Take a look around someone’s house and you can learn a great deal about their way of life and their culture. This is true for historic dwellings as well, and the Iraqi mudhif reed house is no exception. Dating back up to 5,000 years, mudhif architecture has its roots with the culture of Marsh Arabs of Iraq. A tradition all but lost due to Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Ma’dan people, it is slowly being revived and may have lessons to teach us for a more sustainable future.
What is a Mudhif?
A mudhif is a type of home native to the swamps of southern Iraq. These traditional houses are entirely built from reeds and a special type of grass called qasab, a bamboo-like grass that can reach up to 7 and a half meters or 25 feet tall. What makes the mudhif special is that it is paid for and maintained by the local sheik. It is not, however, his personal home. The mudhif is used only as a guesthouse or for ceremonial occasions like births and funerals.
Each village sheik owned one of these mudhifs and despite their humble building materials , they often were, and are, incredibly impressive to behold. In fact, they are surprisingly large with barrel-vaulted ceilings. The sides are made up of reed lattice panels, which do a great job of letting in sunlight whilst also allowing airflow to keep the temperature of the building bearable in the hot, humid summer months. At the same time, they keep out the elements.
A mudhif, or traditional Marsh Arab reed guesthouse. (U.S. Army / Public domain )
The Politics of Numbers in Mudhif Architecture
Much of the design is traditional, but also up to the sheik in charge. For example, the number of pillars a mudhif has is up to the sheik, although the number is always odd. Why? Politics. An odd number of pillars allows the host to sit on one side wall with an equal number of guests to his left and right.
This is the equivalent of a host sitting at the head of the table in western culture. It puts the sheik at the center of decision-making and makes it clear who’s in charge. It also adds an air of neutrality as neither side should feel outnumbered when trying to solve disputes. Religion also has a role to play in the design, as the entrance always faces in the direction of Makkah, or Mecca.
Besides the mudhif used by the local sheik, there are several other types of reed houses. The raba is a smaller, less dramatic version of the mudhif. It has entrances at both ends and is usually used to house families. There is also the bayt, which are single-room dwellings that are used either as residencies or for storage. They are the smallest form of sarifa (reed house).
Building the inner walls of a marsh Arab mudhif. (U.S. Army / Public domain )
How to Build a Mudhif?
The building process and architecture of the mudhif is both vastly impressive and fascinating. A reed house might look and sound like something the big bad wolf would come and blow down, but they’re actually incredibly hardy.
To make a mudhif, reeds are plucked from the local marshes. They are then bundled and woven together into ten-meter-long (32 foot) lengths. These form the mudhif columns, which are then planted into the ground in two opposite rows. The smaller ends of the columns are then bent across and tied to columns on the opposing row, making the arches that form the spine.
Smaller bundles of fresher and weaker reeds are then used to fasten the columns longitudinally. At this stage, the builders have completed construction of the mudhif skeleton. Next comes the roof, as hand-woven mats are laid over this network of columns and reed bundles to form the roof.
The walls are then created on each side of the structure and reed lattice panels are attached. Glass windows are not used in mudhif construction, so these panels are the only source of light and air. Finally, two large columns are placed at either end of the mudhif to give the building grand, welcoming entrances. Smaller bundles are placed inside and out to add some decoration.
The process of mudhif architecture has remained the same for thousands of years. The most impressive part? No nails, metal, or glass are used at any part of the process. The mudhif is strictly au naturel , built from materials found within the swamp.
Traditional Iraqi mudhif reed house. ( TasfotoNL / Adobe Stock)
The Benefits of Mudhif Architecture
The benefits of this way of building are numerous. The process can be incredibly quick, almost rivaling an Amish barn raising. A smaller dwelling can take as little as three days, while a large dwelling can take several weeks depending on conditions. These reed buildings are also somewhat portable. If the marsh water rises too high in the spring a mudhif can be taken down, transported, and put back up in less than a day. They are also affordable since the building materials couldn’t be much cheaper.
Even durability isn’t too much of an issue. If a mudhif is well looked after it can last for years and years. Estimates from different sources seem to vary, but on average a mudhif will probably need servicing around every seven years and will probably need a complete rebuild every fifteen years or so. However, in some cases mudhif have lasted as long as twenty or more years. This might sound a little rough, but when I think about the amount of upkeep my house seems to need monthly, investing in a few reeds every seven years doesn’t sound so bad.
Marsh Arab on a masoof (canoe) on a southern Iraqi swamp. ( CC0 1 )
So, Who Built the Mudhif?
The Mudhif were, and to some extent still are, built by the Ma’dan people, a term meaning “dweller of the plains.” The Ma’dan, also known as Marsh Arabs, live in the swamps of southern Iraq which are found where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. They are a semi-nomadic people with their own distinct culture and a proud history reaching back thousands of years.
It is believed the Ma’dan have been building mudhif for at least five thousand years. The British Museum houses a carved elevation of a traditional Mudhif which is around three and a half thousand years old.
The answer to yesterday’s #quiz is the Ahwar of Southern #Iraq: Refuge of #Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities. Made from long reeds and other #natural resources, the #ancient #design of the mudhif houses are unique to the Iraqi #Marshlands. pic.twitter.com/N4FnkzpvoA
— ARC-WH (@ARCWH) August 5, 2021
Historically the Ma’dan were divided into two main occupations. One group focused on breeding and raising water buffaloes whilst the other grew and harvested crops such as rice, barley, and wheat. Other tribes were nomadic pastoralists (they moved around with their livestock), moving from marsh to marsh, season to season.
