Geography and Ecology of Southern Iraq

The Modern Setting

Iraq can broadly be divided into three physiographic zones: mountains in the north and east, desert to the west, and a delta plain that extends from the towns of Ramadi (on the Euphrates) and Samarra (on the Tigris) some 650 km to the southeast before passing Basra and reaching the shores of the Persian Gulf. This latter environment is highly unique, representing a “deltaic complex” that includes a series of inner lake and outer marine deltas with water salinities ranging from relatively fresh to hypersaline. The climate is semi-arid and hot, with short, mild winters and long, scorching summers. Mean annual temperature sits around 21.7 °C. In summer, however, the average rises to 30.6 °C; in winter, it falls to 16.4 °C. Because the region receives less than 200 mm of rainfall in any given year, agriculture requires irrigation through the construction of feeder canals from the rivers. High humidity, averaging 24-45%, results in high evaporation of irrigation waters, demanding an intricate system of fallow and flushing to purge salts and rejuvenate soils. Sand and dust storms are also common.

Today, the site of Lagash is centrally located in Iraq’s lower delta plain. The area is flat and broad, sloping gently towards the Hammar marshes and Shatt al-Arab estuary where the Tigris and Euphrates unite. Because of its low relief and high-water table, the floodplain is covered by a series of shallow fresh-brackish water lakes and marshes. These wetlands were extensively exploited for rice and grain cultivation throughout the 20th-century, and various government reclamation projects have erased or greatly obscured evidence of past ecologies.

The Ancient Setting

The landscape around Lagash was very different when cities first emerged in Lower Mesopotamia some six to five thousand years ago. Unlike today, the Tigris and Euphrates built separate deltas into an estuary zone that then lay just southeast of the Sumerian heartland. Shortly before urbanization, at about 4,000 years BCE, local sea levels reached about 2.5 meters above present. Combined with the flat topography of southern Iraq, and increased flooding from changes in the base levels of the rivers, rising seas quickly swamped the lower delta region. Following the marine transgression, the Tigris and Euphrates rapidly began to deposit silt and fill in the wide estuary at the rivers’ mouths. As the outlet to the Gulf became increasingly restricted, the Mesopotamian countryside transformed from a tidally influenced estuary with naturally formed distributary canals to an increasingly anthropogenic floodplain that demanded large-scale community action to sustain settlement. The exact timing of these processes, and their relationship to settlement changes, including the precocious growth of cities in the first half of the 3rd-millennium BCE, are critical research questions under LAP.


The Mudif: Ancient and Modern

Building a Mudif at al-Hiba, 1968

For millennia, the traditional architecture of southern Iraq has been constructed from the strong and resilient reeds harvested from nearby marshes. Even today, the formal meeting space of a village sheik takes this form, along with traditional mudbrick, as well as the more modern cinder block construction.