x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Selma al Radi, restorer of Yemen's Amiriya Madrasa

A worker on many archaeological sites during her life, the Iraqi-born daughter of a diplomat won an award for the restoration of the crumbling 500-year-old madrasa in Rada'a, Yemen

Selma al Radi speaking during a press conference in Paris in 2003 about restoration plans for Iraq's cultural heritage
Selma al Radi speaking during a press conference in Paris in 2003 about restoration plans for Iraq's cultural heritage

Of the many archaeological sites where the Iraqi-born Selma al Radi worked during a lifetime spent in the field, the most rewarding was the striking Amiriya Madrasa in Yemen.

But for her determination and expertise, the sugar-white, six-domed, three-storied edifice, dating to 1504, its interior resplendent with dramatic geometric designs and intricate stucco, might well have deteriorated completely. Instead, because of al Radi's dedication, the madrasa was restored to its former glory after five centuries of neglect. Her achievement was acknowledged publicly with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007.

Al Radi first glimpsed the madrasa, located in Rada'a, about 160 kilometres south of the capital city of Sana'a, in the late 1970s while visiting Yemen to help set up the country's national museum. At the time it served as the town's dumping ground and the sight of it prompted an immediate cry from al Radi: "Wow! This we've got to save."

In 1983, work began. Backed by the Dutch and Yemeni governments, she recruited hundreds of local craftsmen. Abhorring the use of cement in restoration work, she insisted on using traditional materials and techniques, resurrecting the almost forgotten skill of creating qudad, a plaster made of lime and cinder, which was historically used to waterproof Yemeni buildings. The only concession she made to modernity was to install electrical wiring.

Born in Baghdad to a diplomat father, al Radi had a peripatetic childhood. The family moved from Iraq to Iran, then to India and later Beirut. She graduated from Cambridge University in Oriental studies and took an MA in Near Eastern art and archaeology from Columbia University in New York.

On returning to Baghdad in the mid-1960s, she worked as the Iraqi representative of the archaeology mission at Fort Shalamaneser in Nimrud, under Donald Hansen, a master in the field of Near Eastern and Egyptian art history. The digging was easy: "Just scrape the surface and follow the white line of the gypsum plaster on the walls," she was told.

In 1964, she was sent to Abu Salabikh, again in Iraq, where Hansen and the Shergatis, the elite diggers of Iraq, decided that it was time for al Radi to be trained in the finer points of articulating mud bricks. It was extremely tedious work, but Hansen's humour sustained the team. In the evenings, she accompanied him from room to room, while he dictated the day's excavation results. "The list always ended with 'and a partridge in a pear tree'," she wrote later. "What will future scholars make out of that, I wonder?"

Living conditions at Abu Salabikh were dreadful. The site was located in the middle of a salt bog and the accommodation, comprising individual reed huts, was always freezing cold and wet. A trip to the makeshift toilet could be disastrous if the wind was up. To the amusement of her male colleagues, al Radi insisted on a regular supply of Nivea cream: not for her face, she protested, but to polish her precious kid-leather boots.

In the summer of 1966, she moved, again under Hansen, to Mendes in the Nile delta of Egypt. The climate was dire: mornings were foggy and when the sun came up, the heat was extreme. The mosquito bites on her legs turned septic and the work was monotonous, but she and a female colleague made up stories to entertain themselves. They developed an entire soap opera around the mythical persons of Ponsonby, the high priest of the Ram god of Mendes, his wife Nofret the Tofret, their butler Chomondeley, and a valet called St John. Each evening, the two women entertained the assembled company with the latest instalment of their Wodehousian drama. Then there were games of bridge and laughter until sleep came.

After the first Gulf War and the embargo on Iraq, al Radi returned to Yemen, working two seasons in the mid-1990s in the small town of Jujah in Wadi Hadhramaut. She was also one of the first to visit the Iraq Museum after the war, working with staff there to prepare a list of more than 5,000 objects looted from the country's 11 regional museums. She was devastated by the loss of the country's cultural heritage and spoke eloquently about the need for its retrieval.

In 2005, at the reopening of the Amiriya Mosque, she recalled: "I went there as a young girl, but I came out as an old lady."

Her first marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her second husband, Dr Awqati, her son from her first marriage, Rakan Zahawi, her mother Suad Muneer Abbas and her brother Abbad al Radi.

Born July 23, 1939. Died October 7, 2010

This article has been altered to correct the members of Selma al Radi's family who have survived her to include her mother and brother.