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.”
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.”