The Mesopotamian Venice: The Lost Floating Homes of Iraq


There’s a lot of talk nowadays about how to live more sustainably, but what surprises me is how complicated people choose to make this process. If you really want to live in a sustainable home and lead a sustainable lifestyle, you need not look too further – just go back to the roots. Sadly, the world right now is on the brink of a cultural amnesia. A language is dying every two weeks, urbanization is taking momentum once more and every nation’s heritage is slowly eroding away.  One needs only to learn about the Ma’dan to understand what I’m jabbering about.


The Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs inhabit the marshy area at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. They are a seminomadic tribal people with their own distinct culture, whose way of life has changed very little in the past couple thousand years. They’re called Arabs of the marsh because they live in marshes created by the annual flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Their whole way of life revolves around the marshes – they live in floating houses made entirely of reeds harvested from the open water and Qasab , a kind of giant grass that looks like bamboo, which can grow as tall as 25 feet (7.6 meters).


The islands on which the Ma’dan build their elaborate floating houses are called tuhul, and while they might look stable, they aren’t. The ground is very soggy and villagers often need to anchor their islands to avoid drifting into a neighbor.


Ma’dan houses are architectural marvels – all built without any nails, wood or glass. It takes as little as three days to build a house, using a method that has remained unchanged for the thousands of years since these people have inhabited the marshes.


Houses built of reeds had the additional advantage of being portable. In the spring, if the marsh waters rose too high, a five-arched raba could be taken down, moved to higher ground, and re-erected in less than a day. With proper care and repair, reed dwellings could last for well over 25 years.

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Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure.

Almost every village has a guest house, or a mudhif. In fact, since the Ma’dan follow  the traditional Arab code of honor, they welcome all guests as equal. They provide food and housing without expecting or accepting any payment. A host never helps to carry a guest’s belongings out of the house because that would imply that the host wanted the guest to leave. It’s this rare display of hospitality – one that may have brought their demise.


In the late 20th century, during Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Ma’dan were persecuted because the government found the marshes and their floating reed homes housed dissidents. In the past, the same marshes were a place of refuge for escaped slaves and serfs, and abiding the code of hospitality as they do, the Ma’dan could never say no to a stranger in need.

The ultimate punishment for their defiance came during the 1991 uprising in Iraq. Then, Saddam Hussein ordered that the wetlands of southern Iraq be drained to serve as a  lesson for the Ma’dan who housed militiamen the government regarded as terrorists.  To this end, the government recommissioned a 1970s irrigation project that had previously been shutdown because it was disrupting the flow of water to the marshes.

The “solution” was effective. Quickly, the marshes were drained, food became scarce and the Ma’dan were forced out of their homes and lands. What little water remained was reportedly poisoned.

Only 1,600 of of the nearly half million Marsh Arabs recorded in the 1950s were estimated to still be living in the traditional housing in the new millenium.


It’s a sad story, but the ending need not be so, too. After the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the dikes that had blocked water flowing to the marshlands were broken. The same years, a four-year drought came to an end – a coincidence that help restore the wetlands to 50% of its size it had been in the 1970s. The ecosystem needs a lot more time to recover, and as for the Arabs they’ve long moved on. Many live now in the cities, and their children know nothing of their people’s old ways. There might still be hope.

Nature Iraq, founded by an Iraqi-American hydraulic engineer who gave up his life in California to help restore the country’s lost garden of eden, is leading efforts with financial support from the United States, Canada, Japan, and Italy. Already, him and a group of old Ma’dan people have rebuilt a  traditional mudhif, to demonstrate how these alternative, low-cost and sustainable buildings are still as viable today as they ever were. You see, going back to the point I was trying to make at the beginning of the piece, we need not necessarily complicate ourselves with smart materials, solar panels or what-not sensors. Of course, if you want Wifi and a sustainable home, be my guest. But the point is, people knew how to live sustainably already thousands of years ago. This isn’t a new thing and there’s so much we can learn from the Ma’dan. My best wishes go to these noble people, unfortunate enough to live in a still war torn country. Join me – these people need all your blessings!