‘Garden of Eden’ Among New World Heritage Sites

By The Stream Published on July 20, 2016

The marsh said to be the site of the Garden of Eden, the Ahwar of southern Iraq, has been named one of eight new World Heritage Sites. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee selected it and the other sites at the end of its 40th meeting this week. It has both ecological and historical importance.

The Ahwar, also called the Iraqi Marshes, lie at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and some, explained the German magazine Der Spiegel (which provides the best single source for information about the marsh), describe the area

as the cradle of civilization. The Mesopotamians settled in the fertile region in the fifth millenium B.C., and within a few centuries it had become the site of an advanced Sumerian civilization. Scholars believe that cuneiform was invented in the region, as were literature, mathematics, metallurgy, ceramics and the sailboat.

The new site is, in UNESCO’s description, “made up of seven sites: 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 marshes, the largest wetlands in the Middle East, came to international notice in the 1990s, when the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein had them drained in response to an uprising, reducing them from 3,500 square miles to 290. (He gave the new canals names like “Saddam River” and “Loyalty to the Leader Canal.”) The U.N. described the effect as “a major ecological disaster.”

After the American invasion in 2003, the natives destroyed many of Hussein’s dams and let the canals begin to silt up. About 40% of the marshes have been restored in the 13 years since and Iraq plans to restore the marsh to about two-thirds of the original size.

The marshes have been home for millennia to the Madan, or Marsh Arabs. Victims of oppression from Hussein, not least from the destruction of the marshes that providing their homes and living, they reportedly numbered about 400,000 in the 1950s, but most have left the area, especially after the draining of the marshes. An unknown number have returned.

Among the other new World Historical Sites are the Hubei Shennongjia, the largest primary forest in Central China; Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, which has the greatest collection of large fossils in the world; and the Ennedi Massif in Chad, a sandstone plateau with a large collection of images painted and carved into the rock. To be chosen, sites must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet one of ten criteria, such as being “a masterpiece of human creative genius” or “having superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.”

An interaction map of World Heritage Sites can be found here.

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