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'Valley of Peace,' largest world cemetery in holy city of Najaf

Wadi al-Salam is an ancient cemetery, the largest graveyard in the world, in Iraq's Shiite city of Najaf, where most Shiite Iraqis want to be buried.
An aerial view shows Wadi al-Salam cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, as Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, Iraq, July 21, 2021.

Saleha drags herself one haunted step after another. Her black abaya brushes the ground, raising dust. She looks to the sky and cries, “Why did you leave me alone? Why did you go away, Fatima?” She touches the simple wooden coffin as it passes and says, “Why?”

The grieving woman screams with the desolation of a person who has just lost her younger sister. Fatima, 56, who leaves behind two sisters and five brothers, lived with her husband Tahseen in a brick house in Ba’quba, the capital of the Diyala province, 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Baghdad. A late-stage cancer took her life in just three months.

After being ritually washed with water three times, her body was wrapped in a white shroud — the "kafan." Now, it lies on the ground in solitude — a void between the earth and the afterlife. Around her, women gather, also standing alone, but united by grief in the Najaf cemetery, south of the Iraqi capital, where the rituals of death and burial have barely changed in 1,400 years. Grandchildren, sisters and friends hold a silent vigil nearby amid tombs both new and ancient, mounds of red sand and piles of concrete.

Wind-blown sand turns the early afternoon pale, shrouding the women as their bodies convulsively rock in sorrow. “Allah, why did you let her leave so soon?” Sajida, Fatima's sister, asks mournfully. Her hands clap hard on her head, palms turned upward, and eyes are fixed on the body of Fatima as six men prepare to carry her to a grave.

Fatima's body is placed on the ground, her head turned right toward the Ka’aba, a large cubical building located inside Islam's holiest mosque, Masjid al-Haram.

Tahseen is the first to approach. His feet sink into the sand as he begins to reach forward. He grasps toward the body wanting one last physical connection. “Why did you leave me alone, Fatima?” he repeats. After a last caress of her feet, an imam breaks the grief. “Allahu Akbar,” he says, starting the prayer. The men gathered nearby recite the verses of the Quran while the women, more distant and isolated as Islamic tradition dictates, melt with tears and cries of despair.

Their only solace is knowing that Fatima is where she wanted to be, buried in the clay and mud of Wadi al-Salam — "Valley of Peace" — the largest Islamic cemetery in the world. An area of ​​15 square kilometers (6 square miles) — the equivalent of about 1,310 soccer fields — stretching near the holy city of Najaf, 180 kilometers (112 miles) south of Baghdad, the center of Shiism known as Vatican of Shiites, and a sacred place of pilgrimage for 15 million believers annually.

The “city of the dead,” with its massed tombs all plaster and brick, and its mausoleums with imposing domes, depicting family wealth and status, stands in ancient testimony to more than a million lives and deaths. Rounded top graves, built eight decades ago, stay as memorials to the more recent dead. Underground crypts, many long ago forgotten, lie beneath. Wreaths of flowers, portraits, posters and photos of the deceased line the narrow passages, each of them telling a story.

The ever-growing graveyard houses the remains of 5 million people, including hundreds of Islamic religious figures, such as the Prophet Hud and Prophet Saleh, clerics and political and social leaders. The cycle of life and death adds an inevitable load each year. The spiritual aura is tangible. “Take a good look,” says Yasser, Fatima's 33-year-old grandson. “This cemetery is a piece of heaven for Shiite Muslims.”

According to Shiite mythology, all good souls are located in Wadi al-Salam, so even if a good person gets buried in another place, his or her soul will be transferred to Wadi al-Salam. Then there is Barahout, which is believed to be in southern Yemen and is the hottest place on earth where the bad souls are gathered. Folklore says the angels can move their corpses to Wadi-e-Barhout — "Valley of Punishment" — a deserted area located in the barren lands of al-Mahra province, Yemen. Surrounded in mystery and tales, this is considered to be a place where evil spirits dwell, condemned to an eternity of damnation.

The cemetry is believed to have been established by the Prophet Abraham and visited and praised by Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Islam’s first imam and successor of the Prophet Muhammad, who also rests here in a shrine next to the site — a holy place for Shiites after Mecca and Medina. Some followers believe that if they are buried near the imam, they will be raised from the dead on Judgment Day with their spiritual leader. But fortune is not so kind for those deemed to be nonbelievers, or sinners.

Laith and his family don’t believe in that. They tried, without success, to find a place near Ali’s shrine to bury uncle Aade, who died suddenly at the age of 70 in his home in Hillah, the capital of Babylon province, 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Najaf. Money talks in Najaf and they may have found a gravesite if they were prepared to pay for it. “There is not much space left next to the successor of the Prophet Muhammad,” explains Said Hussain An Anabi, who has been selling the land inside of the cemetery for four generations.

“By now those plots are sold individually for 4 million Iraqi dinars [$2,700],” he says. A figure accessible to a few and that forces many to choose other parts of the necropolis. “We usually sell the land in blocks — 50 square meters [538 square feet] per family where about 50 people can be buried,” he explains in his office. “The entry is the least expensive part: 25-30 million Iraqi dinars [$17,000-$20,500]. The most sought-after areas, instead, cost 60-70 million Iraqi dinars [$41,000-$47,000].”

Laith had to settle for a block 25 square meters (269 square feet) not far from the main entrance, bought three years ago for 13 million dinars ($8,900). But he's reconciled with his uncle’s resting place. “The important thing is that Aade now rests here, together with his loved ones in Wadi al-Salam, where every Shiite Muslim should be buried,” he says. It’s time for meditation, prayer and introspection. The mourners bow under a still heavy sky.

Abbas breaks the stillness plowing into the ground with a shovel. His back hunched, he digs with purpose, first to the right, then to the left, and then in the center, wiping the sweat with his keffiyeh wrapped around his head. After a good half hour, his shoulders and head are the only parts of his body that stick out of the ground. “You have to jump into the hole if you want to dig well and continue the work from within,” he says.

The toil of the gravedigger — the "dafan" — is a difficult and tiring job that he inherited, together with his twin brother Habib, from his great-grandfather who had learned the trade from his father at the age of 15. “The smaller you are, the further you can go down the tunnel without hurting yourself,” he says. Now he is 24 years old and able to excavate an L-shaped tomb — long, narrow and the most requested — in just 1½ hours. “You have to be quick, because the job is only given to you a few hours before the funeral. And you can’t be late.”

While Abbas rinses his hands with bottled water, Kareem, 23, walks between graves, his mother’s body on his shoulders, carried along with his five brothers through the streets of this sprawling city ​​of the dead. A gust of wind, the flapping of the wings of a flock of birds and sand in their eyes are regular disturbances. The gaze of the only men present is fixed on Rafia, a mother, wife and partner who died too early, at the age of 60, her life taken swiftly by pancreatic cancer.

Kareem seems defeated, his knees have given out and his hands scratch the ground. Death is an eternal companion for the gravediggers, but for him it’s a moment of unfathomable loss. The pain is palpable. In broken tears, he invokes his God. Then, it is time to leave Rafia to the earth.

The service is over, the sun has drifted below the horizon and the grief that brought people together has now released its hold. Kareem, still seated, lights a branch of incense on the semi-dry sand. The flame shines in the evening haze. The void becomes full in the hope of eternal peace.