Iraqi archeologist, museums champion Lamia al-Gailani dies at 80

BAGHDAD — Lamia al-Gailani, an Iraqi archeologist who lent her expertise to rebuilding the National Museum’s collection after it was looted in 2003, has died at age 80.

Her daughter, Noorah al-Gailani, said Sunday that her mother died Friday in Amman, Jordan. She didn’t give a cause of death.

A devotee of Iraq’s heritage and its museums, Ms. Gailani selected artifacts to display at the reopening of the National Museum in Baghdad in 2015, more than a decade after it was looted in the wake of the US invasion.

The restored collection included hundreds of cylinder seals, which had been used to print cuneiform impressions and pictographic lore onto documents and surfaces in ancient Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq. The seals were the subject of Ms. Gailani’s 1977 dissertation at the University of London.


‘‘She was very keen to communicate on the popular level and make archeology accessible to ordinary people,’’ said her daughter, who is curator of the Islamic civilizations collection at the Glasgow Museum in Scotland.

Ms. Gailani also championed a new museum for antiquities that opened in 2016 in the city of Basra. But she bore the grief of watching her country’s rich archeological sites suffer looting and destruction in the years after the US invasion. Thousands of items are still missing from the National Museum’s collection.

‘‘I wish it was a nightmare and I could wake up,’’ she told the BBC in 2015, when Islamic State militants bulldozed relics in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, near present-day Mosul.

Born in Baghdad in 1938, Ms. Gailani was one of the first Iraqi women to excavate in her country.

Fresh from her undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge in Britain, Ms. Gailani was hired as a curator at the National Museum in 1960, her daughter said. It was Ms. Gailani’s first job in archeology.


She returned to Britain in 1970 to pursue advanced studies, and she made her home there. Still, she kept returning to her native country, connecting foreign academics with an Iraqi archeological community that was struggling under the isolation of Saddam Hussein’s autocratic rule and the UN sanctions against him.

In 1999, she published ‘‘The First Arabs,’’ in Arabic, with the Iraqi archeologist Salim al-Alusi, on the earliest traces of Arab culture in Mesopotamia, in the 6th through 9th centuries.

She would bring copies of the book with her to Baghdad and sell them through a vendor on Mutanabbi Street, the literary heart of the capital, her daughter said.

After the US invasion, Ms. Gailani continued to travel to Iraq, determined to rescue its heritage even as the country convulsed with war.

At the time of her death, Ms. Gailani was working with the Basra Museum to curate a new exhibit set to open in March, said Qahtan al-Abeed, the museum director.

‘‘She hand-picked the cylinder seals to display at the museum,’’ said Abeed.

A ceremony will be held for Ms. Gailani at the National Museum on Monday. She is survived by her three daughters.