The world’s biggest graveyard

Wadi al-Salaam: the world’s biggest graveyard

Translated to ‘Valley of Peace’, Wadi Al-Salaam is an Islamic cemetery in Iraq. Located near the holy city of Najaf (which is itself one of Iraq’s biggest cities), it’s population of nearly 600,00 pales in comparison to the number of deceased populating the graveyard. Having begun its operations over 1,400 years ago, it is also the worlds longest-running graveyard, as well as the biggest, it’s even a UNESCO heritage site

If our words aren’t enough to convey the sheer magnitude the graveyard then maybe this will help:

Why is it so important?

Specifically, the cemetery covers 1485.5 acres and contains close to five million bodies. That’s equal to the whole population of Scotland. Or, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle.  It also attracts millions of pilgrims annually. According to BBC, amongst the five million plus graves, there lies a majority of Shia Muslims. Those recently interred include victims of Islamic State war.

Confusingly, a burial at Wadi Al-Salaam doesn’t technically mean ‘being buried’. It means being placed inside one of the various catacombs. Each crypt can hold around 50 bodies (varying size can have an impact). Who gets a burial plot is decided by Marja – which is a title given to the highest level of Shia authority – a Grand Ayatollah. They have the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law for followers and less-credentialed clerics.

Who’s this for

The reason the graveyard holds such importance is, like any nice address, the clientele who inhabit it. Numerous Kings, Princes and Sultans are buried at Wadi Al-Salaam. Including Prophet Hud, Prophet Saleh, and Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, as well as the remains of the prince of faithful, Ali Ibn Abi Talib

It is said that the souls of all faithful men and women will end in Wali Al-Salaam. No matter where they are buried.

They make the graves and tombs using brick and plaster. Constructing these in the Mille-Eastern heat is a feat in itself. Because of the heat, the ground level fluctuates, with some points higher than others. A significant portion of the cemetery is an underground network of burial vaults. Dotted throughout the tombstones are the room-size crypts of the wealthy. The round domes on top proudly display their prosperity in life after death. Different eras have their own distinct styles, like the grave sites of the 1930’s and 40’s reaching ten-feet high, in an effort to distinguish a grave from its neighbours.

Wadi al-Salaam and the Iraqi conflict

The 2003 Iraqi saw the cemetery get a different kind of attention. The local militia took advantage of cemeteries labyrinth of winding lanes and underground passages. Using its guerilla-friendly layout to such extent. It prevented American troops from setting foot in the area.

Rebels, seeking shelter from the conflict, made use of the narrow passages and hiding spots. But the Iraqi army bulldozed its way through the cemetery. Ploughing through the gravesite of their own soldiers. Stacked piles of ruins still lay by the roadside as if to be rebuilt.

In response to the ever growing violence in Iraq since 2003, the graveyard has needed to expand. It has since added an extra 3 square miles (40%) to its original size. every year since the conflicts began the Wadi Al-Salaam has continued to grow, but now, it finally begins to slow down. 

How do I get to Wadi Al-Salaam?

Years of conflict and political turmoil have made Iraq extremely difficult to get into. Resulting in a virtually non-existent tourism industry.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to:

  • Anbar province
  • Ninewah province
  • Salah-Al-Din province
  • Diyala province
  • Tam’mim (Kirkuk) province
  • in Erbil province, south of Road 80, and within 10km of the border with Ninewah province between Road 80 and Road 2

The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the rest of Iraq, including the remainder of the Kurdistan region.

What do I need?

  • You are also advised to carry as much identifying paperwork with you as you can.
  • According to Iraqi law, you must get a visa before you travel, including for travel to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. You can apply for a visa at the Iraqi Embassy in London or the Iraqi Consulate in Manchester.
  • Make sure you have the right documents when you arrive in Iraq, including Weapon Authority Cards (WAC) if you are carrying weapons.
  • Foreign nationals have been arrested for failing to provide the correct documentation when requested. For more information contact the Iraqi Embassy in London.
  • Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Iraq.
  • UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are not valid for entry into Iraq. However, ETDs are accepted for airside transit and exit from Iraq. If you’re using an ETD to leave the country, you’ll need to get an exit stamp from the Baghdad or Erbil Residency Office.

If it all looks a bit too much (and we think it does) then why not have a look at something a bit more local. Or maybe a burial isn’t even your bag at all? Whatever your choices, or for more useful information, check out the rest of the site.