Laputan Logic*
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

Marsh Arabs


A Sumerian reed house

A modern Iraqi reed house (called a mudhif)

Marshland (Hawr) in Southern Iraq

Sumerian creation myth

At that moment, on that day, and under that sun...
from the mouth of the waters running underground,
fresh waters ran out of the ground for her.
The waters rose up from it into her great basins.
Her city drank water aplenty from them.
Dilmun drank water aplenty from them.
Her pools of salt water indeed became pools of fresh water.
Her fields, glebe and furrows indeed produced grain for her.
Her city indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land.
Dilmun indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land.
At that moment, on that day, and under that sun,
so it indeed happened.

Enki and Ninhursanga c. 2500 BC

Shuruppak, a city that you surely know,
situated on the banks of the Euphrates,
that city was very old, and there were gods inside it.
The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood.
Their Father Anu uttered the oath of secrecy,
Valiant Enlil was their Adviser,
Ninurta was their Chamberlain,
Ennugi was their Minister of Canals.
Ea [Enki], the Clever Prince, was under oath with them
so he repeated their talk to the reed house:
'Reed house, reed house! Wall, wall!
O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu:
Tear down the house and build a boat!
Abandon wealth and seek living beings!
Spurn possessions and keep alive living beings!
Make all living beings go up into the boat.
The boat which you are to build,
its dimensions must measure equal to each other:
its length must correspond to its width.
Roof it over like the Apsu.
I understood and spoke to my lord, Ea:
'My lord, thus is the command which you have uttered
I will heed and will do it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI): The Story of the Flood
c. 700 BC but based on the much older myths of Ziusudra and Atrahasis.
Here's a summary of Atrahasis and a handy table with cross-references to the Noah flood myth.

The swamps are full of huge reeds, bordered with tamarisk jungles, and in its lower reaches, where the water stretches out into great marshes, the river is cloggedwith a growth of agrostis.

To obtain a correct idea of this-region it must be borne in mind also that the course of the river and the features of the country on both banks are subject to constant fluctuation. The Hindieh canal and the main stream, the ancient Sura, rejoin one another at Samawa. Down to this point, the bed of the Euphrates being higher than that of the Tigris, the canals run from the former to the latter, but below this the situation is reversed.

At Nasrieh the Shattel-Hal, at one time the bed of the Tigris, and still navigable during the greater part vf the year, joins the Euphrates. From this point downward, and to some extent above this as far as Samawa, the river forms a seccession of weedy lagoons of the most hopeless character, the Paludes Chaldaici of antiquity, el Batihlt of the Arabs. Along this part of its course the river is apt to be choked with reeds and, except where bordered by lines of palm trees, the channel loses itself in lakes and swamps.

The inhabitants of this region are wild and inhospitable and utterly beyond the control of the Turkish authorities, and navigation of the river between Korna and Suk-esh-Sheiukh is unsafe owing to the attacks of armed pirates.
Encyclopædia Britannica (1911 edition)

...the extensive marshes which cover the southern part of the Tigris-Euphrates delta also form a special district, widely different from the rest of Mesopotamia. With their myriads of shallow lakes, their narrow waterways winding through dense thickets of reeds, their fauna of water-buffalos, wild boars and wild birds, their mosquitos and their stifling heat, they constitute one of the most strange, forbidding and fascinating regions of the world. Although they may have varied in extent and configuration, anicient monuments and texts prove that they have always existed, and indeed, the Ma'dan, or marsh-Arabs, appear to have preserved to some extent the way of life of the early Sumerians established on the fringe of the swamps more than five thousand years ago.

From an archaeological point of view, the Iraqi marshes are still largely terra incognita. Reports from travellers suggest that traces of ancient settlements are exceedingly rare, probably because they consisted of reed-hut villages similar to those of today, which have completely disappeared or lie buried beneath several feet of mud and water. It is hoped, however, that modern methods - such as the use of helecopters - will eventually open to exploration a region which is by no means lacking in historical interest.

Above 'Akaikah: Reed huts and brick building next to Euphrates channel. View from water
Photo taken by Gertrude Bell in 1918

Aerial view of a Ma'dan ("Marsh Arab") floating village near Nasiriya

A Ma'dan village

Inside a mudhif

View from the top of a mudhif
These photos were taken in 1974 by Nik Wheeler


Marsh Arabs Part II


Continued from Part I of this article
In 1968, archaeologists digging at the mound of al-Hiba in Iraq were struck by the fact that the people living in the surrounding area depended on many of the same resources, and seemed to use them in the same way, as the people who had lived there in the 3rd millennium BC. So while archaeological excavations continued, they initiated an ethnographic study of the modern villages around the mound. The ethnoarchaeology project was carried out under my direction and lasted twenty years. Its goal was to cast light on the use of locally available raw materials, and on the function and manufacturing technology of the same or similar artifacts in antiquity. The materials we focused on were mud or clay, reeds, wood, cattle, and sheep. We eventually added bitumen–a natural tarlike hydrocarbon–to the list because it appeared so often in conjunction with wood, reeds, and mud in the villages, as well as in the archaeological record. There was abundant evidence that many of the details of village life had parallels in the archaeological record. We hoped that knowing how people in the present day made and used the objects they needed for survival could help us make sense of the isolated bits of archaeological evidence and weave them into a coherent tapestry of ancient life.

The 2-mile-long mound of al-Hiba was in antiquity the ancient city-state of Lagash (see map on p. 3). It stood on the edge of a permanent marsh bordering a tributary of the Tigris, in southern Iraq, and lay about 75 kilometers north of Ur. Like Ur, Lagash was a major Sumerian city. It reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III period (2600-2350 BC), at the same time as the Royal Cemetery of Ur was in use. At that time Lagash was the capital of the Sumerian empire and probably the largest early Sumerian city.

The early years of the project were marked by the on-going removal of the sheikhs (local hereditary leaders) by the central government of Iraq. As a result of the inevitable disruption in the management of the farmlands, these were times of unbelievable poverty for the people of al-Hiba. With the draining of the marshlands initiated in 1992, many thousands of marshland residents moved deeper into the swamps or fled to Iran. The way of life that we documented, and that I describe briefl y here, no longer exists in the area around al-Hiba.

MUDHIF UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure. From studying the physical properties of reeds used today, we have learned a great deal about the details of their use in the past.

CARVED GYPSUM TROUGH FROM URUK. Two lambs exit a reed structure identical to the present-day mudhif on this ceremonial trough from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. Neither the leaves or plumes have been removed from the reeds which are tied together to form the arch. As a result, the crossed-over, leathered reeds create a decorative pattern along the length of the roof, a style most often seen in modern animal shelters built by the Mi'dan. Dating to ca. 3000 BC, the trough documents the extraordinary length of time such arched reed buildings have been in use.

Life on the Edge of the Marshes, Edward Ochsenschlager, 1998

"Fire in a reed house cannot be extinguished!"

Gilgamesh and Huwawa