By Ahmed Taha Hajo, in Basra
Almost in the centre of the province of Basra, a long, flat stretch of desert is interrupted by a hump that the locals here have named Mount Sanam, after the camel’s hump. The people of Safwan, the area in which Mount Sanam rises, have invested the strange protuberance with magical powers and told plenty of fairy tales about it, including an origin story about two mountains that became lovers, mostly because it just seems so odd that a mountain should simply rise out of the desert landscape.
Mount Sanam is around 152 meters high and the surrounding area bearing the name, is around 1,700 meters long and 1,200 meters wide. Within it there are an estimated 64 valleys.
“People here tell stories they first heard from their own ancestors, about the mountain,” says Haj Farhan al-Saraifi, one of the oldest residents in Safwan. “They believe there are ghosts living there. Local factory owners have talked about taking stones and rocks from the mountain one day, only to return to find the same stones and rocks back again, as though they magically returned to the mountain,” he recounts.
Local woman, Um Abdullah, says she and her family go to the Mount Sanam area every year and search for herbs and truffles that grow there after it rains.
“I swear upon my darlings’ lives, that I once heard a child’s voice crying out in the wilderness,” she tells. “That caused a panic and our whole family fled. It didn’t just happen once. It has also happened to other members of my family, including my brothers, who go to the mountain at different times of the year. They too hear strange voices, and children crying, and they have been pelted by stones which seem to come from out of nowhere,” she says.
Local geologist, Wathiq Ghazi Abdul Nabi, has a less intriguing explanation for how Mount Sanam rose out of the plains. “Because the area is so low, it’s likely that large amounts of salts were deposited here. Heat and other factors have calcified the salts,” the Basra university lecturer explains. “Mount Sanam is actually just like the top, or the hat, on this large salt formation. The rest of the hat wearer’s body is buried about 6 kilometres below the desert.”
According to the university’ s research the mountain of salt is actually rising about 2 millimetres a year.
In 2016, local authorities wanted to make Mount Sanam as a nature reserve. In the past military groups had used it as a base and various businesses have tried to extract materials for building. Now there were plans formulated to remove military and other debris and to build a museum. They also wanted to take better care of the rare plants that grow in the unique environment here.
A lot of local families come here to enjoy the wilderness in February and March every ear, when it is cooler in the desert, says Hamdan Badr, a young local man who works on a nearby farm. “The height of the mountain and the beauty of its scenery make it a wonderful place for a walk,” he says. “But the local authorities are not as concerned as they should be about the value of this place.”