In the Garden of Eden

Villages were built on floating islands (chibā’ish) made from naturally accumulating mud and consisting of platforms of reeds and rushes. In the summer, the latticework admitted evening breezes that cooled off the hut. PM 53-26-60/15921.337
Because the river is the only link to the outside world, canoeing through the waterways, or gahn, was the sole means of transportation. Reed plants (Phragmites communis), or gasab, were the main vegetation in the marshes. PM 53-26-60/15921.287
The most commonly used boat was a special canoe called a mashh'ūf, which seated between four and six people. Boatbuilding was usually carried out by S'ubba, Mandaeans who were not from the marshes. PM 53-26-60/15921.263
The mashh'ūf boat structure was carvel–built, with inner ribs curving up from a center backbone and ending in a long beak called an ‘anaq, which steered the vessel through the rushes and reeds. PM 53-26-60/15921.266
A larger sailing vessel was the tarrāda. It seated between ten and twelve people, and its interior was decorated with a studding of large round-headed nails, nearly an inch in diameter. The sheikh usually owned the tarrādas. PM 53-26-60/15921.345
Fishing was a major industry in the marshes; exports included dried fish, most commonly the “Tigris Salmon,” or bizz. The preference was to fish at night, usually with a net or with a fālih, a fork-shaped fishing spear. PM 53-26-60/15921.357
Rice was the main agricultural product of the marshes because the easily flooded land facilitated cultivation. The best variety of rice was called ‘anbar. While both men and women harvested rice, usually only women milled rice flour. PM 53-26-60/15921.265
Unhusked rice, or shilib, was first husked and pounded in a wooden vessel, then winnowed by being tossed in a basket, allowing the wind to remove the light husk. Finally, the rice was milled with a mijrisha, round clay grinder. PM 53-26-60/15921.317
Women spinning wool. Note that the woman on the right may be a member of the ‘abīd group (slaves). PM 53-26-60/15921.311

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.