The Imaginers


“Can you imagine?” Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani was fond of saying, her voice rising in delight.


Lamia al-Gailani was the first Iraqi woman to study archaeology abroad. One of her specialties was the ancient cylinder seals used to write in clay. For the National Museum’s opening in 1966, she used them herself to create the display.

According to her National Public Radio obituary, “Gailani even referred to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq as ‘we,’ often before catching herself and laughing.”

During the US invasion in 2003, over 5,000 cylinder seals were looted from the National Museum. Gailani returned to her home country to help rebuild the institution. She found “stunned staff wandering the hallways … Gailani told them to snap of of it and get to work.”

The museum officially reopened to the public in 2015. Most of the stolen artifacts remain unreturned.




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She was working night after night, essentially living in the drawings that flowed from her pen in an apparently unstoppable flood. They conjured up glimpses of a world she had imagined but which did not, as yet, exist.


In addition to writing, the Sumerians developed architecture. The work of Zaha Hadid, who was born in Iraq, reflected a 21st-century vision as well as respect for tradition:

Hadid belonged to the last generation of architects to work with tracing paper and T-squares. She talked about the care with which she would use a Rotring pen and a ruler to draw. The trick, she said, was to ensure that there was no overlap when she joined two lines to make a sharp point at the corner of a rectangle.

Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s equivalent of the Nobel. As her Guardian obituary recounts:

Hadid was able to create one of the world’s most important architectural practices, one that, at the time of her death, was working in China, the Middle East, America and Russia. She built an extraordinary range of buildings: the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London, the Maxxi art museum in Rome … a car factory for BMW in Leipzig, Germany, a skyscraper complex in Beijing, an opera house in Guangzhou, an exhibition centre in the middle of Seoul. She was asked to work on projects from Libya to Saudi Arabia, and even on the Central Bank of Iraq.

Her Wikipedia page has photos of her projects.