura poison, but large-scale fishing using nets was until recent times regarded as a dishonourable profession by the Maʻdān and was mostly carried out by a separate low-status tribe known as the Berbera.[5] By the early 1990s, however, up to 60% of the total amount of fish caught in Iraq's inland waters came from the marshes.[1]

Village of the Marsh Arabs

In the later twentieth century a third main occupation entered Marsh Arab life; the weaving of reed mats on a commercial scale. Though they often earned far more than workers in agriculture, weavers were looked down upon by both Maʻdān and farmers alike: however, financial concerns meant that it gradually gained acceptance as a respectable profession.


The majority of Marsh Arabs are Shia Muslims, though in the marshes small communities of Aramaic speaking non-Arab ethnic Mandaeans (often working as boat builders and craftsmen) lived alongside them.[6] The inhabitants' long association with tribes within Persia may have influenced the spread of the Shī‘ī denomination within the marshes. Wilfred Thesiger commented that while he met few Marsh Arabs who had performed the Hajj, many of them had made the pilgrimage to Mashhad (thereby earning the title Zair);[7] a number of families also claimed descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad, adopting the title of sayyid and dyeing their keffiyeh green.

The Maʻdān carried out the majority of their devotions in private as there were no places of worship within the Marshes; some were known to visit Ezra's Tomb, one of the few religious sites of any kind in the area.[8]

In addition to their Islamic faith, and complementary to it, when contacted by Wilfred Thesiger the Ma'dan still held a number of pre-Islamic or extra-Islamic beliefs, from the existence of strange monsters in the marshes to that of bewitched isles, such as the legendary Hufaidh, whose shores could not be broached without causing madness in the unwary boatman.


As with most tribes of southern Iraq, the main authority was the tribal shaikh. To this day, the shaikh of a Marsh Arab group will collect a tribute from his tribe in order to maintain the mudhif, the tribal guesthouse, which acts as the political, social, judicial and religious centre of Marsh Arabic life. The mudhif is used as a place to settle disputes, to carry out diplomacy with other tribes and as a gathering point for religious and other celebrations. It is also the place where visitors are offered hospitality. Although the tribal shaykh was the principal figure, each Maʻdān village (which may have contained members of several different tribes) would also follow the authority of the hereditary qalit "headman" of a tribe's particular section.

Blood feuds, which could only be settled by the qalit, were a feature of Marsh Arab life, in common with that of the Arab bedouin. Many of the Marsh Arabs' codes of behaviour were similar to those of the desert tribes.

Marsh Arabs poling a mashoof

Most Marsh Arabs lived in arched reed houses considerably smaller than a mudhif. The typical dwelling was usually a little more than two meters wide, about six meters long, and a little less than three meters high, and was either constructed at the waterside or on an artificial island of reeds called a kibasha; a more permanent island of layered reeds and mud was called a dibin.[9] Houses had entrances at both ends and a screen in the middle; one end was used as a dwelling and the other end (sometimes extended with a sitra, a long reed structure) was used to shelter animals in bad weather. A raba was a higher-status dwelling, distinguished by a north-facing entrance, which also served as a guesthouse where there was no mudhif.[10] Traditional boats (the mashoof and tarada) were used as transport: the Maʻdān would drive buffalo through the reedbeds during the season of low water to create channels, which would then be kept open by constant use, for the boats.[11]

The marsh environment meant that certain diseases, such as bilharzia and malaria, were endemic;[12] Maʻdānī agriculture and homes were also vulnerable to periodic droughts and flooding.

Link to Sumerians and Akkadians

The origins of the Maʻdān are still a matter of some interest. British colonial ethnographers found it difficult to classify some of the Maʻdān's social customs and speculated that they might have originated in India.[13]

Many scholars have proposed historical and genetic links between the Marsh Arabs and the ancient Sumerians, based on shared agricultural practices and methods of house building. There is, however, no written record of the marsh tribes until the ninth century AD, and the Sumerians were absorbed by the Akkadians (Assyrians-Babylonians) by around 1800 BC, some 2,700 years before.[14]

Others, however, have noted that much of the culture of the Maʻdān is in fact shared with the desert bedouin who came to the area after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, and that it is therefore likely that they are descended from this source, at least in part.[15]

Genetic Evidence

A 2011 Study showed that Marsh Arabs have a high concentration of Y-DNA haplogroup J1 and mtDNA haplogroup J having the highest concentration with haplogroups H, U and T following.[16]


