By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s a prospect as daunting as it is exciting. “We have no idea what’s really there,” explained Azzam. Since 1979, no data have been published on the state of the marshes, and no outside scientist has been allowed to visit. They’re flying blind, or, as Suzie likes to say, “operating in a data-free environment.” As striking as satellite imagery can be, you need physical samples to tell you about things like the toxicity of the soil or how much water flow might be available.
“We need information,” explains Azzam, laughing to himself at the staggering amount of information he means by this. Environmental restoration on this scale is unprecedented, and Azzam knows Eden Again has to be extremely cautious, because rash measures could make it worse. To simply undo the Hussein-era dikes and dams,for example, and indiscriminately re-flood the wetlands could be a disaster. When a body of water stagnates and then evaporates, it leaves a layer of salt and whatever other chemicals it might contain on the surface. “Just putting water back into a salt pan would create a supersaline solution that would bleach whatever it touched downstream,” Azzam explained.
The official report published by Eden Again last month posits some hopeful restoration scenarios, but acknowledges that the first order of business is to assess, take many samples, and from there build a specific plan to re-introduce water to a test area by the start of the autumn floods this November. “There are so many questions,” Azzam said, preparing, as only technical specialists can, to enumerate them: “What is the topography? What animals are left? Where are the mines? What pollutants are there? Selenium would be a problem. Is the soil too acidic?” There is even a scenario where successive water releases could create a wash of sulfuric acid. “All of this we have to answer,” Azzam ruminated, “just to be able to ask, ‘Now, where do we begin?’”
The headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are in Turkey. The Tigris starts 15,000 feet up the slope of Mount Ararat, flows south past a little strip of Syrian border and then on into Iraq. Nearby, the Euphrates follows suit, taking a more southern path and cutting through Syria proper. They meet up a couple of thousand miles away, southeast of Baghdad, at the other end of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial plain, where they break apart, fanning out into a complex of distributaries that feed the wetlands and an adjacent agricultural region.
It was here that the Sumerians invented irrigation and started growing barley and wheat. And where writing first appeared — one of the earliest examples of which was a recipe for beer made from Sumerian barley and dedicated to the beer goddess Ninkasi. It’s also the place where Gilgamesh roamed; where Abraham was born; where the inspiration for the Garden of Eden may have originated. What seems like ancient history was preserved for millennia, in situ, by the Ma’dan, a tribe that maintained the traditional culture of the marshes. The vaulted reed architecture of contemporary Ma’dan villages is identical to those carved in bas-relief on 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablets. Same thing with the mash’hoof, the canoes used to traverse the waters: The ones depicted in clay and manned by those guys with the curly beards that we’re familiar with from Mesopotamian architecture are the very same as those in recent photos of the Ma’dan. Theirs, incredibly, is an unbroken cultural heritage from the days of ancient Sumer.
“It is like no place else,” said Ramadan Albadran, a collaborator on Eden Again who grew up in the marshes, near the Ma’dan. He described his life there, living in a reed house, fishing, hunting boar, picking figs, apples and apricots from trees right outside the windows, sleeping on the roof in the summertime. He described how once one of his relatives had the flu, and within a few hours there were a dozen well-wishers at his side, neighbors, friends, all of whom had made the trip by boat. “In the marsh, there is a saying,” Ramadan said. “‘Here you understand the difference between modernized and civilized.’ It’s a place where you have everything you need. It really is Eden.”
Or so it was. In a few short years, the marsh and its culture have all but disappeared. The first major insult to the marshes was in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. One section of the marsh sits on the border, and each side cleared large swaths to create staging grounds for attacks. But the fatal blow came in the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein launched a vicious campaign against the entire region, land and people alike.
When Hussein gave orders to drain the swamp, it wasn’t meant as a metaphor. His chief weapon was hydro-engineering: Teams began working nonstop to build a network of locks, dikes, earth embankments, and colossal diversionary canals with titles like the Crown of Battles and Fidelity to Our Leader. So much water was re-routed that one canal, the so-called Prosperity River, runs four miles wide. Where water remained, it was poisoned with cyanide. Reed beds were destroyed with napalm. In the end, almost half a million people were displaced or killed. It was, as human-rights observers noted, a startlingly efficient example of ecocide as genocide.