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The two great rivers of ancient Mesopotamia—Tigris and Euphrates—rises in the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey, and after flowing through Turkey and then Syria, enters the vast desert kingdom of Iraq. Before it empties into the Persian Gulf, the rivers split into dozens of small streams and channels that meander across an enormous plain in southern Iraq forming what once used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia, covering some 20,000 square kilometers. In this vast fertile region, civilization was born some 5,000 years ago. The first literate societies emerged, cities developed and trade and complex state bureaucracies evolved.

After the Sumerians and Akkadians withered away, some of its descendants took to living in the marshlands. They are called Marsh Arabs or the Ma’dan. Over the centuries these people developed a unique culture centered on the marshes' natural resources. Much of this ancient way of life was destroyed in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people.


A traditional reed hut called mudhif in a Marsh Arab village in Iraq. Photo credit: The Sandstorm Magazine/Flickr

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