Qahtan al-Abeed is an archaeologist on a mission. Since 2005, he has worked tirelessly to preserve the archaeological heritage of southern Iraq. He has evicted squatters and businesses from ancient sites and deterred looters, putting himself at risk in the process.

The region is part of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the world’s earliest centres of civilisation.

It has bestowed some of humanity’s most important developments – including the invention of the wheel and the cuneiform script, one of the earliest written languages.

Al-Abeed’s work also brings him into contact with the energy world. Across southern Iraq lie some of the nation’s most important oil fields and installations, which help to make it the world’s fourth largest oil producer.

Part of his role is to work with operators, including Shell, to preserve ancient heritage areas across these sites. It is, he says, all part of his thirst for knowledge.

“This isn’t just for Basrah or Iraq. My work is for scholars everywhere,” says the 37-year-old director of Antiquities and Heritage for the southern province of Basrah. “This is the study of humanity. We have to better understand Mesopotamia and there’s a big gap in what we know.”

A new museum

On the bank of the Shatt al-Arab river sits al-Abeed’s most notable achievement. The Basrah Museum is a four-gallery project supported by the British Council and Friends of Basrah Museum, a UK-based charity.

He first conceived the idea of establishing the museum in 2007 and for it to be housed in a palace once occupied by the former ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. After three years of lobbying, the Iraqi government gave their permission.

When it opens fully in 2019, it will house collections from the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian periods that were discovered across the region. But al-Abeed had other ideas when the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) took over swathes of territory in northern Iraq in 2014.  

“We saw ISIS destroying Mosul’s museum, so I suggested we open one of the galleries early. It was our message to say that they can’t destroy one museum without another opening,” he says.