Like many smaller cultural groups, the Ma’dan bore witness to great changes in the 20th century. Many of the Ma’dan began to weave reed mats at a commercial level. This was much more lucrative than the agriculture of old, but was looked down upon by traditionalists within the Ma’dan who saw it as a sign of selling out. It would eventually become more accepted as the environment changed and financial necessity meant a reliable income was needed.
Marsh Arabs poling a traditional mashoof canoe in the reed marshes of southern Iraq. (U.S. Army / Public domain )
Religion and Hospitality for the Marsh Arabs
The majority of Ma’dan were Twelver Shi’i Muslims with some other religious groups thrown in. Despite differences in religion they lived harmoniously. Unlike many other Muslim groups, Ma’dans normally worship in the privacy of their own home, there are no mosques to be found in the swamps. For religious ceremonies, the Mudhif will normally be used.
As mentioned earlier, the big man in each tribe was, and is, the sheik, charged with keeping things flowing smoothly within the tribe and settling any disputes that arise. In return, he would request a tribute from each member of the tribe which was then used to maintain the mudhif.
As with most Arab tribes, the Ma’dan culture places a huge emphasis on hospitality. Historically guests were never turned away and were to be offered food and shelter by the village sheik. Upon arrival, guests were welcomed to the mudhif personally where they were offered refreshments, such as a very sweet coffee. After this ceremony, they would be offered a place to stay.
Charging for this hospitality was unthinkable. When the time came for guests to leave, a true host would never carry a guests belonging out of the mudhif as it was deemed impolite. Carrying a guest’s belongings might imply you wanted them to leave. Also unthinkable.
A mudhif in Chibayish, on the edges of the marshlands of Southern Iraq. This is one of the largest and most formal that I’ve seen- 30m long, 6m high, with 17 arches between the entrance and the coffee pots at the back. The Sheikh had called a meeting, which began just as we left pic.twitter.com/bVRZff7zFG
— Leon McCarron (@leonmccarron) December 18, 2020
What Happened to the Ma’dan?
Sadly, this hospitality would have dire consequences for the Ma’dan and by the late 20th Century they had been all but wiped out. This was due to the actions of everyone’s least favorite despot, Saddam Hussein . It feels like every dictator has to have at least one religious or ethnic group to discriminate against. Sadly, Saddam Hussein chose the Ma’dan people.
Why? They were just too friendly for their own good. The Ma’dan code of honor meant that they had a history of offering refuge to escaped serfs and slaves. After all, their code forbade them from turning anyone away.
By the 1990s Saddam was having major problems with dissidents in his regime. He was also having major problems hunting them down. He decided that the Ma’dan people must be hiding the dissidents and so the persecution began.
In 1991 Hussein began the draining of the marshes that were so integral to the Ma’dan way of life . He recommissioned an irrigation project from the 1970s which had been previously shut down due to the dire effect it had had on the marshlands environment.
Hussein’s plan was tragically effective. The marshes rapidly disappeared and so did the food source for the Ma’dan. They were quickly forced from their homes and lands, with little alternative but to move to the cities and leave their way of life behind. In the 1980s roughly half a million Marsh Arabs lived in the marshes. By the year 2000, this had dwindled to only sixteen hundred.
As part of their work in Iraq, the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq built a mudhif house just outside Chibayish as a way to demonstrate alternative, low-cost and sustainable building methods in the marshland areas. ( Nature Iraq )
The Return of the Mudhif
There is light at the end of this reed-walled tunnel. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003 things began to change for the remaining Ma’dan. That same year, a four-year drought ended and the dikes that were killing the swampland were destroyed. The wetlands were soon back to half the size they had been back in the 1970s. Slowly but surely the marshland had begun to recover.
Of course, by 2003 most of the Ma’dan had been forced to move on. But as the swampland has recovered, some have returned home. In the early 2000’s the U.S army got involved and started a training program called “The Modernization of the Traditional Marsh Arab Mudhif.” The goal was to combine some of the benefits of modern house building with the speed and cheap materials of a traditional mudhif. A demo house was built in Chubayish, Southern Iraq.
More recently a charity called Nature Iraq has been trying to draw attention back to the mudhif. They hope to highlight how these low-cost, sustainable and environmentally friendly buildings are as viable as ever. Some private companies have also sprung up, willing to build you your very own mudhif for a fee. Mudhif have sprung up all over Iraq and even as far afield as Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.
To ensure that the ways of Ma’dan are not lost to history, the non-profit, non-governmental Tigris Rİver Protectors organization is arranging workshops for young Iraqi people to learn how to build these traditional reed houses. It reconnects them with their culture and teaches them a new trade. The hope is that with enough hard work and support this form of craftsmanship won’t be lost to the sands of time.
It is sad to think that due to modern interference the ways of the Ma’dan people and their amazing mudhif homes were nearly lost. It is also uplifting to see them rise from the ashes. It will be a long, arduous process but things are looking bright for the mudhif. As global warming keeps spreading and the global population keeps on growing, hopefully, we can learn something from this amazing ancient architecture.
Top image: The interior of a mudhif in southern Iraq. Source: TasfotoNL / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell