The United Nations created the ultimate travel bucket list. World Heritage Sites are distinguish areas and landmarks with cultural, historical, or scientific significance. They include cities (Bruges and Vatican City), buildings (Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal), and landscapes (the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef). This is the list from which you dream and plan trips. It’s also how you learn about the world.
If it weren’t for UNESCO, you probably—make that definitely—wouldn’t know about the Ahwar of Southern Iraq. The Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities was named a World Heritage Site in 2016. The vast landscape is widely known as the Iraqi Marshlands. It lies in southern Iraq near the border of Iran. It’s comprised of not one, not two, but seven sites, which include three archaeological cities and four marshes. While biblical scholars believe that this could be the Garden of Eden.
Upon first glance, it’s hard to believe that this could be Paradise. The marshland was once lush and fertile. Marsh Arabs lived here for thousands of years. They were surrounded by unique birds, an abundance of fish, and water as far as the eye could see. But in the 1950s, the Iraqi government began drying out the marshes to create farmland. They were further destroyed when Saddam Hussein’s regime drained them to one-tenth of their original size to prevent uprisings during the Iran-Iraq War. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, after the regime was toppled, that the marshes began to be reflooded. The area is slowly beginning to look like its former self.
So, for now, you’re content to learn about the Ahwar of Southern Iraq. You’ll read about the cities of Uruk, Ur, and Eridu, which were among the oldest cities in the world. You’ll pay attention as water from the Tigris River reflows into the Hawaizah, Central, East Hammar, and West Hammar Marshes. Plus you’ll watch as southern Iraq transforms into a place people dream about visiting. UNESCO is working its magic yet again.