NAJAF, Iraq -- We drove 234 miles Thursday, round-trip from Baghdad to a village south of Najaf, to interview rice farmers.
Along the way we passed the world's largest cemetery. Millions have been buried there for a thousand years.
The cemetery takes up several square miles in Najaf. There's a shrine dedicated to Imam Ali, the first of 12 imams revered by Shiite Muslims. His father and the prophet Mohammed were brothers, and he is regarded as the first Muslim because he believed Mohammed's teachings. He also married Mohammed's daughter.
He was assassinated, according to Shiite theology, in the Kofa mosque in Najaf, the first capital of Muslims in the early years after Mohammed's death. He was killed in a dispute over some of the earliest arguments about Islam.
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Because of their belief in his martyrdom and teachings, millions of Shiites over the centuries have asked to be buried near the Gold Mosque, as it is now called.
Behind waist-high tan and gray brick walls stretch mile after mile of graves. Most are topped with a simple brick or concrete structure the size of a dollhouse. Others stretch to the size of a small cabin. People leave flowers and candles and burn incense at the sites.
Outside the walls is a literal cottage industry, small home businesses that wash the bodies, drape them in white cloth and otherwise prepare them for burial. Many family members are buried together over the years. Each ceremony costs about $500.
As a Shiite stronghold, the area became a battleground two and three years ago when sectarian and other kinds of violence peaked. Sunni insurgents, for example, are suspected of bombing a Shiite mosque that killed 180 people in the province.
Today, thankfully, the burial business is slow, or at least normal, because of the decline in deaths and maiming countrywide. So says Assan, a man in his 20s wearing a gray dishdasha, the collar-to-ankle gown favored on hot days by Iraqi men.
"A few years ago, it was always busy," he recalls.
The whole route south, it seems, was once a killing field.
In the first town south of Baghdad, Mahmoudiya, up to 15 car bombs slaughtered hundreds. Farther south at Latifiyah, many more Shiites were shot in front of their families, beheaded, their children smashed against walls.
(Shiites, of course, have conducted similar brutality against Sunnis over the last six years, which thrust Iraq into a civil war in 2006-2007.)
Today, small-scale fenced-in soccer pitches with artificial turf sit empty as horse-drawn carts clomp on the highway's shoulder. Orchards of dusty date palm trees are popular because they don't die easily and their clusters of dates can be easily cut down.
Small pickups hold beds filled with sheep or a single cow. Other cows graze on unfenced land, a lot of it reeds. Skinned lambs hang from outdoor hooks in shops. The Euphrates River snakes across the highway about 60 miles south of the capital.
On the outskirts of Najaf, we have to detour a half-mile north, then drive back to a busy intersection. That's so the tightest security inspection yet can be done on cars and IDs. A tin outhouse the size of an old-fashioned phone booth is gravity-powered.
Streaming the other way, south to north, are thousands of pilgrims. Many walk, most in sandals not facing the traffic, while carrying green and black flags. They're headed to Khadimiya Shrine in northwest Baghdad. That's the mosque honoring another imam sacred to Shiites, and two to three million people are expected to visit it today. They've come from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and all over Iraq.
About 20 miles southeast of Najaf, in a village flanking a channel of the Euphrates, we find our rice farmers. We spend two hours listening to conversations that would be familiar in Merced or Modesto or Topeka -- except these have been going on for 5,000 years.
Anthropologists and archaeologists believe humankind's first efforts to grow crops started in these parts, Mesopotamia, the Land Between Two Rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris).
Two older farmers, one 85, the other 67, complain about the government, the weather, the usual list of gripes when men and women who make their living from the land get a chance to vent to outsiders. It's reassuring and familiar to find that the human element transcends distances and differences.
Laith, our reporter, interprets as we sit barefoot on carpet runners against the wall in a tiled room. They serve us bottled water, and everybody drinks from the same glass.
I kiss the farmers on both cheeks as I shake their hands goodbye, just as they have done to me. Lunch is lamb burgers and Pepsi at a place in Najaf with our two drivers and three local men who had helped us find the farmers.
We each get a bottle of water labeled "Bash." I'm bringing that home.
On the way back to Baghdad, we stop at a wooden stand selling handmade Iraqi baskets. I'm a basket freak (some of you would say "case"), so I buy a flat one the size of a medium pizza with red, green, purple, blue and straw colors for me and one for Laith's mother.
Driving on, we pass two wild and crazy wedding caravans -- cars draped in flowers and bunting, horns blaring, one dude standing in the sun roof taking video; more pilgrims; and 27 army or police checkpoints -- seven fewer than on the trip down.
It's good to get out of the big city. Even to see the world's largest cemetery. And to visit with people who get their hands covered in mud for their families.
Executive Editor Mike Tharp, when he returns from Iraq, can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or email@example.com