Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Iraq does not cover 600,000 hectares

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A photo of Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, was shared on social media alongside a partially false claim that it is "the world's largest cemetery" which "covers 600,000 hectares". The post has been liked tens of thousands of times. While reputable sources have referred to the cemetery as the world's largest, the necropolis is estimated to cover a significantly smaller area: between 600 to 1,000 hectares.

"What you see here is not buildings in a city; this is the world's largest cemetery called Wadi al-Salam, which is located in Iraq, covers 600,000 hectares and contains more than five million bodies!" reads this Indonesian-language Instagram post, which has racked up more than 42,400 Likes since it was posted on February 6, 2023.

Screenshot of the misleading post, taken on February 15, 2023

The photo and claim that the cemetery covers 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) have circulated in other Instagram posts, such as here and here, as well as here and here on Facebook, garnering more than 890 Likes.

The claim, however, is partially false.

A Google reverse image search found the photo was published in this May 15, 2013, article from Amusing Planet -- an English-language website covering "interesting places, hidden wonders, and strange stories from history" -- headlined "Wadi Al-Salaam: The Largest Cemetery in The World". The article says the cemetery covers 1,485.50 acres -- or about 600 hectares.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading post (left) and the Amusing Planet photo, which was uncredited (right):

Screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading post (left) and the Amusing Planet photo, which was uncredited (right)

The image also matches a shot of Wadi al-Salam seen in this BBC News video dated July 12, 2016. The video refers to the cemetery as "the world's biggest" with "more than five million people buried there".

Below is a screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading post (left) and a still from the BBC video (right):

Screenshot comparison between the photo in the misleading post (left) and a shot in the BBC video (right)

Wadi al-Salam is listed as the world's largest burial ground by the Guinness Book of World Records.

However, AFP found no credible sources that say the cemetery covers 600,000 hectares, as claimed in the misleading posts.

In a submission to UNESCO, Iraq estimated the complex at 917 hectares (2,265 acres).

AFP also cited the same figure in its February 2023 report about Wadi al-Salam -- covering an area which is the equivalent of more than 1,700 football fields.

Some historians estimate that more than six million souls rest at the 14-century-old cemetery, mostly Iraqi but also Iranian and Pakistani Shiites, the latest AFP report said.

Meanwhile, according to this Reuters photo essay, the cemetery covers "roughly 10 square km", or 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres).

The cemetery -- built near the shrine of Imam Ali ibn Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed -- includes the graves of kings, princes, sultans, scientists and others, according to Iraq's UNESCO submission.