29 May

World Cultures: Wadi-al-Salam Cemetery

By Thomas Jang

Wadi-al-Salam cemetery, called the Valley of Peace (وادي السلام), is one of the biggest cemeteries in the world. Located in Najaf, Iraq, it covers an area of 1,485.5 acres or 2.32 square miles. It houses the remains of approximately six million people and was added to the Tentative List of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in January 2011. 

The first burials at the site can be dated back to the Parthian and Sassanid eras. Due to its location near the shrines of the first Shia Imam and the fourth Sunni Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib (عَلِيّ), many Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq desire to be buried in this cemetery. Therefore, the cemetery is the world’s oldest continuing cemetery, beginning more than 1400 years ago. 

Religious edicts in Shia Islam encourage Shi’ites to bury their dead at the cemetery. Furthermore, Shi’ite funerary rituals before burying their dead include washing and wrapping the body, conducting funeral prayers at the shrine of Ali, carrying the body around the shrine and back to the cemetery, and then reciting verses from the Qur’an for the dead. 

The cemetery itself covers 13% of the area of the city, contributing to the city’s spirit. Various types of burials at the cemetery include lower graves and high graves. The kings of Al-Hira and their families were buried inside vaults and rooms carved deep into the ground. 

Significant figures buried at the cemetery include the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his successor, Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr. Others include prophets Hud and Salih, whose shrines were first built in the 1700’s, desecrated by the British in 1917, reconstructed from 1918-1919, and newly built beginning in 2018.