Grave after grave, kilometre after kilometre, the cemetery in the city of Najaf is the world's largest Islamic burial site and the final resting place for generations of Shia Muslims.

Called the Valley of Peace, the business of death that has sprung up on the back of the graveyard owes its livelihood to the sumptuous mausoleum of Ali, the first Shia imam.

The breathtaking tomb was constructed in the ninth century and is one of the most sacred sites in Shia Islam after Makka and Madina. For over a thousand years since then, the Shia faithful have flocked to the site in southern Iraq to pay their respects.

"We believe that Imam Ali intercedes on behalf of those buried near him so they can enter paradise," explains Dia Jassem Muhammad, 25, part-time gravedigger and one of the tomb's wardens.

"In the ears of the dead, we shout what they need to tell the two angels who weigh up each individual's conduct," he adds.

Homes of the dead

Stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see, inscriptions mark out family and tribal burial sites to the visitor.

Even modest gravestones measure one metre, adorned with a marble plaque commemorating the name of the deceased. Then there are multi-layered tombs, myriads of domes and houses, literally homes of the dead.

Bodies from mass graves have
been reburied at Najaf  

"Families often can't find their relatives," admits Haidar Tarek Ghazi, 23, son of one of the cemetery's wardens - a profession that has been in his family for seven generations.

A woman waters a still empty plot in the family enclosure, where several tombstones have already been built.

"All the tribe are buried here," he says, pointing out that the empty plot belongs to his family.

War and peace

Funeral director Saheb Abed Qassem al-Jaafari, 58, pointed out that social inequalities are carried over to the cemetery.

"In general, the rich families build huge marble tombs," he says, explaining that tombs cost anything from 50,000 Iraqi dinars ($30) to four million Iraqi dinars ($2700), depending on where it is located.

But, like most things in Iraq, the cemetery has not escaped political upheaval. In the 1980s, it was expanded to cope with the huge numbers of people killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Army deserters were also known to hide in the cemetery at that time.

Since Saddam Hussein's overthrow in April, the remains of those exhumed from the mass graves of the Shia uprising of 1991 have also been laid to rest in the Valley of Peace.