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Mesopotamian Marshes: Culture, Prehistory, and Ecological Restoration

Mesopotamian Marshes: Culture, Prehistory, and Ecological Restoration
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The Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq and Iran are currently undergoing a huge restoration. Important to numerous civilizations in Asia, Africa and Europe, they flourished for, at least, several thousand years. During Saddam Hussein’s administration, they all but disappeared. Now both restoration activities, cultural resurgence and geoarchaeological investigations are occurring there.

This article discusses the prehistory, then the modern history and draining of the wetlands. Finally, it will discuss the restoration briefly. Linked below is a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Nature website with slide shows, articles, information, Azzam Alwash’s efforts and the Nature video on the restoration (which is REALLY good). Before we dive into the prehistory, however, location is essential.

Location and Other Bits about the Mesopotamian Marshes

The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers feed the Mesopotamian Marshes, a landscape which covers the far southeastern portion of Iraq and spills a little over into far southeastern Iran. Well, it did until Saddam Hussein’s administration changed that (more on that later). The wetland once covered 15,000 square kilometers (km [9,320 square miles {mi}]). Many believe that it was the cradle of Western civilization (Richardson and Hussain 2006:477-478).

Mesopotamian Marshes Prehistory

It should be noted, that much of this information is gleaned from very old information. Mesopotamia is not my specialty; but from what I’ve read, archaeologists and historians would like modern studies to confirm the information they have. That said, here goes:

Paleolithic (Glacial Periods lasting from about 500,000  to 8,500 B.C. [Heise 1996a]: mostly hunter/foraging activity): Yep…lots older than many parts of the world.

Huge depressions in the marshes, such as Hawr Habbaniyah, Bahr al Milh, and Malihat ath Tharthar, are believed to be related to the paleo-Euphrates system of this time (Zarins 1992:56).

9000 B.C to 5000 B.C

Yes there is overlap with the above time frame. The overlap between 9000 and 8,500 B.C. concerns cultural development occurring during the glacial period.

Camps are mostly in mountainous terrain and valleys where game is. Repeatedly occupied campsites transform into isolated settlements.They show some domestication of plants and animals. Occupation is never on alluvial plains (Heise 1996a).

CORRECTED: 6000 to 5000 B.C.

Very little is known about this time period. Like everywhere around the world, the sea level fluctuated quite a bit during the last 10,000 years.

Correction: The original stated:”From 6000 to 5000 B.C., it was approximately 10 meters (m) above present mean sea level (msl) (originally said below as Zarins’ document claims – probably a typo). It has been approximated that this put the shoreline 100 to 150 km inland from its current location, which may have placed the Sumerian centers of Ur and Eridu on the coast (they are now quite a bit inland). I think it should be know that no hardcore, systematic geoarchaeological have been completed of this ancient shoreline (Zarins 1992:57-60).”

Correction Explanation: As commentor, Bill Lee, pointed out (comments below post), sea level rose during this time. I checked with additional references (including Rice 2002:76) in addition to the ones he provided (linked in his comments and our references [Lambeck et al. 1995]. He has also provided an older reference). This makes sense regarding the coastal locations of Ur and Eridu, and jives with the sea -level rise in the rest of the world.

However, studies are in process about sites within the wetlands now, though mainly from sites dated 5000 B.C. to Islamic times (National Science Foundation 2011).

5000 B.C. to 3200 B.C.

Those geoarchaeological studies will probably make very interesting discoveries. Previous investigations found a very dynamic landscape, with sites  appearing and disappearing between 5000 and 3200 B.C. These changes in habitation coincided with appearance and disappearance of water, sometimes with completely submerged areas (Zarin 1992:60-67).

Between 4000 and 3000 B.C., the area underwent a relatively cold and dry period. This corresponded with the growth of cities and increased household complexity (Heisse 1996a; Zarin 1992: 68-79).

3000 B.C. to A.D. 100 (both approximate)

Both Sumerians and Akkadians lived in the region during this millenium of city development, though it looks to be mostly Sumerian in southern Mesopotamia (correct me if I’m wrong). Gilgamesh and other stories, which shaped western civilization come from this period (Heisse 1996b). Writing appeared in the form of clay tokens in Sumerian society. These eventually developed into the cuneiform writing system, which appeared on clay tablets (Lo 1996-2012a). Though vastly different languages, both Akkadian and Sumerian texts were used until approximately 100 B.C. (Lo 1996-2012b).

138 B.C. to A.D 636ish

The Parthian, then Sassian, empires of Iran ruled the area. They connected the area east and west, and brought themselves to the attention of Rome and later empires (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2000-2011a).

A.D 630s and 640s

Arab armies conquer Mesopotamia. Islam enters the region (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2000-2011b).

