In the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, an Islamic cemetery known as Wadi Us-Salaam lays claim as the largest in the world. Burial at this hallowed ground has been a religious rite for well over one thousand years. Millions have been laid to rest across a crowded, but expansive 1500 acres which occupies nearly 30% of the city.
Increased violence over several decades has accelerated the rate of burials at an alarming rate. More recently, the crooked maze of paths between tombs has been used by combatants to hide and ambush opposing forces, bringing the conflict to the Shi’a holy ground. Why is this burial ground revered, and how did it become so large?
Near modern-day Mesopotamia lies Najaf, a holy city situated several miles west of the Euphrates River. A Najaf dates to the 8th century when the city was founded as a shrine to Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Shi’a denomination of Islam regard Ali as the first Imam and consider his descendants the rightful successors to Muhammad.
According to Shi’a theologians, Imam Ali feared his grave would be desecrated by enemies and thus asked to be buried secretly. It was later revealed – and today still widely accepted – that Ali is buried at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. It is said Ali decreed the location to be the entry to Paradise itself.
Wadi Al-Salaam translates to “Valley of Peace,” a reference to the land’s holy considerations by Ali. The Imam Ali Mosque Shrine in Najaf is considered by Shias to be the 3rd holiest site in Islam.
The cemetery itself is the second-oldest in Islam; only Al-Baqi’ of Madinah, Saudi Arabia is older. The site is however notable as the oldest “open” cemetery in the world, accepting new burials for nearly 1,400 years.
As the burial site of Ali and other prophets, the importance of Wadi Al-Salaam is well known throughout Islam. It has been said that the souls of all faithful men and women shall be moved there, no matter where their bodies have been buried.
The population of Wadi Al-Salaam has grown into one of the oldest undisturbed graves of Muslims in the world. Over the centuries millions of Shi’a have been buried near the holy shrine to Imam Ali, and the rate has only accelerated in the last ten years. Today it is estimated 500,000 people are interred each year.
The cemetery covers 1,485.5 acres, spanning nearly 20% of the city of Najaf. The tombs vary in condition and size based on the era and class of the individual buried.
The majority of graves are built with baked brick and plaster, rising to different levels. Older plots exhibit more deterioration; ornate metal crypts with angled roofs indicate individuals of a different class. Room-sized crypts with large domes scatter the grounds. Ornate towers paid homage and announced a more privileged life for its occupants.
As space reached a premium, burials moved downward. The subterranean vaults can usually be accessed via a ladder, but those buried underneath others don’t always have above-ground markers.
Exposure to War
The land is no stranger to conflict, but increased violence over the last 100 years has forced the government to try and preserve the burial ground.
In 1966, the 64th General Endowment Act was passed in an attempt to curb the violence taking place around Najaf. Additional laws were passed in 1999 further insulating the holy land and increasing the scope of outlined protection.
Regardless, the cemetery has been the site of many significant battles in recent history. During the Iraq war in 2003, the militia frequently used the grounds to hide and ambush approaching enemies. The rebels would take refuge in the maze of crowded tombs, but the Iraqi army just bulldozed its way through the grounds without regard.
- Also buried are the kings of Al-Hira and the leaders from Al-Sassani Era (637-226), along with companions, kings, Sultans, and princes of the state of Hamdania, Fatima, Al-Buwayhyia, Saffawayia, Qajar, and Jalairiyah.
To this day, piles of wrecked cages from the graves remain stacked on the roadsides.
It is reputed to be the largest cemetery in the world. The cemetery covers 1485.5 acres (6 km²) and contains approximately 5 million bodies.
The violence that has overwhelmed Iraq since 2003 has lead to a massive expansion of the graveyard, swelling it by 40 percent to about three square miles. The cemetery has grown every year since 2004, first with the clashes against American forces, then the sectarian wars of 2006-2007 when Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other at a murderous rate, and finally in the 2008 battles with the Iraqi army. In recent years, though, its growth has slowed.
- It is related on the authority of the Fourth Holy Imam, Imam Sajjad (as) that Imam Ali (as) once said that:
Newer cemeteries cannot match Wadi Al-Salam in size due to depletion of real estate and urbanization – and they lack the holy significance to protect the land. (also helps it’s in the desert and not along the Mediterranean coast).
Wadi Al-Salaam Najaf itself is one of Iraq’s biggest cities, with a population of nearly 600,000 an Islamic cemetery
The cemetery contains an estimated 5 million of bodies,
An estimated 8 million make the pilgrimage to the site each year, either to bury loved ones or pay tribute to Ali.