Residents of Iraq’s city of Najaf seek refuge from heat, threats in bowels of earth.
Whenever Saadiyah Ahmed is overcome by the torrid heat of Iraq's Najaf desert in the summer or when she is chilled by the glacial nights in winter, she disappears underground.
The family cellar, one of thousands of elaborate excavations beneath the Shiite shrine city in central Iraq, holds fond memories for 60-year-old Ahmed.
"It was a place to play when we were children, as well as a living room," she recalls. "My grandmother and mother used to arrange the cellar while I would help clean it."
But the labyrinth of tunnels beneath Najaf's old city have been used for far more than simply an escape from the harshness of the climate.
Faced with Wahhabite invaders, British guns, Saddam Hussein's forces or US helicopters, residents of Najaf have for centuries adopted the same strategy -- seek refuge in the bowels of the earth.
Today, Iraqi scientists are working to map out this subterranean peculiarity of the city, which above ground is dominated by the gilded domes of the mausoleum of Imam Ali, founder of Shiism, who died in 661.
"Najaf must protect these tunnels and cellars because they represent a unique heritage. They have witnessed many events in the history of the city," said Hassan al-Hakim, head of the nearby Kufa University.
Hakim recently took part in an expedition to explore the tunnels, which he estimates stretch out across the old city from the Imam Ali shrine for dozens of kilometres (miles).
Underground cellars have been an integral part of life right from the days when Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad, was established in the 9th century.
Residents used them as a means to escape the ravages of summer and winter, while deeper storages, known as "sin" cellars, were used as refrigerators to preserve fruit, vegetables and perishables.
But from the 18th century, the size of the cellars was increased, tunnels were dug and a secret underground network established to face a formidable danger coming from the south.
The tribes of the Arabian peninsula, led by Sheikh Abdul Wahhab, left the Nejd in the centre of present-day Saudi Arabia to impose, at the point of the sabre, their rigorous version of Sunni Islam on Shiite cities in Iraq.
At the time, the city's mausoleum was under the supervision of a revered cleric whose successors later came to view as a visionary.
"When Sheikh Kashif al-Ghitaa realised that the invaders were coming, he ordered a wall built to protect the city, a deep cellar dug under the shrine and tunnels for escape," explained Sheikh Ahmed, curator of a museum which bears the name of the cleric.
The cellar, which opens into another cavern containing a well, is reached by descending 40 steps.
"Secret rooms and tunnels were dug, some of which have not yet been explored," said Sheikh Ahmed.
"Kashif al-Ghitaa, once the excavations were complete, hid the treasures from the Imam Ali shrine as well as rare manuscripts in the cellar to protect them should the invaders violate the city."
The same caverns were subsequently used as refuge by generations of Shiite fighters opposed to the various local or foreign authorities who tried to subjugate a community judged rebellious.
"Some cellars were used as shelters for gunmen during the 1920 revolution against the British mandate," said Sheikh Ahmed.
In 1991, Shiite clerics used the tunnels -- some of which lead outside the city -- to escape Saddam Hussein's forces when they put down a revolt in the south of Iraq.
And it was from the mosque and its underground hideaways that the militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr resisted US troops in August 2004.
For Saadiyah Ahmed, the cellar of her house has a more serene history.
"We used to prefer to sit near the ducts so we could benefit from the draughts of fresh air," she recalls happily.
Fadhil al-Shimirti, 65, too, has fond memories of the family cellar. "It was a peaceful and comfortable place ... I used to sit there with my parents and brothers," said Shimirti.
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