All around them, a vast wilderness stretches to the horizon. Daoud makes a loud, throaty sound, and his buffalo turns back to look at its master. “See? It recognizes me,” he says, a smile splitting his tanned, wrinkled face, before he ducks back into the one-room reed house where other family members are sitting around fresh bread, sweetened buffalo milk, and hot tea. For the buffalo herders of Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes (also known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq), it’s always teatime.
Located in southeastern Iraq, the Mesopotamian Marshes—consisting of three distinct, neighboring wetlands called Hammar, Central, and Hawizeh—are an oasis in the middle of the desert. Together, they fluctuate around 3,000 square kilometers. As far as the eye can see: dark, greenish water; emerald reeds; black buffaloes; and white egrets. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities Ur, Uruk, and Eridu are not far. Between the fourth and third millennia BCE, they developed into some of the most important urban centers in Mesopotamia and saw the early development of writing, monumental architecture, and complex societies, causing some scholars to declare the area the cradle of civilization. The Bible locates the Garden of Eden nearby and, as night falls on the marshes, it is difficult to imagine a more peaceful place—far from Iraq’s usual turmoil of fighting and bombings.
Photo: Hassan Janali/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CC0)