For thousands of years, the marshes at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq were an oasis of green in a dry landscape, hosting a wealth of wildlife. The culture of the Marsh Arab, or Ma’dan, people who live there is tightly interwoven with the ecosystem of the marshes. The once dense and ubiquitous common reed (Phragmites australis) served as raw material for homes, handicrafts, tools, and animal fodder for thousands of years. Distinctive mudhif communal houses, built entirely of bundled reeds, appear in Sumerian stonework from 5,000 years ago. Now that culture is drying up with the marshes.
Recent decades have brought extreme change to the fertile lands famous for the birth of agriculture and the rise of some of the world’s earliest cities. The sphere of daily life for Marsh Arab women has shrunk as the natural resources they traditionally cultivated have vanished, reports an international team of researchers in “Effects of Mesopotamian Marsh (Iraq) desiccation on the cultural knowledge and livelihood of Marsh Arab women,” published today in the March 2016 issue of Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.
The study is the first effort to specifically document Marsh Arab women’s cultural relationship to marsh ecological services.