Najaf: Where kings, prophets, and terror victims are buried

Najaf: Where kings, prophets, and terror victims are buried
Millions of Iraqis are thought to be buried at the Valley of Peace in Najaf, a thousand-year-old cemetery where people and undertakers compete for highly demanded space and lucrative business.
3 min read
10 July, 2016
The sprawling Valley of Peace cemetery is a World Heritage site [AFP]
Here, underground at the Valley of Peace cemetery in Najaf, rich and poor, king and servant, man and woman are all equal. They all rest in peace, in one of the world's largest graveyards 161 kilometres south west of Baghdad.

The cemetery's grounds extend as far as the eye can see, like a sea of graves. By some estimates, more than six million men, women and children are buried here, mostly Shia Muslims from Iraq, but from many other nations too.

"I have been working as a grave digger for 20 years in possibly the foremost Muslim cemetery in the world," Karrar Ali tells The New Arab.

Ali began working here when his sister died. He did not have the money to pay for someone to bury her and after an undertaker donated money to cover the costs, he started working with him.

Many Iraqis, non-Iraqis and even non-Shia Muslims like to bury their loved ones or request for themselves to be laid to rest in the Valley of Peace, including fallen fighters of the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilisation militias battling the radical Islamic State (IS) group.

"We receive almost 20 bodies of fighters killed by IS alone every day," the grave digger said.
It could cost up to $18,000 to book a space in the Valley of Peace, compared to less than $450 a decade ago
A privilege

The competition over burial space also plays out among undertakers, who have increased in number over the past decade in Iraq on account of both the high number of casualties of the unrest and the lack of jobs in the country.
The cost of a plot here is up to $18,000 [AFP]

Around 500 undertakers operate officially around the cemetery, most of whom inherited the jobs from generations of undertakers and know no other profession.

Some offer their services on a pro-bono basis to the poor and needy, as charity.

It could cost up to $18,000 to book a space in the Valley of Peace, compared to less than $450 a decade ago, according to Ali.

"Some graves are erected using mud and clay, some (built) with a dome on top. There are also catacombs underground accessible via ladders, around five to 10 metres deep," Ali explained.

Around half a million people are buried in the cemetery each year, many from Iran and Lebanon in addition to Iraq.

There have been complaints of overcrowding as well as reports of theft and illegal sale of burial plots.

The local government in Najaf recently pledged to build a fence around the cemetery to protect its cultural value as well as shore up its security.

UNESCO recently agreed to place the Valley of Peace on the World Heritage List. The cemetery is more than a thousand years old, and some believe it is home to the remains of prophets like Noah and various kings of Iraq and Persia as well as tribal leaders, famous clerics, and historical figures.