Wadi-us-Salaam, the Valley of Peace, is 150 km south of Baghdad, Iraq, and covers 13 percent of the total land in the city of Najaf. It is on UNESCO’s Tentative World Heritage Site list due to Wadi-us-Salaam’s status as the world’s largest cemetery and the only graveyard in the world with continuous burials for more than 1,400 years. The Valley of Peace sits next to the Shrine of Imam Ali, the first of 12 Shia imams, making this graveyard a highly sought after resting place for Shia Muslims. At the front gate, talismans are sold claiming to offer protection against the terrifying, and often violent, spirits that live inside.
The world’s largest cemetery with the longest history of continuous burial and high religious significance. It’d be more surprising if it wasn’t haunted, honestly.
But it’s not the type of haunted cemetery we typically see in the west. That is, a place where people go to get goosebumps and take pictures hoping for evidence of the weird. To the people of Najaf and the gravediggers who work there, the things that haunt Wadi-us-Salaam are very real, and very dangerous.
Al Jazeera recently spoke to a few gravediggers who work or have worked at Wadi-us-Salaam, all of whom have stories of ghosts, moving corpses, jinns, and witches. They’re all pretty frightening.
Haider al-Hatemi, 26, a former gravedigger, had an encounter in 2016 with a being the locals call Tantal, Bzebza or Ghreria. He says:
“One day, a shadow sneaked up behind me and hit my head violently, leaving me badly injured. I no longer walk straight and feel like the ghost still haunts my body.”
Hatemi’s family believed that shamanic healing might be able to help their son, so they sold the family home to pay for the shamanic treatments, but two years later Hatemi’s condition has not improved.
Gravedigger Murtaza Jwad Abo Sebi, 23, says that employee turnover is “quite high” because of the hauntings, saying that “colleagues run away if the ghost gets involved in an incident.” Abo Sebi has his own story too. He claims that this happened while he was working in 2013:
“It happened at night, while I was working down in the grave to put a dead woman in her tomb during the funeral ceremony. When I bent down, her hand slapped my face so fiercely that I was left petrified.”
It certainly happens that corpses make small muscle movements as the body relaxes after rigor mortis fades. But Abo Sebi says that the body was well tied up in a sheet, and a full on slap to the face is hardly a small muscle movement. Yet regardless of the cause, Abo Sebi says the incident left lasting trauma and he spent years reliving that night. After multiple suicide attempts, Abo Sebi was enrolled in psychiatric therapy at the American University Hospital of Beirut, Lebanon. Now, years later, he is cured, happy, and married. But he still works in the Valley of Peace. He says:
“The job is passed on from generation to generation, and we have all heard about Tantal for decades.”
Sixty-one-year-old gravedigger Hani Abu Ghnaim lives in the cemetery and believes that there are two beings that exist in Wadi-us-Salaam: a ghost and a jinn. Ghnaim says:
“I saw it at night, jumping from grave to grave to feed on freshly buried bodies. It successively resembles a big worm, a little child and a cat dressed in a large fur coat. If we come across it, I scream at it to go away.”
Islamic tradition holds that there are other entities with whom we share creation: angels, demons and jinn. Jinn are frequently depicted as animalistic and shadowy creatures on a similar level as humans in the cosmic hierarchy. Like humans, jinn can be good or evil or somewhere in between and also like humans, jinn have lifespans and grow old and die. Although they are said to grow much older than humans. The type of jinn that allegedly prowls Wad-us-Salaam is one of the more well known types: a “ghul,” or ghoul. Ghoul’s are monstrous jinn that feed on the the living and dead alike and are decidedly bad news.
The interesting thing here is how matter-of-fact these people describe this whole business despite the pretty horrible nature of their encounters (assuming these stories are told in earnest). It’s also strange how little has been written about a haunting or jinn occupation (or however you’d like to call it) in the world’s largest and oldest cemetery. How many other truly strange locations have we in the west yet to find out about?