A.D. 1950s to Present

DESTRUCTION: Of course, a lot happened between the 640s and 1950, but most of what I read occurred far to the north of the marshes, so I’m starting at their demise. During the 1950s, drainage began to assist agriculture (Partow 2001:22). Saddam Hussein’s administration continued drainage throughout his regime. During this time, his regime killed tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs living in the Mesopotamian Marshes, and displaced at least 75,000 more. Less than 10% of the marshes existed as functioning wetlands by the year 2000 (Richardson and Hussain 2006:477).

REHABILITATION: Marsh restoration work began as soon as the regime ended in 2003. Marsh Arabs breached some obstructions. Scientists began to monitor wildlife, soil and water. Efforts are being made to reconnect the landscape. They experience setbacks (Richardson and Hussain 2006:477-487). It is a huge job, and there continue to be local, state-level and global dangers, but they seem to be making lovely progress.

Links

Related Posts

References

Heise, John

1996a   Section 2, Chapter 2 of John Heise’s Akkadian Language, maintained and updated by John Heise. Electronic document, http://www.sron.nl/~jheise/akkadian/prehistory.html, accessed January 22, 2012.

1996b   Section 3, Chapter 2 of John Heise’s Akkadian Language, maintained and updated by John Heise. Electronic document, http://www.sron.nl/~jheise/akkadian/Welcome_mesopotamia.html, accessed January 22, 2012.

Lambeck, K., P. Johnston, C. Smither, K. Fleming and Y. Yokoyama
1995 Late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change. In Geodynamics. In Extract from RSES annual Report 1995. The Australian National University. Electronic document, http://rses.anu.edu.au/geodynamics/AnnRep/95/AR-Geod95.html, accessed July 9, 2013.

Lo, Lawrence

1996-2012a   Sumerian. AncientScripts.com. Electronic document, http://www.ancientscripts.com/sumerian.html, accessed January 22, 2012.

1996-2012b   Akkadian. AncientScripts.com. Electronic document, http://www.ancientscripts.com/akkadian.html, accessed January 22, 2012.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

2000-2011a   Mesopotamia, 1-500 A.D. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Electronic document, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=05&region=wam, accessed January 22, 2012.

2000-2011b   Mesopotamia, 500-1000 A.D. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Electronic document, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=06&region=wam#/Key-Events, accessed January 22, 2012.

National Science Foundation

2011   Archaeologists Investigate Iraqi Marshes for Origins of Mesopotamian Cities (Press Release 11-066 on April 21, 2011). United States National Science Foundation. Electronic document, http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=119138, accessed January 22, 2012.

Partow, Hassan

2001   Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem. UNEP. Electronic document, http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/1000/1716/mesopotamia.pdf, accessed January 22, 2012.

Rice, Michael
2002 The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf. Routledge.

Richardson, Curtis J. and Najah A. Hussain

2006   Restoring the Garden of Eden: an Ecological Assessment of the Marshes of Iraq. BioScience 56(6):477-489. Electronic document, http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/resources/B060601.pdf, accessed January 15, 2012.

Zarins, Juris

1992   The Early Settlement of southern Mesopotamia: a Review of Recent Historical, Geological, and Archaeological Research. The Journal of the American Oriental Society 112(1):55-77. Electronic document, http://faculty.ksu.edu.sa/archaeology/Publications/General/S.%20Near%20East.pdf, accessed January 15, 2012.

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Mesopotamian Marshes: Culture, Prehistory, and Ecological Restoration by Shari Maria Silverman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


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2 Comments

  1. Mesopotamian Marshes: Culture, Prehistory, and Ecological Restoration
    From 6000 to 5000 B.C., it was approximately 10 meters (m) below present mean sea level (msl). It has been approximated that this put the shoreline 100 to 150 km inland from its current location, which may have placed the Sumerian centers of Ur and Eridu on the coast .

    Hi, If sea level was lower the coast would be further away, not further inland? Was it not a seal level rise,
    There was a rise in sea levels from glacial melt water, which resulted in a rise of around 40 metres between circa 12,000 and 9000 BC.

    the Persian Gulf which was land until being transformed by rising sea levels around 10,500 BC, when water poured in to cover the land, it was a gradual change over many centuries, the southern and northern sides of the Gulf remained dry until about 7000 years BC.(27). It slowly filled until reaching its peak around 3000 BC (28). It is now a shallow sea with an average depth of 35 metres.
    ref 27.Research within the Geodynamics Group. Extract from RSES annual Report 1995. http://rses.anu.edu.au/geodynamics/AnnRep/95/AR-Geod95.html
    ref 28.’On the Geographical Position of as Yet Unexplored Early Mesopotamian Cultures’ at http://www.jstor.org/pss/602664
    Regards
    Bill

    • Hi Bill: Thank you for the corrections and links! I’ll alter the post’s context as I go through both my sources and yours. I love to learn more about these subjects.

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