She was a pioneer and a guardian of antiquities who leaves a legacy few will be able to live up to

When archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani-Werr passed away two weeks ago at the age of 80, Iraq lost an outspoken defender of the country's unique and vast archeological heritage from war and plunder.  

Lamia al-Gailani-Werr, 80, was buried in her hometown of Baghdad
Lamia al-Gailani-Werr, 80, was buried in her hometown of Baghdad © MEE/Hadani Ditmars


Even as Gailani-Werr worked tirelessly to try to save her country’s heritage, her own family shrine, protected since 1535 when Suleiman the Magnificent covered it with a dome, was damaged in 2007 by a car bomb attack by militants that killed 24 people and injured 68.

It was a painful reminder of the intrinsic connection between the fate of Iraq’s people and its heritage that Gailani-Werr’s very spirit embodied.

But she was as vocal in her criticism of American complicity in the pillaging of the Iraqi Museum and its antiquities as she was about the Iraqi government’s destruction of historic streets and buildings.

In one of our many email correspondences, she wrote in 2011 of her concern about more modern heritage being destroyed by “redevelopment” projects in historic quarters like Baghdad’s Rashid Street and Kadhimiya.

“It is very worrying what is happening to many of the old buildings in Baghdad and other parts of the country, all because of the development projects," she wrote. “The State Board of Antiquities is very weak and those responsible are not knowledgeable of what is considered heritage, thus many 1920s-30s buildings including some unique Art Deco buildings have been demolished.”

In 2015, when the Islamic State group bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed statues at the Museum of Mosul, she told the BBC, “I wish it was a nightmare and I could wake up.”