Ma’dan reed houses


The reed houses that form part of the distinctive culture of the Ma’dan, or Marsh Arabs, of southeastern Iraq are an architectural achievement because they result from pushing available resources to their limits. Descended partly from the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, this seminomadic people, now numbering perhaps 200,000, have for millennia inhabited Lake Hammar and the surrounding marshlands in the Tigris-Euphrates Delta, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Not only have they developed a sophisticated house form using a single building material—the stalks of the prolific giant reed (Fragmites communis)—but they have also created the very land upon which their houses and farmsteads stand.

The Ma’dan villages are irregular clusters of small islands constructed by alternating layers of reed mats and layers of mud dredged from the marsh bottom. Thus, paradoxically, much of the fertile land is actually floating on the water. Each island has its house and buffalo paddock, and communication between them is by means of narrow canoes (mashuf) of bitumen-coated wood, propelled through the shallow water with long poles. The Ma’dan fish, hunt waterfowl and pigs, breed water buffalo, and raise crops of paddy rice and great millet. Many domestic necessities—beds, cots, baskets, and canoe poles—are woven from reeds. In short, until recently the Ma’dan have lived in harmony with the ecosystem of their harsh but bountiful environment.

The reed house (mudhif) is constructed around a framework made by tying the giant reeds—they can grow to 20 feet (6 meters) long—to make bundles that taper from about 1.5 feet to 6 inches (45 to 15 centimeters). The thick ends are stuck into the mud floor of the island in opposing pairs and then bent and lashed together, with a substantial overlap at the top, to form a row of parallel parabolic arches, at about 6-foot (2-meter) centers. The builders even use a tripod of bundled reeds as scaffolding for this part of the work. The primary frames are stabilized with closely spaced, much thinner reed bundles (like purlins) around the perimeter of the house. The completed framework is covered with intricately woven split-reed mats to form the integrated walls and roof. The upper parts of the end walls are enclosed with a curtain of the same material, and four or five reed “columns” are erected to support a framework to which a decorative lattice is fixed, always to beautiful effect. Depending on the length of the reeds used for the arches, the house can be 12 feet (3.7 meters) wide; the length is indeterminate, and buildings up to 100 feet (30 meters) have been recorded. Furnishings are sparse: the reed floors are covered with carpets, and there is a clay hearth for making coffee. The distinctive house form has a long pedigree,