Wadi Al-Salam: Magnificent Ancient Cemetery in Iraq is Largest in the World
Wadi Al-Salam, meaning Valley of Peace in Arabic, is an ancient Islamic cemetery located near the holy city of Najaf, Iraq. From an aerial view, it looks like a sprawling city. However, its residents are not from the land of the living. This record-breaking cemetery contains approximately five millions bodies, making it the largest graveyard on earth. With graves stretching as far as the eye can see, there are more tombs here than the population of most cities. Ancient prophets, imams, kings, scientists, and civilians have been buried at this cemetery for close to 1,500 years and it is estimated that 500,000 bodies continue to be placed at the site each year, many of the more recent additions being soliders and militants killed in fighting Daesh.
Enormous City of the Dead
While Najaf is one of Iraq's biggest cities, with a population close to 600,000, the adjoining “city of the dead” has a population of millions. The enormous cemetery covers an area of 1485.5 acres, which is about the size of a small town in the U.S. It contains the remains of millions of ordinary citizens as well as hundreds of revered Islamic religious figures, clerics and political and social leaders. The site is also located close to the holy shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. Because of this, nearly all of Iraq's Shi'a Muslim population requests to be buried here.
Wadi Al-Salam cemetery at night (Wikimedia Commons)
An enduring tradition
Wadi Al-Salam is the only cemetery in the world where the process of burial still continues as it did more than 1,400 years ago. The cemetery contains graves built with baked bricks and plaster that vary in height. Among the tombstones are room-size family crypts built by the wealthy which are often topped by domes. Graves from the 1930s and 1940s have their own style, soaring up to ten feet high with rounded tops so that people would see them over their neighbors. It is said that each crypt is capable of holding up to 50 bodies and there are several kinds of burials, with lower graves, and high graves (towers). There are also underground burial vaults which are accessible only by ladder.
Tombs and graves at Wadi Al-Salam range from small and simple to large and elaborate (Google Maps Images)
A cemetery for all
Wadi Al-Salam is not just for followers of the Shia school of Islam and little distinction is made between the rich and the poor; there are also those who will pay for others who wish to be buried at the site. Bodies have been received from around the world including southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf Arab and other countries. Interestingly, the Lebanese own a share of the cemetery with the first Lebanese burial dating back to 1964, when Sheikh Mohammad Taqi Sadiq was laid to rest here.
The historical significance of Wadi Al-Salam lies in the fact that it holds some of the oldest known Muslim graves and is the location of the shrine of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib was the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law who ruled over the Islamic Caliphate from 656 to 661. He was the first male to accept and convert to Islam. Many other prophets, kings, princes and Sultans are buried in this cemetery, including the Prophet Hud, Prophet Saleh, and Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Shia tradition holds that Abraham bought land in Wadi Al-Salam and that Ali believed Wadi was a part of heaven. It is related on the authority of the Fourth Holy Imam, Imam Sajjad (as) that Imam Ali (as) once said:
"This Valley of Peace (Wadi-us-Salaam) is part of Heaven and that there is not a single one of the believers in the world, whether he dies in the East or West, but his soul will come to this Paradise to rest. As there is nothing hidden in this world from my eyes," Maula Ali ('a) went on to say, "I see all the believers seated here in groups and talking with one another."
The shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (Wikimedia Commons)
Rituals and traditions
The graveyard holds importance in Shiite belief as it has been said that the souls of all faithful men and women shall eventually be moved to Wadi Al-Salam, no matter where their bodies are buried. Some rituals carried out before burial in the cemetery include the body being washed and wrapped at the cemetery, funeral prayers conducted inside the Imam Ali shrine, the deceased being carried around the shrine three times, and some Quranic verses which are recited at the cemetery.
In recent years, there has been an increased military presence in the area due to the frequent violence that has occurred at the site. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, armed fighters of the Iraqi militia frequently used the cemetery to hide and ambush approaching enemy units. Since it is full of winding lanes and underground mausoleums, the U.S. army could not take control of the area. When the rebels took refuge in the narrow spaces among the crowded tombs, the Iraqi army ruthlessly bulldozed its way through the graves. To this day, piles of wrecked cages from the graves remain stacked along the roadsides.
H-1W Super Cobra attacks an enemy mortar position at Wadi Al-Salam cemetery (Wikimedia Commons)
The violence that has overwhelmed Iraq ever since 2003, and the resulting high death toll, has led to a massive expansion of the graveyard, swelling by 40 percent and by three square miles. The cemetery has grown every year since this period, first with the clashes against U.S. forces, then during the sectarian wars of 2006-2007 when Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other at will, and finally in the 2008 battles with the Iraqi army. As of 2014, coinciding with the conflict with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), it has been reported that burial plots are running out, resulting in many being stolen, illegally resold, or improvised. As a result, costs of burial plots are rising with a standard 25 square meter family plot costing about five million Iraqi dinars ($4,100). This is double the price paid before violence in Iraq escalated in 2014.
Wadi Al-Salam is currently on UNESCO’s tentative list for registration as a World Heritage site.
Featured image: The sprawling ‘city of the dead’ at Wadi Al-Salam (Google Maps Images).
By Bryan Hill
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