|Biographical detail : ||She restored historic Madrasa
A historical figure, Sultan Amir Ibn Abd al-Wahab, was the last ruler of the Tahirid dynasty, which flourished in Yemen from the mid-15th to early 16th centuries. The ornate palace complex he had commissioned at Rada, in southern Yemen, for the Amiriya Madrasa, erected in 1504, was then and is now again one of the great treasures of Islamic art and architecture.
Solidly built of limestone and brick, the Amiriya Madrasa seemed destined to endure as the Sultan’s monumental legacy. But after he was killed in battle in 1517, the complex was left to decay. That the Amiriya Madrasa today stands resplendent after five centuries of neglect is due almost entirely to the efforts of one woman, the Iraqi-born archaeologist Selma al-Radi, who was for many years a research associate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
In an immense undertaking begun in the early 1980s and lasting nearly a quarter-century, Dr. al-Radi oversaw the return of the complex, brick by brick, to its former glory. Three stories high and crowned by six large domes, the Amiriya gleams white as sugar against the sepia landscape. Besides a Madrasa, it comprises a mosque; residential quarters; and a hammam, or bath, equipped with medieval shower stalls.
The Amiriya Madrasa, which re-opened in 2005 for public, was recognised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, in 2007. Presented every three years, the award honours outstanding architectural achievements throughout the Muslim world.
Earned a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge in Oriental Studies, with a concentration in archaeology and ancient Semitic languages; a master’s degree in art history and Near East archaeology from Columbia; and a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Amsterdam, where Dr. al-Radi wrote her dissertation on a Neolithic site in Cyprus.
Her hands deep in the grit of history Dr. al-Radi, over the years, excavated at sites in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait and Egypt, but it was for her work in Yemen that she would become renowned.
Her publications included two books on the Amiriya Madrasa, “The Amiriya in Rada: The History and Restoration of a Sixteenth-Century Madrasa in the Yemen” and “Amiriya Madrasa: The Conservation of the Mural Paintings” (Centro di Conservazione Archeologica, 2005; with Roberto Nardi and Chiara Zizola).
Born in Baghdad, daughter of an Iraqi diplomat, Selma al-Radi was reared in Teheran and New Delhi. She died of ovarian cancer at her home in Manhattan, New York.