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A vast cemetery in Iraq commemorates 14 centuries of life and death

NAJAF (IRAQ) – Headstones stretch as far as the eye can see across Iraq’s Wadi al-Salam Cemetery, often cited as the world’s largest, bearing silent testimony of life and death over 14 centuries.

Flowers, photographs and religious banners honor many of the millions buried in the ocher desert sands of the “Valley of Peace” – victims of war and disease, accidents and old age.

“Oh my father!” laments a mourner, Jamil Abdelhassan, prostrating on a grave in the vast necropolis located in the Shia holy shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq.

Tears and prayers are the currency of daily life in this sombre expanse of crypts, vaults and catacombs near the mausoleum of the revered Imam Ali, the founding figure of Shia Islam.

“Of course I’m sad,” says Abdelhassan, who traveled 180 kilometers from the capital Baghdad to pray at the grave of his father, who died in 2014.

“But I’m happy too. I know my father will be with Imam Ali on Judgment Day.”

For the Shiites, who are the religious majority in Iraq, “it is very important to be buried near Imam Ali,” said Hassan Issa al-Hakim, a city historian from Najaf.

Sultans and soldiers, priests and prophets are buried here along with countless ordinary citizens.

Since Ali died in 661 and was buried nearby, “people have stopped burying their dead in another cemetery in Najaf, Al-Thawiya, to bury them in Wadi al-Salam,” he said.

“They believe Ali will play the role of intercessor for those around him during Judgment Day.”

– ‘Largest Cemetery in the World’ –

Many Iraqi Shiites chose the cemetery to bury their loved ones.

“It costs 150,000 dinars (about $100) to dig a grave, and gravestones cost 250,000-300,000 dinars ($170-200),” said Najah Marza Hamza, manager of a funeral home.

Some historians estimate that more than six million souls rest in the cemetery, mostly Iraqi but also Iranian and Pakistani Shia.

“No, there are many more! But it’s impossible to quantify them,” argued Hakim, a former president of nearby Kufa University.

Iraq, in a submission to UNESCO, estimated its area at 917 hectares (2,265 acres) – the equivalent of more than 1,700 soccer fields – and called it “the oldest and largest cemetery in the world”.

There are no maps to guide visitors through the bewildering maze, which is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest burial site.

Mourners driving here sometimes cause traffic jams on the avenues that cut through the vast cemetery.

At a recent ceremony, Ahmed Ali Hamed, 54, and about 20 relatives from southern Iraq came to pay the funeral for his aunt Fatima, who he said had died “around the age of 80”.

The mourners were all men, “because the women don’t come to the funeral,” Hamed said.

“You wash the body and go home. It’s traditional. The women will come, but on another day.”

The elderly woman’s body, wrapped in a shroud, was lowered into the tomb dug out of the ocher earth, facing the holy city of Mecca.

– “Martyrs” in the wars in Iraq –

Many of those buried in Wadi al-Salam fell victim to the violence that has plagued Iraq, including in recent decades marred by dictatorship, war and sectarian bloodshed.

One tomb bears the photo of a smiling young man in an Iraqi army uniform, referred to in the inscription as “Martyr Ahmed Nasser al-Mamouri.” Date of Death: April 7, 2016.

His death came at a time when the Iraqi army, supported by an international coalition, was beating back the jihadists of the Islamic State terrorist militia from the north of the country.

Others buried here died during Iraq’s earlier sufferings and tragedies – the two Iraq wars and before that the 1980-1988 war with Iran under Saddam Hussein.

Another militant, identified as Hassan Karim in an inscription on a marble tomb, died a “martyr” in 1987, towards the end of the bitter conflict with the Islamic Republic.

The cemetery is also the final resting place of Abu Mehdi al-Mouhandis, the Iraqi lieutenant of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, both of whom were killed in a US drone strike in January 2020.

More recently, the Covid pandemic has caused excess mortality, gravedigger Thamer Moussa Hreina, 43, said.

“During the coronavirus pandemic, we had 5,000 to 6,000 more bodies over the course of a year,” he said as he gazed across the expanse of graves.

Hakim, the historian, said the Covid death toll reflected Iraq’s darkest days.

“During wars and crises, there are more deaths,” he said. “We would bury up to 200 people a day.”

Source: Crypto News Deutsch

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