“Can you imagine?” Iraqi archeologist Lamia al-Gailani was fond of saying, her voice rising in delight.
It was often about some item showing the ingenuity of Sumerian civilization, like a scythe made of clay the last time I toured the National Museum of Iraq with her, last spring.
I’d known Gailani since the 1990s. She was one of a generation of women — accomplished, unconventional and entirely original — who first drew me to Iraq.
“Look at the genius of the Iraqis,” she said pointing to a 5,000-year-old clay blade in a glass case. “In the south, where they didn’t have stone, they made clay into scythes. It’s an absolute innovation, don’t you think?”
For Gailani, who died on Jan. 18 at age 80, “Can you imagine?” could have described the trajectory of her own life.
Growing up in a revered Sufi Muslim family under the Iraqi monarchy, Gailani had ambitions of studying law and going into politics. The prospect was a nightmare for her family, a pillar of Iraqi society.
“They wanted me to be nice, learn English and get married. Full stop,” she told me last year, laughing. “The only way to bribe me to not go into law was to tell me to study anything and we will send you to England.”
Gailani took the law exam anyway, to prove she could pass it, and went to the University of Cambridge in the U.K. — becoming the first Iraqi woman to study archaeology abroad. She embraced the subject out of a love of her country’s history and culture.
When she graduated and returned to Iraq in 1961, Gailani worked at Iraq’s original archaeological museum — established by British colonial administrator Gertrude Bell — and then at the new national museum, when it opened in 1966.
Half a century later, on what turned out to be our last walk around the museum, Gailani peered into a glass case of 4,000-year-old cylinder seals as if they were old friends.
“These are originally my choice from 1966. I curated the cylinder seals,” she said.
The seals are tiny things, used as signatures in ancient times and carved of limestone, marble or lapis lazuli. Each one has a distinctive scene, apparent only when it’s rolled out on clay.
“This is a lovely scene,” she said, pointing to one. “It shows a male and female with straws, drinking — probably beer. At the bottom of the straw, there’s a strainer — to stop all the worms.”
For the opening of the museum in 1966, Gailani had rolled out the impressions of the seals on pink clay. Those impressions are still displayed next to the seals.
“The impressions are mine — the museum staff don’t know it, but I know it,” she told me.
Gailani had walked through the museum thousands of times. But each time, she seemed as excited as if it were her first.
“Look, there he is — look, how lovely,” she would say, pointing out a favorite statue, a headless limestone figure of a Sumerian king, more than 4,000 years old.
“Lamia was very attached to the museum,” says Aysar Akrawi, a childhood friend. “She loved every single piece in it.”
Gailani even referred to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq as “we,” often before catching herself and laughing.
On a visit to the museum with Gailani a few years ago, I mentioned a disparaging description I’d heard of the remains of the ancient city of Hatra, a World Heritage Site, as “Greco-Roman kitsch.” The 2,000-year-old city, with its Hellenistic, Persian and Roman influences, was one of Gailani’s favorite sites.
She took me through the hall of statues to show me whimsical stone statues, replete with curly hair and bushy mustaches.
“There’s nowhere else in the world you find all these influences coming together,” she said.
On another visit, I found her going through archives she had found of letters from Gertrude Bell in the 1920s and photographs of Iraq’s royal family. In 2009, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq awarded Gailani the Gertrude Bell Memorial Gold Medal “for outstanding services to Mesopotamian archaeology” – only the fifth time the medal had been awarded since the 1970s.
I came away from conversations with her realizing how much there was to learn about almost everything — that certain kinds of trees were believed by some Iraqis to have souls; that the English word “gossip” comes from a Babylonian word.
Gailani returned to Britain in 1970, earning a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh and a Ph.D. in archaeology from University College London. She acquired British citizenship along the way, and although she lived in Britain through the 1980s and 1990s, she maintained ties to Iraq.
After the national museum was looted following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, she returned to Baghdad to help assess and repair the damage and reopen the museum. She came back to find stunned staff wandering the hallways.
“They were in shock,” she recalled. Gailani told them to snap out of it and get to work.
Among the losses, Gailani documented that more than 5,000 of the museum’s collection of cylinder seals had been taken.
She was both heartbroken and furious about the lack of protection for Iraqi antiquities. On the 10-year anniversary of the museum looting, I sat in the audience while Gailani gave a lecture in Baghdad on looting of museums and ancient sites that had started in Iraq in the 1990s.
Then in her 70s, Gailani was white-haired, dressed primly in a sweater twin-set. In the midst of her lecture to a room filled with staid, older Iraqis, she suddenly switched from Arabic to English and dropped the F-bomb, repeating a quote attributed to a U.S. official, emphasizing his lack of concern for antiquities while fighting a war. The audience jolted in their seats.
It remains the only time I have ever heard that epithet used in an archaeology lecture.
Last month, Gailani suffered a stroke in Amman, where she had been giving a workshop for Iraqi archaeologists on museum labeling. She had been scheduled to return to Baghdad that weekend, to finish choosing pieces for the new museum in Basra.
She had also been working on a history of the national museum and had recently been appointed by a religious court to the powerful position of head of a fund at her family’s Gailani shrine.
Gailani did fulfill her family’s requirement that she marry. Her first husband was a sculptor cousin, Abd al-Rahman al-Gailani. After they divorced, she married George Werr, a businessman from a prominent Jordanian family.
She is survived by three daughters, one of whom followed in her footsteps as a protector of cultural heritage: Noorah Gailani is curator of Islamic civilizations at the Glasgow Museum.
“My mother’s love of history is from her childhood. Her value for it and the importance of knowing humanity through its cultural identity and civilization pushed her to study archaeology and history in general and Iraqi archaeology specifically,” she said at a memorial for her mother at the national museum last month.
A descendant of Sufi saint Abdul Qadir al-Gailani, Lamia al-Gailani was laid to rest on Jan. 21 in the family shrine in Baghdad, after her flag-draped coffin was brought by mourners from the Iraq museum. It would have been hard to imagine a more fitting end.