Field Photography, 1934

Marsh Arabs of Iraq

Sheikh Falih al-Saihud, Al bu-Muhammid Tribe, 1934. Henry Field Collection. PM 53-26-60/15921.321.

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq

October 21, 2004–February 28, 2005

Now Available Online!

Field Photography, The Marsh Arabs of Iraq, 1934 features thirty-four prints from the Peabody's Henry Field Collection. The exhibit displays photographs taken during the Field Museum's Near East Expedition in 1934 and offers a rare glimpse of Arab tribes that inhabited the marshlands of southern Iraq, as well as their landscape and way of life.

Until the mid-1980s, the Marsh Arabs, or Ma'dan, inhabited some 12,000 square miles of wetland in southern Iraq around Qurna where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet to form the Shatt al-Arab. Dwelling in clusters of mud huts floating on water, the Ma'dan used canoes (mashufs) to navigate the region and made their living by cultivating rice and dates, fishing, growing sugar cane and papyrus, and herding water buffalo. The wetlands not only created a unique lifestyle, but also afforded significant independence from the central authorities.

Beginning in the 1950s, ruling governments put forward plans to drain the marshlands to extend the arable land and irrigation projects. The greatest incursions, however, came in 1992, when Saddam Hussein, after quelling a major rebellion involving the Marsh Arabs, drained the marshes by building dams that sealed off the wetlands from the Tigris and Euphrates, converting wetlands to desert and destroying a centuries-old way of life.

The Peabody Museum's collection includes 120 images taken primarily of the Al-Bu-Mohammed, a large tribe in the southeastern part of the Arab Marshes (Hor al-Hawiza). These snapshots show the marshes' unusual environment and ecosystem. Other featured images depict Marsh Arabs performing daily activities, such as fishing, hunting, and canoe building. Photography also shows expedition members working on the anthropometric survey, measuring head circumferences, and collecting Marsh samples and artifacts.

Curated by Omar Dewachi.