The holy city of Najaf in Iraq is home to the world’s largest graveyard, where more than six million bodies have been buried. The cemetery, called Wadi Al Salam (“Valley of Peace” in English), is considered the final resting place of dozens of prophets, scientists, and royals and covers nearly 13 percent of the area of the city. It is believed to be expanding further every day.
As a result, it is the most visited site in the Muslim world, with an estimated five million pilgrims visiting it each year. The city is the center of Shiite devotion and learning for Muslims worldwide. The cemetery is considered the “spiritual gateway to heaven,” and burial there symbolizes loyalty to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. It is also believed to guarantee a faster passage to the afterlife, and the ever-expanding Wadi Al-Salam reflects this belief.
In a submission to UNESCO, Iraq estimated the complex to cover 917 hectares (2,265 acres) and is the world’s oldest and biggest cemetery. The sprawling cemetery extends from the center of Najaf to the far northwest and accounts for around 13 percent of the city’s area, expanding daily.
Its current rate of growth is double the average as Shiite paramilitary visit Ali’s golden-domed shrine before heading to the frontline to fight against the Islamic State. This Sunni extremist group took over vast swathes of Iraq in 2014. The price for a family burial lot in the cemetery now stands at about $51,000, about twice what it was before violence erupted.
In addition to soldiers, the cemetery houses thousands of civilians killed in Iraq’s war against IS and hundreds of members of the anti-ISIS Hashad volunteer force, including their commander, the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed along with many of his fighters during an airstrike in Najaf on March 2021.
A fresh section of the cemetery has recently opened to bury those who were murdered in recent fighting. According to a local historian, the new plots are being filled at a pace of 150-200 a day.
Some families opt for smaller graves to accommodate more loved ones to combat the rising number of burials and keep up with demand. Maajid, a 55-year-old Najaf man selling food and snacks near the cemetery, bought a 25 square meter family lot three years ago for 13 million Iraqi dinars ($8,900). The cemetery is also lucrative for some of the city’s most influential people. A tycoon named Jabbar Khalil, who owns an investment firm, is one such individual who has built his fortune digging graves in the sprawling cemetery. His plots, which cost upward of $110,000, are among the most expensive in the cemetery. He has reportedly hired an assistant to help with the work and expects his profits to double in the next year or so.