The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities

N31 33 44 E47 39 28
Date of Inscription: 2016
Criteria: (iii)(v)(ix)(x)
Property : 211,544 ha
Buffer zone: 209,321 ha
Ref: 1481
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The Ahwar is made up of seven components: three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh areas in southern Iraq. The archaeological cities of Uruk and Ur and the Tell Eridu archaeological site form part of the remains of the Sumerian cities and settlements that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BCE in the marshy delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq – also known as the Iraqi Marshlands – are unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.

The Ahwar of Southern Iraq evolved as part of the wider alluvial plain during the final stage of the alpine tectonic movement, which also led to the creation of the Zagros Mountains. Several factors intertwined to shape the property including; tectonic movements, climatic changes, river hydrology dynamics, precipitation variation, and changes in sea level. The sea level variation and the climatic changes had a significant role in influencing the quantity and quality of water entering the Ahwar through rivers and their branches, in addition to advancement and regression of the sea and intrusion during dry to semi-dry to wet conditions during the last 18,000 years.

Between 5000 and 3000 BC, sea water level reached its maximum extent some 200 km inland of the present coastline with marshes stretching further inland. The marshy and moving landscape of this deltaic plain was the heartland where the first cities flourished. Uruk, Ur and Eridu, the three cultural components of the property, were originally situated on the margins of freshwater marshes and developed into some of the most important urban centres of southern Mesopotamia. These cities saw the origin of writing, monumental architecture in the form of mudbrick temples and ziggurats, and complex technologies and societies. A vast corpus of cuneiform texts and archaeological evidence testifies to the centrality of the marshes for the economy, worldview and religious beliefs of successive cultures in southern Mesopotamia.

Starting in 2000 BC, the sea regressed towards the south. This led to another climatic change towards a more arid environment leading to the drying up of the ancient marshes and in turn to the decline of the great cities of southern Mesopotamia. Today the mudbrick ruins of Uruk, Ur and Eridu are dominated by the remains of ziggurats which still stand within the arid but striking landscape of the desiccated alluvial plain.

With the regression of the sea water, new marshes formed to the southeast. The main marshes of the Ahwar as we know them today were formed during this period around 3,000 years ago.

The Huwaizah, East and West Hammar and Central Marshes of the Ahwar are predominantely fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The Huwaizah Marshes component is a unique freshwater system, receiving high water quantities from floods and limited amounts of seasonal rain which descends from the northern and north-eastern heights. Concurrently, it is the sole natural component that was not drastically drained in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to the salvation of its key ecological elements. This led it to become the primary refuge for many of the key bird species of African and Indian origin in the Middle East, which have since spread back to other components after the reflooding took place in early 2000s.

The Central Marshes component comprises today’s ecological core of the Ahwar. Being distinctive for its extensive ecosystems, it provides a vast habitat for many of the viable populations of taxa of high biodiversity and conservation importance.

The East and West Hammar Marshes components embrace a particular ecological phenomenon in contrast to the other components. Here, the salt water from the sea progresses inland affected on one side by tidal movements in the southern-most regions of marshes, while on the other side, pushing its way into the extended desert to the southeast. This creates very specific ecological conditions with marine fish species utilizing the area for reproduction in the East Hammar, while the West Hammar comprises the last stopover area for millions of migrating birds before entering the vast Arabian Desert.

Criterion (iii): The remains of the Mesopotamian cities of Uruk, Ur and Eridu offer an outstanding testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of southern Mesopotamian urban centres and societies from the Ubaid and Sumerian periods until the Babylonian and Hellenistic periods. The three cities were major religious, political, economic and cultural centres which emerged and grew during a period of profound change in human history. These three components of the property bear witness to the contribution of southern Mesopotamian cultures to the development of ancient Near Eastern urbanized societies and the history of mankind as a whole: the construction of monumental public works and structures in the form of ziggurats, temples, palaces, city walls, and hydraulic works; a class structured society reflected in the urban layout which included royal tombs and palaces, sacred precincts, public storehouses, areas dedicated to industries, and extensive residential neighbourhoods; the centralized control of resources and surplus which gave rise to the first writing system and administrative archives; and conspicuous consumption of imported goods. This exceptionally creative period in human history left its marks across place and time.

