Archeologist and expert on Iraqi cultural heritage, Dr. Donny George Youkhanna was born on October 23, 1951, to an Assyrian Christian family on the RAF base at Habbaniyah. His father worked there at the time as an accountant, and he would later move his family to Baghdad to work for the British Council. Dr. George studied archaeology at Baghdad University, with his PhD in 1997 on the architecture of the site of Tell es-Sawwan. A proud Assyrian Christian, he later moved to the Christian-majority neighborhood of Dora in southern Baghdad, where he was an involved member of the community.
He began working at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in 1976 and worked his way up through the years. In 1986 he became the Field Director of the Babylon Restoration Project, in 1988 he personally took the photographs of the incredible gold pieces found at Nimrud, and in 1999 he directed the excavation at the Sumerian site of Umm al-Aqarib.
By 2003, Dr. George was Director General of Research and Studies for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq. When the US invaded in the same year, he was responsible for planning the protection of the Iraq National Museum. It was originally arranged that the senior museum staff would take turns sleeping in the museum, but as Baghdad became more and more dangerous, the workers began to leave. Dr. George, however, refused to go, and continued to live in the museum with his colleague, Dr. Jabir Khalil Ibrahim, the chair of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. With a team of only five people remaining, they decamped to the museum basement as missiles fell all around them.
George, Khalil and their team were forced to finally flee when men with rocket-launchers entered the museum gardens to fight with US tanks. Hunkering down in the ethnographic museum on the River Tigris, he tried to return to the National Museum a number of times, but destroyed infrastructure, explosives, and violence kept him away. It was only five days later that they were able to re-enter the museum, and it was then they saw the extent of the damage that had been caused. Looters had stormed the museum, stealing priceless objects from display cases, offices, and storerooms. 40 pieces were taken from the galleries, and an estimated 16,000 taken from storage, including the museum’s famous collection of cylinder seals.
The danger was not yet over, and George and his team fended off further thieves in the next week. He was able to get in touch with staff at the British Museum, and the story he told them was soon passed to the Prime Minister’s office. This led to US tanks protecting the museum, and Dr. George was persuaded to travel to London to speak at a press conference at the British Museum. He and his colleague narrowly missed being attacked on the way to the airport, and he made it safely to the UK, where his press conference galvanized the media and the public in the tragedy of the museum’s fate.
Upon his return to Baghdad, he was promoted to Director of the Iraqi National Museum, and in 2005 the Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Alongside US Marines Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, he was able to find and return half of the museum’s stolen objects, often through his contacts in the country. Two of the pieces recovered include the 5,000-year-old Warka vase, returned in pieces, and the 4,300-year-old Bassetki statue, found in a cesspool in 2003. He was also heavily involved with the protection of Iraqi archaeological sites, many of which were looted, and continued to speak at conferences and to the public about the continuing danger to Iraq cultural heritage.
By 2006, the risk of violence and persecution against Christians had increased, and Dr. George felt that he was no longer welcome at the State Board of Antiquities. His family, along with other Christian families in Dora, had begun receiving death threats, and he therefore made the choice to flee with his family to Syria. After a short time in Damascus, he was offered the job of visiting professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Stony Brook University in the US. He lived in exile from his native Iraq in the US until 2011, when he tragically had a heart attack and died at the age of 60. He was survived by his wife and three children and will always be remembered for his passion and unwavering dedication to the protection of Iraqi cultural heritage.