The graves at Wadi-al-Salaam, where burials have continued for over 1,400 years, are spread over 1,500 acres or an area equal to 900 rugby fields near Caliph Ali’s shrine in Iraq’s Najaf
For centuries, the faithful have globally wished Wadi-al-Salaam (Valley of Peace) to be their final resting place, making the graveyard in Iraq’s Najaf a unique site of the ever-expanding warren of graves of baked bricks and plaster.
The graves rising at different levels are spread over 1,500 acres or an area equal to 900 rugby fields near Caliph Ali’s shrine.
Shia Muslims covet their burial at Wadi al-Salaam due to its proximity to the shrine, which is believed to be imbued with divine blessings needed to cleanse souls. It is the world’s only cemetery where burials have continued for over 1,400 years.
The Shias revere Ali as the first of their infallible imams, or leaders, appointed by God to be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor. They believe that inspired by God, the imams can interpret the Quran without errors and are the only rightful heirs to the Prophet.
Sunni Muslims consider Ali a holy figure as one of the four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided caliphs) and the Prophet’s close companions and successors. Most Sufi saints, who were largely Sunni and drew a bulk of converts to Islam in the Indian Subcontinent, trace their lineage to Ali.
Shias believe anybody interred in Wadi al-Salaam will be raised from the dead with Ali on judgment day. They see it as a blessing to be buried near the tombs of Ahl al-Bayt or the Prophet’s family members including Ali.
Faster Passage To Afterlife
Nothing exemplifies the Shia devotion to Ali more than the ever-expanding Wadi-al-Salaam, where burial is believed to guarantee a faster passage to the afterlife.
The importance among Shias of burial at the graveyard thought to be closest to heaven makes Wadi-al-Salaam perhaps the largest cemetery globally. It is estimated to have five million graves, including those of Prophets Salh and Hod.
It was a sight to behold when I visited Najaf in 2016 while covering the war on the so-called Islamic State aka ISIS. Some of the graves were topped with domes and were as big as a room. Many of the graves were built on top of others.
Pictures, including black and white, also stared out from some tombstones. Metal cages covered a lot of the graves while flags fluttered on others.
An unending stream of people carrying incense sticks visits the cemetery daily. They sprinkle rose water on the graves and pray for their departed relatives.
There was no uniformity in Wadi-al-Salaam’s graves. Tombstones were dissimilar depending on the eras they belonged to. Graves dating back to the 1930s and 1940s soared up to 10 feet and had rounded tops with epitaphs in Arabic and Persian. Some of them were low and others are as high as about three feet.
Abraham, who is believed to have been born around 300 kilometers south of Najaf and is considered the father of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, is said to have visited Najaf and prophesied it would one day host an important person’s shrine—Ali.
Ali is also said to have left a will for his burial in Najaf, which has also been associated with Noah, whom Muslims venerate as a Prophet like Abraham.
According to Muslim tradition, one of Noah’s sons drowned after a mountain top he chose in present-day Najaf instead of boarding the Ark collapsed. A river appeared in place of the mountain, which eventually dried up, giving Najaf its name, which literally means a dry river.
In 2016, hereditary undertakers at the cemetery had their hands full like the previous decade when the 2003 American occupation plunged Iraq into cycles of protracted violence.
A fresh section of graves at Wadi-al-Salaam belonged to the victims of the recent strife and war on ISIS. Those killed in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, anti-ISIS fighters, including their commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, have also interred in Wadi-al-Salaam.
Muhandis, who oversaw the integration of the anti-ISIS Hashad volunteer force into the Iraqi state and transformed most of his fighters into regulars, was killed along with Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.
Garden of Martyrs, a corner of the graveyard adorned with flowers and portraits, has graves of the fighters of cleric Muktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The fighters were killed fighting the US troops in 2004.
Wadi-al-Salaam was turned into a battlefield when American Bradley tanks and Humvees moved into it to take on Sadr’s men holed up among the graves and tombs.
The 2004 battle was fierce ‘as any that American troops have seen since Vietnam’ and triggered fears of possible damage to Ali’s shrine.
Sadr’s men spent months putting up arms caches and snipers’ nests in the graveyard taking advantage of their familiarity with the terrain. American troops too took positions behind graves and mausoleums when the fighting began.
The Mahdi Army fighters would appear from catacombs and attack the Americans with automatic rifles and mortar shells.
Phillippi J Ledesma, an American soldier, told The New York Times in 2004 that there was nothing that could have prepared them for fighting in a cemetery and especially going down tombs.
Marines survived in many cases only because tombs or cemetery walls blocked shrapnel. They pushed the militiamen deep inside the graveyard before the marines made their way close to Ali’s shrine.
The American move to close down Sadr’s newspaper, the arrest of one of his aides, and threats to kill the cleric triggered the uprising.
The three-week siege of Ali shrine ended in August 2004 after Sadr’s followers were persuaded to give up their weapons, and leave the shrine by melting into pilgrims flocking the tomb during a 24-hour ceasefire.
Hundreds of his followers earlier heeded Sadr’s call to occupy the shrine to resist the American occupation. Marines were rushed to tackle the situation. But they were stopped from attacking the tomb after advancing to within 400 meters of it over fears of inflaming Muslim opinion.
Sadr’s followers were given an amnesty as American marines too withdrew from Najaf, leaving the region’s security in the hands of Iraqi Security Forces.
Global City Of The Dead
Whether war or peacetime, bodies have for centuries been brought to Najaf for burial on a daily basis. The transportation of bodies and their burial is also a major source of employment for locals.
Burials closer to Imam Ali’s tomb are costlier and relatives are often willing to pay higher fees to get their kin buried near their spiritual leader’s burial site.
The Ottomans, who ruled what is now Iraq from 1534 to 1920, sought to restrict the number of corpses brought to Najaf for burials when transportation of bodies was blamed among the causes for cholera outbreaks in the 19th century.
Despite the restrictions, around 20,000 bodies were estimated to be brought to Najaf annually for burials at the beginning of the 20th century. The number has gone up five times to roughly 100,000 now.
As we were at Ali’s shrine, corpses were regularly being washed, shrouded, and placed in coffins there before their burial at the cemetery.
When the violence peaked in Iraq and burials more than doubled to reach at least 200 daily even sidewalks were dug up to make way for new graves.
The post-American occupation violence led to a 40 percent expansion of the graveyard to about 7.5 square kilometers. Undertakers would often work round the clock before the violence began to decline as ISIS faced reverses and was eventually decimated.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide