The World’s Largest Cemetery

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Wadi Al-Salaam (Arabic وادي السلام; Valley of Peace) is an Islamic cemetery, located in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq. It is the largest cemetery in the world. The cemetery covers 1,485.5 acres (601.16 ha; 6.01 km2; 2.32 sq mi) and contains over 5 million bodies. It also attracts millions of pilgrims annually.

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The cemetery is located near the shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Sunni Caliph and the first Shia Imam. Thus, many Shi’ites in Iraq request that they be buried in this cemetery. As a result of improved transportation methods, Shi’ites from across the globe are (or seek to be) buried in the cemetery. However, burial at the cemetery “means being placed in one of the cemetery’s many catacombs.” According to an undertaker at the cemetery, each crypt can hold up to 50 bodies. The burial plots are controlled by Marja’.

cemetery wadi-us-salaam

Daily burials have been on going for over 1,400 years and the site is on the Tentative List of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Burials in Najaf have been documented as early as the Parthian and Sassanid eras and ancient Mesopotamian cities often had similar cemeteries, where there was an accumulation of tombs.

It is estimated that during the Iraq War about 200 to 250 corpses were buried there daily, however, in 2010 this number had decreased to less than 100. Approximately 500,000 new bodies are interred in the cemetery annually from across the globe. This figure is an increase on the approximately 20,000 bodies, primarily from Iran, that used to be interred annually in the early 20th century. Most Iraqi and many Iranian Shi’ites have a relative buried in the cemetery.

As of 2014—coinciding with conflict against ISIL—it has been reported that burial plots are running out, resulting in many being stolen, illegally resold or improvised. According to one gravedigger: “I’ve never had it so busy. Not even after 2003 or 2006 [the height of Iraq’s civil war].”

The Battle of Najaf was fought between United States and Iraqi forces on one side and the Islamist Mahdi Armyof Muqtada al-Sadr on the other in the Iraqi city of Najaf in August 2004. The battle spilled over into the Wadi Al-Salaam.

Battle of Najaf

Major conflict began on 5 August, when the Mahdi Army (MA) attacked an Iraqi Police Station at 1 am. Their first attack was repelled but the MA regrouped and attacked again at 3 am. Soon after, a quick reaction force (QRF) from the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was dispatched at the request of the governor of An Najaf. Around 11 am the QRF came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire from the Mahdi Army within the Wadi-us-Salaam. The cemetery has been layered over the centuries resulting in large underground tombs, tunnels and surface monuments, many reaching two stories tall. The U.S. soldiers of 1st battalion, 1st Cavalry Division fought across this inhospitable terrain and under it in some of the first tunnel fighting seen since Vietnam.

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