But where generations of explorers saw tradition and romance, Saddam Hussein saw treachery.
He accused the Marsh Arabs of supporting the Shi'a uprising that followed the Gulf War and sent in troops.
But Saddam failed to flush the rebels from the marshes. So he set out to destroy the Marsh Arab civilization -- to commit genocide with pumps and pipes.
Ten years later, the marshes had turned to dust, dotted with abandoned villages.
When Saddam Hussein drained away their water, most Marsh Arabs simply fled. Those who stayed behind, and then survived the next brutal decade, welcomed coalition forces as their liberators. Now they expect them to bring back the water, too.
"I believe the water level is rising," British soldier Syd Seymour told CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. "I've seen a difference since I've been here."
Coalition forces have already started a project to re-flood at least some of the marshes.
But the people of southern Iraq didn't wait for the engineers. As soon as they heard Saddam was gone they went out themselves to open the floodgates.
Already, the wildlife is returning.
Restoring the ecosystem, though, will be easier than reviving a way of life.
Tradition is still a means to survival for many. But they want better things for their children.
"Now, I believe, we have to make certain steps to improve the life of the people. That's building schools, hospitals, road networks, communications," said Latif Rashid, Iraqi Minister of Water.
Iraq's southern marshes will never come back entirely.
But the revival of even a part of this cultural and environmental treasure would stand as a living symbol of victory for all those who fought Saddam Hussein.