The marshes had for some time been considered a refuge for elements persecuted by the government of Saddam Hussein, as in past centuries they had been a refuge for escaped slaves and serfs, such as during the Zanj Rebellion. By the mid-1980s, a low-level insurgency against Ba'athist drainage and resettlement projects had developed in the area, led by Sheik Abdul Kerim Mahud al-Muhammadawi of the Al bu Muhammad under the nom de guerre Abu Hatim.[17]

During the 1970s, the expansion of Badr Brigades and other militias having used them as cover. The plan, which was accompanied by a series of propaganda articles by the Iraqi regime directed against the Ma'dan,[18] systematically converted the wetlands into a desert, forcing the residents out of their settlements in the region. Villages in the marshes were attacked and burnt down and there were reports of the water being deliberately poisoned.[19]

The majority of the Maʻdān were displaced either to areas adjacent to the drained marshes, abandoning their traditional lifestyle in favour of conventional agriculture, to towns and camps in other areas of Iraq or to Iranian refugee camps. Only 1,600 of them were estimated to still be living on traditional dibins by 2003.[20] The western Hammar Marshes and the Qurnah or Central Marshes had become completely desiccated, while the eastern Hawizeh Marshes had dramatically shrunk. The Marsh Arabs, who numbered about half a million in the 1950s, have dwindled to as few as 20,000 in Iraq, according to the United Nations. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 have fled to refugee camps in Iran.[21]

Since 2003

With the breaching of dikes by local communities subsequent to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ending of a four-year drought that same year, the process has been reversed and the marshes have experienced a substantial rate of recovery. The permanent wetlands now cover more than 50% of 1970s levels, with a remarkable regrowth of the Hammar and Hawizeh Marshes and some recovery of the Central Marshes.[22]

Efforts to restore the marshes have led to signs of their gradual revivification as water is restored to the former desert, but the whole ecosystem may take far longer to restore than it took to destroy. Only a few thousand of the nearly half million Marsh Arabs remain in the area. Most of the rest that can be accounted for are refugees living in other Shia areas in Iraq, or have emigrated to Iran, and many do not wish to return to their former home and lifestyle, which despite its independence was characterised by extreme poverty and hardship. A USAID report noted that, while some Maʻdān had chosen to return to their traditional activities in the marshes, especially the Hammar Marshes, within a short time of reflooding, they were without clean drinking water, sanitation, health care or education facilities.[23] In addition, it is still uncertain if the marshes will completely recover, given increased levels of water extraction from the Tigris and Euphrates.

Many of the resettled Marsh Arabs have gained representation through the Moqtada al-Sadr's movement, through which they gained political control of Maysan Governorate.[24] Political instability and local feuds, aggravated by the poverty of the dispossessed Marsh Arab population, remain a serious problem.[25] Rory Stewart observed that throughout history, the Maʻdān were the pawn of many rulers and became expert dissimulators. The tribal chiefs are outwardly submissive and work with the coalition and Iraqi officials. Behind the scenes, the tribes engage in smuggling and other activities.[26]


Pietro della Valle (1586–1652) is cited in Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes as the earliest modern traveler to write about Mesopotamia and probably the first to introduce the word Madi, which he spelled "Maedi," to the Western world.[27]

Young also mentions tout ensemble of beauty, not to be surpassed perhaps in the brilliant assemblies of civilized life."[28]

Another account of the Maʻdān in English was jointly published in 1927 by a British colonial administrator, Stuart Edwin Hedgecock, and his wife.[29][30] Gertrude Bell also visited the area.[31] T. E. Lawrence passed through in 1916, stopping at Basra and Ezra's Tomb (Al-Azair), and recorded that the Marsh Arabs were "wonderfully hard [...] but merry, and full of talk. They are in the water all their lives, and seem hardly to notice it."[32]

The way of life of the Marsh Arabs was later described by the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger in his classic The Marsh Arabs (1964). Thesiger lived with the Marsh Arabs for months at a time over a seven-year period (1951–1958), building excellent relationships with virtually all he met, and recording the details of day-to-day life in various regions of the marshes. Many of the areas that he visited have since been drained. Gavin Maxwell, the Scottish naturalist, travelled with Thesiger through the marshes in 1956 and published an account of their travels in his 1957 book A Reed Shaken by the Wind (later republished under the title People of the Reeds). The journalist and travel writer Gavin Young followed in Thesiger's footsteps, writing Return to the Marshes: Life with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq (1977; reissued 2009).

