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Lamia Al Gailani Werr: The archaeologist-warrior who preserved Arab history, identity

Jan 23,2019 - Last updated at Jan 23,2019

Lamia Al Gailani Werr was one of the Arab world's warriors for its precious cultural heritage. Her death in Amman last Friday deprives this region and the world of an archaeologist who spent her life immersed in the investigation and preservation of Arab history and identity. One of Iraq's first female archaeologists, she was not only an "Iraqi treasure", but also an "Arab treasure" and good friend.

Born in 1938 into a distinguished Iraqi family, Lamia read archaeology at Baghdad University in the 1950s before continuing her studies at Cambridge. In the 1960s, she worked in Iraq's National Museum and travelled to Britain to earn a second Masters' degree from Edinburgh and a Doctorate from London University, where she became a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2009, Lamia was awarded the Gertrude Bell Memorial Medal by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq for advancing the study of Mesopotamian archaeology, her field of specialisation.

I met her in Baghdad during August 2003, after the devastating US war on Iraq. She was taking part in the campaign to trace and restore artefacts looted during the US occupation and advising the ministry of culture. Since I am a journalist and writer with a compelling interest in what happens to cultural heritage during and after war, Lamia became an important source of expert information.

I had gone to Iraq with the UNESCO mission investigating the pillage that May, a month after US tanks sat outside the Iraq Museum while looters entered the building and carried away its treasures. The mission consisted of my old friend Selma Al Radi, another Iraqi archaeologist-warrior who predeceased Lamia, experts from the Chicago and Stony Brook universities in the US and team from National Geographic magazine.

During that visit, we were briefed by the museum's acting director Donny George and US army Lt. Col. Matthew Bogdanos. His job was to try to save Washington's face after the huge humiliating outcry in the press over the failure of the US army to protect Iraqi cultural heritage.

Bogdanos won no friends among the UNESCO team when he attempted to shrug off the failure of the US to prevent pillage, although the George W. Bush administration had been warned by high profile archaeologists and historians to make arrangements to protect not only the museum, but also the Modern Art Museum, which was looted, and the archives, which were burnt. What could be expected from alerted but ignorant US officials like vice president Dick Cheney who, when confronted by critics, stated, "Stuff happens."

Bogdanos was arrogantly defensive when displaying a table-top covered with items retrieved since his arrival. Most belonged to the museum's collection of fakes. He later calmed down, joined the cause of recovering Iraq's stolen cultural heritage and became a close friend of Selma.

During my second post-war trip to Baghdad that August, I spent a lot of time in the Iraq Museum with Lamia and members of the Italian police's art squad, who were transferring records from elderly index cards to computers.

Lamia was again in Baghdad during my third visit in December 2003. When I entered her office on the morning of the 14th, she said, "You're coming with us to the Gailani Mosque. We've brought an abaya for you." The abaya was black velvet with gold thread trim.

Lamia, her daughter and I were given the grand tour as they descended from Abdul Qadir Al Gailani, the 11th century Muslim judge, scholar and founder of the Qadiriyya sufi order. The compound is splendid, its courtyard spacious and the mosque vast. In the library, we were shown a small, yellowing and crumpled Koran which had survived the sacking of Bagdad in the 1258 by Hulagu's Mongol troops, who threw books from the ruling Abbasids' libraries into the Tigris, turning the river black with ink. We were taken to the shrine of Abdul Qadir, a place of pilgrimage for his followers from the world-wide Muslim Umma. As we walked past the cemetery, our way out of the compound, Lamia joked, "This is where my relatives are buried." It is where, I am told, her remains will repose.

At noon that day, as I was driving with another Iraqi friend to the house of Lamia's sister, Asmah, for lunch, we learned deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had been captured. The meal was spent in shock and outrage over the constantly televised rough treatment he received from his US captors. He had been Iraq's president after all. He deserved some consideration. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's cultural heritage had been not only protected, but also explored by local and foreign scholars.

When Lamia and I met again in Baghdad in August 2004, we drove across the city to see a mutual friend, a former Baath Party official, who was preparing to leave. Although from privileged backgrounds, they had been student activists protesting the British-backed monarchy and celebrated the July 1958 revolution that overthrew the king. Iraqis are patriotic people who do not like occupation in any shape or form.

Lamia and I subsequently met in London. A couple of years ago, she took time to read a draft of my latest book, "Windows on Interesting Times", encouraged me to persist with it and wrote a blurb for the back cover. Lamia featured as a character in some of the stories included in the book, which relates experiences in this region over the past half century.

Fortunately for the region and the world, Lamia was not the Arab area's sole remaining cultural heritage warrior. Among the survivors I know well is Maamoun Abdul Karim, former director of the Syrian Antiquities Department, who battled to preserve Syria's heritage from bombers, bulldozers and looters during that country's conflict. He retired, exhausted by his efforts, during 2017. Yemen, a country with a rich heritage, is the latest regional battleground where, according to Yemeni archaeologists, ancient monuments have been intentionally targeted by the Saudi air force. They are among the warriors who will carry on the battle against people who dismiss the destruction of cultural heritage with the words, "Stuff happens".

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