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.

Archaeological mysteries

Another nearby project is the ancient city of Charax Spasinou, which was founded by Alexander the Great in around 300 BC. Spread over five square kilometres, it lies in one of the few areas in Iraq which had never previously been included in an archaeological survey.

Alongside the University of Manchester, al-Abeed was instrumental in identifying and surveying the site.

It is, he says, a dangerous place to work, because of the unexploded ammunition left over from the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. As the operator of the nearby Majnoon oil field since 2010, Shell began a programme of systematically and safely clearing the unexploded remnants of war.

Aware of the area’s archaeological importance, before project works started Shell identified potential areas of interest and set up procedures to avoid or minimise disturbance to archaeological sites and recover artefacts and pottery fragments. Shell has since worked closely with al-Abeed and his department to protect the sites and transfer any finds to the museum.

“Oil companies were another worry. I was concerned about the impact of their activities,” says al-Abeed. “But sites inside oil field areas are generally better protected than those outside.”

Born in Basrah in 1980, al-Abeed’s passion for archaeology stems from a magazine about ancient civilisation that his father bought him when he was 12-years-old. His other interest was languages. When he went to university in Baghdad, he chose to study archaeology, with a focus on cuneiform writing.

“It was a natural choice. I loved antiquities and I wanted to learn about the development of language, how people in ancient times talked to each other.”

Difficult times

After graduating, al-Abeed returned to Basrah to work for the Department of Antiquities and Heritage in 2005. His first job was to regain possession of the departmental office which squatters had occupied during the unrest that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Tragedy followed when the director of antiquities, Mudhar Abd Alhay, was shot dead in the street.

Those early years were difficult, says al-Abeed. “When I arrived in 2005, there was no registry of heritage sites, no condition reports, no maps. We had to start from the beginning.”

Al-Abeed confronted looters and took on factories which had set up on archaeological sites. Despite the risks, he won court rulings which led to the eviction of more than a dozen companies.

Over time, security has improved across the region. Today, he supervises projects at Iraq’s key sites of Babylon, Ur and Uruk which lie outside Basrah province. Certified as a world heritage expert, he also looks after Iraq’s relationship with the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“I don’t get to see my children much,” he concedes. “But I’m in a position to do something for my country and that is a great honour.”


Protecting Majnoon's heritage

Majnoon central processing facility

Archaeologists had never systematically surveyed the Majnoon area. However, records show that the marshlands of southern Iraq have been home to civilisations as early as 3000 BC.

In 2010, Shell became the operator of the Majnoon concession area and has strived to increase production of the oilfield by upgrading existing or constructing new facilities. Since taking on operations, it has considered the impact of its operations on cultural heritage sites, local communities and the environment.

Shell sought expert advice on the nature, significance and management of identified and potential archaeological sites inside and neighbouring the concession. It then created a cultural heritage management plan to ensure there was no detrimental impact on the sites and establish clear procedures in relation to continued development activities.

As part of its withdrawal from the concession later this year, Shell will hand over the management plan to the government of Iraq to ensure the sites remain documented and protected.

More in inside energy

Keeping the classroom cool

Energy-rich Iraq has suffered from daily power cuts for years. Now the situation is improving as steady gas supplies help to generate more electricity. Read the story on Inside Energy.

The homes powered by Dubai’s sunshine

Dubai has long been reliant on energy from hydrocarbons. Now a new carbon-neutral housing development will tap into the city’s abundant sunshine, enabling residents to generate their own electricity.

You may also be interested in


Shell’s Net Carbon Footprint ambition is our plan to contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and meet the goal of the Paris Agreement.