The first extensive scholarly ethnographic account of Marsh Arab life was Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta (1962), by Iraqi anthropologist S. M. Salim. An ethnoarchaeological study of the material culture of the Marsh Arabs has been published by Edward L. Ochsenschlager: Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2004).

Rory Stewart described the Marsh Arabs and his experiences as deputy governor in the Maysan province (2003–2004) in his 2006 book, Prince of the Marshes (also published under the title Occupational Hazards).

In 2011, Sam Kubba published The Iraqi Marshlands and the Marsh Arabs: The Ma'dan, Their Culture and the Environment. The Iraqi Marshlands and the Marsh Arabs details the rich cultural legacy and lifestyle that survives today only as a fragmented cultural inheritance.

In German, there are Sigrid Westphal-Hellbusch und Heinz Westphal, Die Ma'dan: Kultur und Geschichte der Marschenbewohner im Süd-Iraq (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1962). Sigrid Westphal Hellbusch and her husband Heinz Westphal wrote a comprehensive study on the Madan based on research and observation obtained while living with Madan tribes. These observations outline how the Madan diverge from other Shia communities.


Films about Marsh Arabs:

See also


  1. ^ a b c USAID,
  2. ^ Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs, Penguin, 1967, p.92
  3. ^ Yitzhak Nakash, The Shiis of Iraq, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 47
  4. ^ Thesiger, p.174
  5. ^ Thesiger, p.92
  6. ^ Thesiger, p.127
  7. ^ Thesiger, p.55
  8. ^ Raphaeli, N. The Destruction of Iraqi Marshes and Their Revival,
  9. ^ Thesiger, p.75
  10. ^ Thiesiger, p.71
  11. ^ Thesiger, p.70
  12. ^ Thesiger, p.85, 108
  13. ^ Cole, p.10
  14. ^ Edmund Ghareeb, Historical Dictionary of Iraq, 2004, p.156
  15. ^ Thesiger, pp.100-01
  16. ^ Al-Zahery et al. - In search of the genetic footprints of Sumerians: a survey of Y-chromosome and mtDNA variation in the Marsh Arabs of Iraq - - BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:288 [2]
  17. ^ Juan Cole, Marsh Arab Rebellion, University of Indiana, 2005, p.12
  18. ^ Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation, Harper, London 2005, p.844
  19. ^ ,The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem UNEP, p. 44
  20. ^ Cole, p.13
  21. ^ Iraq's Marsh Arabs, Modern Sumerians - The Oregonian, May 14, 2003
  22. ^ Iraqi Marshlands: Steady Progress to Recovery (UNEP)
  23. ^ USAID Iraq Marshlands Restoration Program Final Report, Chapter 1
  24. ^ Cole, p.14
  25. ^ See Cole, pp.24-33
  26. ^ Stewart, Rory (2006). The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. Orlando, FL:: Harcourt Books,. pp. 43–45. 
  27. ^ Young, Gavin (1978) [1977]. Return to the Marshes. Great Britain: Futura Publications. pp. 48–49.  
  28. ^ Young, pp. 54-55.
  29. ^ Fulanain (S. E. and M. G. Hedgecock) Haji Rikkan: Marsh Arab, Chatto & Windus, London, 1927
  30. ^ Young, p. 69. "At the time of which I am writing Philby was the arabophile, though truculent, Political Officer of Amara. One who soon succeeded him there was S. E. Hedgecock who, with his young wife, wrote a wonderfully vivid book about the people he administered called Haji Rikkan: Marsh Arab, using (because officials are not purposed to write books when they are on the job) the pseudonym 'Fulanain'."
  31. ^ See Letters at The Gertrude Bell Project, Newcastle University.
  32. ^ Thomas Edward Lawrence, Letter of 18 May 1916,

External links

  • Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of EdenImages from , University of Pennsylvania
  • Wilfred Thesiger's photographs of Marsh Arab life, Pitt Rivers Museum
  • An article on the ancient and recent history of the Marsh Arabs at Laputan Logic (Part II)
  • Life on the Edge of the Marshes: A twenty-year-long ethnographic study conducted by Edward Ochsenschlager. As well as documenting the traditional way of life of the Marsh Arabs, it also made comparisons with ancient Sumerian cultural practices.
  • AMAR International Charitable Foundation ("Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees")
  • Images of Iraq's Marsh Arabs Endangered Culture & Nature by Sate Al Abbasi
  • Dennis Dimick, Photos from 1967 reveal a lost culture in Iraq, published by National Geographic. Accessed 29 September 2015.

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