The marshes, or ahwar (singular, hōr), of southern Iraq are a unique ecosystem that has existed for more than 7,000 years. For centuries, snowmelt from the mountains of what are now Iran and Turkey flooded the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, contributing to the formation of permanent and seasonal marshes. Some believe that they are the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.
Weaving of both cloth and reeds is one of the chief occupations in the marshes. . . . Cloth weaving, called h'āyicha, is performed by men as well as women, the former being accounted the more skillful.
|—Lady Dower (The Anthropology of Iraq, p. 390)|
Until recently, the Marsh Arabs, or Ma‘dan, inhabited some 12,000 square miles of these wetlands of southern Iraq near Al Qurnah, where the Tigris and Euphrates form the Shatt al Arab, the channel flowing southeast into the Persian Gulf. The Ma‘dan, like the majority of the population in southern Iraq, are Shia Muslims. Dwelling in clusters of mud huts that floated on water, the Ma‘dan used canoes (mashh'ūfs) for transportation through waterways. Besides fishing, they cultivated rice, dates, and sugarcane and used papyrus for weaving reed mats, and they domesticated water buffaloes. Archaeological artifacts from the region depict a striking parallel between the Marsh Arabs and the ancient Sumerians, who inhabited this region more than 4,000 years ago.