The Obituary of Abdualmir Hamdani, by Elizabeth Stone- A Guest Post

Dr. Abdulamir al-Hamdani al-Dafar, Iraq’s former Minster of Culture, defender of Iraq’s antiquities, and pioneering archaeological investigator of the marshlands in southern Mesopotamia, succumbed to brain cancer on April 29, 2022.

Abdulamir, born in 1967, grew up in small village in the marshes of southern Iraq. His path to academic and professional success was littered by economic and political obstacles from the start. His father, uneducated himself, built a reed hut to serve as a schoolhouse for Adulamir, his younger siblings, and the other children in the community. At one point, this actually floated away in a flood, and had to be towed back to dry land. Saddam=s government supplied the teachers, but because service at this remote post was a hardship, if not a punishment, saw to it that they were members of a barely tolerated dissident party, the communists. The students, however, appear to have been well served by these brilliant educators and Abudulamir’s brothers have gone on to rewarding careers. Later, upon the early death of his father, Abdulamir had to take on the role of paterfamilias and look after the welfare of his siblings until their independence could be secured. He was also forced also spend many years in military service under the Saddam regime, which hardly advanced his career. While such things delayed his progress, Abulamir nevertheless managed to earn a BA in archaeology at Baghdad University in 1987, enter the antiquities service, and become the director of the Nasiriyah Museum, a position that he held when American and British forces entered Iraq in April 2003.

In that month, US marines arriving in Nasiryah took over his museum to use as a base of operations. Abdulamir saw this as an opportunity. Speaking almost no English himself, he enlisted Amir Dushi, a friend and local English teacher, and persuaded the commanding officer to send troops with him into the countryside of Dhi Qar province to check for looting and other damage. That is when I first met him. I was part of a National Geographic team led by Henry Wright on the same mission, which by chance arrived in Nasiriya the evening before and was allowed to accompany the Marines and Abdulamir when they set out in the morning.

His efforts to protect Iraqi antiquities in the wake of the 2003 war were unceasing. He persuaded the Ayatollah Sistani to issue a fatwa against looting and began a series of surveys of archaeological sites in southern Iraq. He ran afoul of powerful gangs involved in the illegal trade, who at one point they had enough political influence to put him in jail, though not for long.

In February 2008 he came to the United States for the first time for a short training program in GIS and the analysis of satellite imagery at Stony Brook University. He arrived, armed with maps and notes of his archaeological research and mastered the computer programs in short order. By May, he was in sufficient command of English and the university environment to helped organize a day-long symposium on the archaeology of Iraq with Helen Marko (PhD Stony Brook 2015) and the late Donny George. In June he joined a group of international scholars sponsored by British Museum group that flew by helicopter to major archaeological sites such as Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, for which the British military provided a necessary escort.

For the next three years, despite the unsettled conditions, he expanded his archaeological surveys in and around the marshes and made occasional overseas trips to promote conservation efforts. He was in constant email contact with me, sharing satellite images and posing questions, refining his skills as an archaeologist. He was doing the same for archaeologists in other countries.

In the summer of 2011, as the US forces were leaving Iraq, he invited me and Paul Zimansky to come to Nasiriyah with the aim of restarting archaeological excavations in the area. He introduced us to the local intellectual community, sheikhs, and officials, arranging for us to be put up at government expense. Our idea was to dig a village in the vicinity of Ur to see how urban assemblages compared with what was found in the Old Babylonian countryside, and he took us to visit numerous sites in driving distance from Ur, where there were facilities to house an expedition. Eventually, we settled on Tell Sakhariya and brought a team in to excavate there for five weeks that winter. Abudlamir was also instrumental in encouraging other teams, specifically an Italian one led by Franco D’Agustino at Tell Abu Tubeira and another, directed by the British archaeologists Jane Moon and Steward Campbell, to Tell Kaiber. The latter site, which Abulamir discovered, was to revolutionize our understanding of a subject very dear of his heart, the First Dynasty of the Sealand (17-16th centuries BC).

In the fall of 2012, Abdulamir brought his family to the United States and entered the graduate program at Stony Brook University. His research emphasized the crucial role played by marsh environments in the history of Mesopotamian civilization and was particularly focused Sealand Dynasty. Throughout the period of his graduate training he remained closely tied to the Iraq’s Department of Antiquities and Heritage. Returning to Iraq in 2015 with a portfolio to oversee all archaeological projects in southern Iraq, he was awarded his PhD in a ceremony in front of the ziggurat at Ur. He was, at the time, excavating with us at Ur itself.

In early 2018 he obtained a post-doctorate position in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, serving as a consultant for a British Council funded project to train Middle East and North African archaeologists in the use of remote sensing methods for heritage protection. In January 2019 he was appointed Minister of Culture and returned to Iraq. Although his tenure in that office was cut short by a government shakeup a year later, he had a profound influence in reopening Iraq for research by both Iraqi archeologists and foreigners, paying particular attention to training the next generation of Iraqi archaeologists.

Within a year of taking his degree, Abudlamir had undergone surgery for a glioblastoma. He was able to fend off this dangerous brain cancer for a remarkably active five years, organizing publications, encouraging students, and protecting the past until he was incapacitated at the end of 2021. He is survived by his wife, Battul, and two sons, Haidar and Uruk. The field of Mesopotamian archaeology has lost a remarkable man.

Elizabeth Stone
Professor Emerita
Department of Anthopology
Stony Brook University