Commonly known as “Marsh Arabs,” the people of the Iraqi marsh region lived on man-made islands in remarkable buildings crafted from locally grown reeds, creating beautiful vernacular architecture captured in Nik Wheeler’s photographs from the mid-1970s. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the marshes and this way of life were nearly annihilated. Efforts are now underway to rehabilitate a portion of the marshlands, and recent photographs by Mudhafar Salim show some of the early results.
Formed by the overflow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the marshes of southern Iraq once constituted the largest wetlands in western Eurasia and have been inhabited since at least the time of the Sumerians in the late sixth millennium, BCE. As recently as the mid-1970s the marshes encompassed six thousand square miles and supported a thriving community of 250,000–400,000 indigenous inhabitants. In the mid-1970s photographer Nik Wheeler documented their way of life, and his remarkable photographs from that era are the focus of Iraqi Marshlands Then and Now: Photographs by Nik Wheeler on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from December 14, 2008–March 22, 2009.
Commonly known as “Marsh Arabs,” the herding and fishing people of the Iraqi marsh region lived on islands made of mud and compacted reeds. Even their houses and community halls were made of reeds gathered from the marsh, creating the beautiful vernacular architecture captured in Wheeler’s photographs. Also on display are intimate scenes of everyday life in the area, along with majestic overview images of the region taken via aerial photography during Wheeler’s second trip there in 1975, when the government provided him with access to a Russian-built helicopter to tour the area.
In the 1980s Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s engineers began building massive canals to drain the marshes, ostensibly to bring development to the region but also as a means of controlling the local population. Following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Shiites of southern Iraq (who include the Marsh Arabs) rebelled against the Sunni-dominated regime. Hussein retaliated with a campaign to decimate the predominant Shiite indigenous population of the marshes, bombarding villages, killing livestock and mining the water with explosives. By the time he was overthrown in 2003, fewer than 80,000 people were left in the marshes and water covered less than twenty percent of the original area.
Efforts are now underway to rehabilitate a portion of the marshlands, and recent photographs by Mudhafar Salim show some of the early results. Salim is a researcher for Nature Iraq and senior author of the Arabic-language field guide Birds of Iraq.
About the photographer:
Nik Wheeler’s wide-ranging photographic career includes war coverage, international politics, and travel photography. He made his first trip to the marshes of Iraq in 1974, on an assignment for National Geographic. After the publication of that article, written by Gavin Young, Wheeler and Young collaborated on the book Return to the Marshes, published in 1977 by Collins. Wheeler is based in Santa Barbara, California.