The 'Garden of Eden' Becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Iraqi marshes just received the official designation.

The Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya (Saad Shalash / Reuters)

NEWS BRIEF Iraq’s marshlands, which lie in the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are believed to be the inspiration for the Bible’s Garden of Eden. The wetlands once spread 3,500 square miles, but Saddam Hussein drained most of the water in the 1990s in order to choke out a rebel group. It has slowly recovered since, and on Sunday was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The announcement means the land and animals in it will receive international protections. The marshlands, also called Ahwar, are made up of seven sites: three archaeological ruins and four wetlands marshes that represent one of the world’s largest inland deltas. The area is home to the Maʻdān, or Marsh Arabs.

As Reuters reported:

The Marsh Arabs have lived in the wetlands for millennia, but are on the fringes of Iraqi society. A study put their population at 400,000 in the 1950s but several hundred thousand fled Saddam's repression or become economic migrants.

Estimates of the numbers returning vary wildly. Many Marsh Arabs are illiterate and have struggled to find work outside the marshes.

The water in the marsh had been irrigated and dammed for decades, but especially so during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s. In retribution for an uprising, Saddam drained the wetlands, forcing the Marsh Arabs to move away, and shrinking the wetlands to 290 square miles.

The wetlands, which supports about 40 species of birds, is an important migratory stop as they fly from Siberia to Africa. In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, locals destroyed many of the dams Saddam built, and the water returned. More than 40 percent of the wetlands have now been re-established.