The reed houses that form part of the distinctive culture of the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, of southeastern Iraq are an architectural achievement because they result from pushing available resources to their limits. Descended partly from the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, this seminomadic people, now numbering perhaps 200,000, have for millennia inhabited Lake Hammar and the surrounding marshlands in the Tigris-Euphrates Delta, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Not only have they developed a sophisticated house form using a single building material—the stalks of the prolific giant reed (Fragmites communis)—but they have also created the very land upon which their houses and farmsteads stand.
The Ma’dan villages are irregular clusters of small islands constructed by alternating layers of reed mats and layers of mud dredged from the marsh bottom. Thus, paradoxically, much of the fertile land is actually floating on the water. Each island has its house and buffalo paddock, and communication between them is by means of narrow canoes (mashuf) of bitumen-coated wood, propelled through the shallow water with long poles. The Ma’dan fish, hunt waterfowl and pigs, breed water buffalo, and raise crops of paddy rice and great millet. Many domestic necessities—beds, cots, baskets, and canoe poles—are woven from reeds. In short, until recently the Ma’dan have lived in harmony with the ecosystem of their harsh but bountiful environment.
The reed house (mudhif) is constructed around a framework made by tying the giant reeds—they can grow to 20 feet (6 meters) long—to make bundles that taper from about 1.5 feet to 6 inches (45 to 15 centimeters). The thick ends are stuck into the mud floor of the island in opposing pairs and then bent and lashed together, with a substantial overlap at the top, to form a row of parallel parabolic arches, at about 6-foot (2-meter) centers. The builders even use a tripod of bundled reeds as scaffolding for this part of the work. The primary frames are stabilized with closely spaced, much thinner reed bundles (like purlins) around the perimeter of the house. The completed framework is covered with intricately woven split-reed mats to form the integrated walls and roof. The upper parts of the end walls are enclosed with a curtain of the same material, and four or five reed “columns” are erected to support a framework to which a decorative lattice is fixed, always to beautiful effect. Depending on the length of the reeds used for the arches, the house can be 12 feet (3.7 meters) wide; the length is indeterminate, and buildings up to 100 feet (30 meters) have been recorded. Furnishings are sparse: the reed floors are covered with carpets, and there is a clay hearth for making coffee. The distinctive house form has a long pedigree,
being illustrated on a clay plaque dating from the fourth millennium b.c. found in excavations of Sumerian Uruk. That fact, and the appearance of vegetable forms in stone, such as Egyptian papyrus and lotus columns, has given rise to the speculation that all columnar architecture in the protohistoric civilizations (and perhaps beyond) springs from such construction.
The unique culture of the Marsh Arabs is in danger; indeed, it may already be beyond help. Largely as a result of their isolation, they have maintained their traditions and were untouched even by Turkish and British colonialism. Because of high evaporation, the marshes have long been regarded as wasteful of water that could be used for irrigation; a major drainage scheme was proposed in a 1951 report drafted by British engineers commissioned by the Iraqi government. In the 1970s Turkey dammed the Euphrates. But the Ma’dan’s problems started in earnest after 1980, during the Iran-Iraq War. Within two years Iran regained the territory, including the marshlands, taken earlier by Iraq. The marsh dwellers fled as the Iraqi army sent enormous electrical currents through the water to electrocute invading Iranian soldiers. Saddam Hussein’s unrelenting destruction continued after the war.
Following Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, southern Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims launched a guerrilla offensive against his Sunni Muslim government. The uprising was crushed, and many rebels sought refuge in the marshes, supported by the Ma’dan, who are also Shi’ite. To flush them out, in 1992 Saddam began to drain the region systematically, using the 1951 British report. Within a year a network of 20-foot-high (6-meter) dikes was preventing two-thirds of the normal water flow from reaching the marshlands, thus turning much of it into expanses of dried mud. Between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, the man-made Saddam River carried floodwaters directly to the Persian Gulf. A third of Lake Hammar dried up, and thousands of Marsh Arabs moved deeper into the surviving wetlands or fled to Iran and elsewhere. Some sources estimate that fewer than 10,000 remain in Iraq, recognized as a “persecuted minority” by the European Parliament, to pursue their traditional lifestyle. To compound the offense of ethnocide, Saddam’s actions have caused probably irreversible environmental damage. International organizations such as the UN Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the International Wildfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau have been watching in alarm, but have been powerless to act.