Selma al-Radi, the Iraqi archaeologist best known for her role in restoring the Amiriya Madrassa in the city of Rada in Southern Yemen, has passed away. Though she worked on sites all over the Middle East-- in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Turkey and Egypt, it was while assisting with the creation of the National Museum of Yemen in the late 70’s that she discovered the 15th century Amiriya Madrassa in a state of total decay. With the financial backing of the Yemeni and Dutch governments she oversaw a painstaking two-decade effort to restore the Madrassa to its former glory. “The Amiriya Madrasa, erected in 1504 and named after the Sultan, the last ruler of the Tahirid Dynasty, was then and is now again one of the great treasures of Islamic art and architecture,” wrote Margalit Fox in the New York Times. Solidly built of limestone and brick, the Amiriya seemed destined to endure as the Sultan’s monumental legacy. But after he Sultan was killed in battle in 1517, the complex was left to decay. “That the Amiriya today stands resplendent after five centuries of neglect,” Fox continues, “is due almost entirely to the efforts of one woman,” Selma Al-Radi.
The daughter of Iraq’s ambassador to Iran and India, the late Salim al-Radi, Selma al-Radi was born in Baghdad on July 23rd 1939, but grew up in Tehran and New Delhi, where her father worked as diplomat. She would go on to receive degrees from Cambridge, where she studied archeology and ancient Semitic languages, and from Columbia, where she obtained an MA, and finally her Ph.D. in archeology at the University of Amsterdam.
Al-Radi is also the sister of the late ceramic artist Nouha al-Radi, whose famous book “Diary of Baghdad”, which was released in English and translated into many languages, had recorded the events of the Iraq-U.S. 1990-1991 war. Selma al-Radi succumbed to ovarian cancer in her home in Manhattan on October 7th at the age of 71. She was buried in Brooklyn.
This article appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63 (2010)
Copyright (c) 2010 by Al Jadid