Iraq's City of Death

Gaze over the road circling the Iraqi city of Najaf's compact center and it's clear that this spiritual capital of Shiite Islam is first and foremost a vast cemetery. Shiite forefather Imam Ali is said to have been buried here after his assassination in A.D. 661, and since then Shiites from Mesopotamia to Afghanistan have followed suit so Ali can vouch for their souls in heaven. Najaf's houses, shops and hotels rose on top of the graves—some still have crypts below or behind them—and the ayatollahs built their seminaries from the pilgrims' tithes. Last year about 40,000 people were laid to rest here, down from 50,000 in each of the two violent years before.

In its disorienting enormity, the "Valley of Peace" conjures both robust collective permanence and humbling individual transience. Crumbling headstones, too close to walk between, wrap snugly around the city's plateau, forming an endless collection of tilted columns and pitted slabs spanning the desert—a mesmeric panorama of bereavement. I saw it briefly in 2004 after Shiite militias and U.S. forces battled here. With the fighting long over, I have returned to explore the place that has drawn millions of believers for their final rest. Graffiti and hand-painted signs point to family plots, but most of the dead, their names drawn on headstones of sandy brick and plaster, erode into anonymity in a few decades of unforgiving heat and wind. The honeycombs of earthen crypts and coffin-less bodies collapse over time, making way for the newly dead. God purifies this land every 50 years, says a proverb.

Najah Mirza Abu Saiba is an undertaker, like his ancestors before him. He leads me from the dilapidated strip of concrete storefronts where funerals are arranged, traveling along the same dirt tracks used by Iraq's holy warriors for decades: in the 1920s fighting against British forces, in the 1990s against Saddam's tanks and then against U.S. troops. I follow his car—it's too hot and the cemetery too big to walk—to a funeral in one of the new divisions, where the graves are still spread out. About 30 men hover around a family headstone. A rail-thin, dust--covered worker stands up to his head inside a dirt shaft and receives the shrouded body, still limp and soft, of an old man who died the night before. A prayer leader—one of the many death-related occupations here—calls condolences through a tinny bullhorn. It took three days to bury the slain Ali, he reminds them, so thank God this man is being interred quickly and peacefully. Nearby, hundreds, maybe thousands, of nameless graves mark the burial of those less fortunate, who have died unidentified in the mayhem since 2003. The multitudes of gravestones obscure the view of the nearby city and create a vast display of persecution and unity. Caravans of corpses from Iran, the Arab world and subcontinental Asia streamed here until the recent decades of war, sanctions and tyranny stopped them. Brick markers save spots for still-living Shiites in other lands. A few Lebanese clerics have been buried here since 2003, and others have trickled in from Kuwait and Iran. Locals say the ranks would swell if Iranian, Saudi and other governments weren't wary of the hold Najaf has on their subjects.

All this death makes symbolic ground for those keen to sow it. The radical Mahdi Army has the best-kept space, decorated in flowers and pastel colors, as if to prove that martyrdom is well rewarded. Political parties build shrines to leaders. New burial grounds are framed in ridges of dried mud, stretching across the desert. There's talk of paving roads, adding lighting and making the plots more organized. Though this place has never yielded to order—not unlike death itself.