Wadi Al-Salaam cemetery, located in Najaf, Iraq, is the world’s largest cemetery measuring 917 hectares. The cemetery, dated more than 1400 years old, holds approximately five million bodies and continues to receive hundreds of bodies every year making it second to no other in the world.
Wadi Al-Salaam, which means “valley of peace” in Arabic, holds the remains of some of the most prominent Islamic figures, religious leaders, clerics, political leaders, and ordinary citizens. The holy shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib lies close to the cemetery attracting millions of Muslims, especially the Shi’a Muslims of Iraq. Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib was Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and because of this fact, many Muslims attach much importance to the holy shrine with some believing Wadi Al-Salaam to be part of heaven. Most of the population requests for a burial space there.
Despite holding some of the oldest known Muslim graves, Wadi Al-Salaam is a cemetery for everyone. Whether rich or poor, political or religious leaders, the cemetery holds remains of people from all backgrounds and social classes. In fact, some friends and relatives pay and secure burial spaces for their loved ones. People from other countries including India, South East Asia, Lebanon, and others have buried their people in the cemetery for years on end.
Wadi Al-Salaam is unique in that it boasts of being the only cemetery in the world where the burial process continues to date since its inception more than 1400 years ago. It holds remains of prophets, noble kings, princesses, sultans, and most revered religious leaders as well as ordinary people. Some of the graves are made of bricks and plaster and rise up to ten feet high. There are room-sized tombstones built by people of high social class, and there are underground burial vaults as well, which are accessed only by ladder.
The tall graves acted as a symbol of power so that people from the neighborhoods could see them. The unique graves dating hundreds of years ago remain to date, though some lost their appeal during the civil war. To date, diverse graves are coming up alongside the ancient ones making the cemetery a rich source of both culture and modernity. It has the authenticity and the feel of old times, but still has a taste of modernity.
Many local communities of Iraq hold the belief that all the souls of the faithful, eventually rest at the graveyard regardless of where their bodies are. Even for people who die far from home, their souls settle at the Wadi Al-Salaam cemetery. Religious rituals take place at the cemetery, with Quran verse recitals. This depicts the level of importance attached to the graveside. The war in Iraq in recent years has led to an enormous growth of the cemetery as many people who die in the cities rest here.
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