Criterion (v): The remains of the ancient cities of Uruk, Ur and Eridu, today in the desert but originally situated near freshwater marshes which receded or became saline before drying up, best exemplify the impact of the unstable deltaic landscape of the Tigris and Euphrates upon the rise and fall of large urban centres. Testimonies of this relict wetland landscape are found today in the cities’ topography as traces of shallow depressions which held permanent or seasonal marshes, dry waterways and canal beds, and settlement mounds formed upon what were once islets surrounded by marsh water. Architectural elements, archaeological evidence and an important corpus of cuneiform texts further document how the landscape of wetlands contributed to shaping the religious beliefs, cultic practices, and literary and artistic expressions of successive cultures in southern Mesopotamia.

Criterion (ix): The Huwaizah, East and West Hammar and Central Marshes demonstrate internationally significant ecological succession processes in one of the most arid inland deltas in the world, and contain a high degree of speciation in a relatively young ecosystem. It is one of the largest West Eurasian-Caspian-Nile staging points and wintering grounds for ducks as well as a major stopover point for shorebirds flying along the West Asian-East African flyway. It is also significant for the migration of fish and shrimp species from the Persian Gulf to the marshlands, with most of the fish species demonstrating diadromous characteristics (migratory between salt and fresh waters).

Criterion (x): The Huwaizah, East and West Hammar and Central Marshes contain highly important and significant habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including endemic, and restricted range species, and numerous populations of threatened species.

This includes bird species (e.g. the endemic Basra Reed Warbler and Iraq Babbler, restricted range subspecies of the Little Grebe, Black Francolin and Hooded Crow and the vulnerable Marbled Teal), mammals (e.g. the endemic Bunn’s Short-tailed Bandicot Rat, a subspecies of the Smooth-coated Otter, and the range-restricted Mesopotamian Gerbil and Euphrates Jerboa), as well as 6 range-restricted fish species. The property provides habitat for several reptiles including the Euphrates Soft-shell Turtle, an endangered species that is only known from a few localities in Iraq and Iran, and Murray’s Comb-fingered Gecko which has a restricted range limited to the Ahwar, Shatt AI Arab and the Iranian western shores. The marshes also provide habitat for relict populations of three bird species (the African Darter, the Sacred Ibis, and the Goliath Heron) that are thousands of kilometres away from their core global populations in Africa.

Suggested Bases:

Basra is a port city in Southern Iraq, close to the border with Kuwait and Iran. It is Iraq’s third largest city with a population of 2,150,000 (2017). Founded at the beginning of the Islamic era in 636, Basra became a flourishing commercial and cultural center from around 1200 and has remained so onwards. Situated along the Shatt al-Arab river, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the city’s many canals and creeks once gave rise to the epithet Venice of the East. The fields along the river has is very fertile with agriculture being a major source of income for the region. Basra and its surroundings was particularity known for having the world’s largest forest of date palms. The last few decades have, however, been rough for Basra as it was the closest major city to the front lines of the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s, with parts of the city destroyed by artillery fire [read more].

Nasiriyah is a city in Southern Iraq. It the closest major settlement to the prehistoric city of Ur. Nasiriyah was founded in 1872 and became a major center of trade in Ottoman Iraq. The areas around the city is the ancestral home of many Mandaeans, an ethnoreligious group that were probably the first to practice baptism and are the last surviving Gnostics from antiquity. Today, only a few hundred families remains. Nasiriyah has a station on the railway between Baghdad and Basra. Iraqi Republic Railways runs two overnight trains which both calls here. There’s also irregular trains to and from Karbala, especially during religious holidays [read more].

Hillah is in Southern Iraq. Hillah is the nearest city to the ruins of Babylon, which are 5 km north of the city. It is the capital of Babylon Province and has a population of about 456,000 (2018). The city was once a major centre of Islamic scholarship and education. The tomb of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel is reputed to be in a nearby village, Al Kifl. It became a major administrative centre during the rule of the Ottoman and British Empires. In the 19th century, the Hilla branch of the Euphrates started to silt up and much agricultural land was lost to drought, but this process was reversed by the construction of the Hindiya Barrage in 1911–1913, which diverted water from the deeper Hindiya branch of the Euphrates into the Hilla canal. In 1920 during an uprising against the British, there was heavy fighting when 300 men of the Manchester Regiment were apparently defeated in the city [read more].

2 replies »

  1. The first thing I do when I visit the marshes is to eat the bread the locals make there and eat the fish they catch. The marshes are still extremely beautiful.


  2. There are people who go to the mountains or to cities but the marshes have a special magic. They are so natural and untouched. That’s why I came.


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