As the German Archaeological Institute turns 175 on Wednesday, the spotlight will be on its archaeological work as well as on its cultural diplomacy in the Arab world and the Mid East.
Archeologists clean a mosaic floor in Turkey.
From Prussian times to present-day democratic Germany, the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has weathered a variety of political and ideological systems in its pursuit of scientific research.
Founded on April 21, 1829 in Rome with the aim of researching and publicizing the archaeological discoveries of the antique Greek era, the institute has seen an expansion of its focuses and activities over time.
Today the DAI represents a mammoth global archaeological network with eight departments, three commissions, a 100 scientists, 250 employees and worldwide excavations that have its archaeologists crisscrossing most continents.
The DAI, whose headquarters were moved to Berlin in 1833, is located in the leafy upscale Dahlem suburb of the German capital in a handful of sprawling neoclassical villas.
Giving a tour of the wood-paneled interiors, Astrid Dostert, a classical archaeologist at the DAI, underlined the institute’s increasing involvement in the Arab world and the Mid East.
"Though we’ve been active in the region for quite some time now, the politico-cultural aspect of it has indeed taken on more significance in the past few years," she admitted.
Intensifying dialogue with the Muslim world
Part of it has to do with the fact that the DAI is financed by Germany’s Foreign Ministry, which in recent years, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., has redoubled efforts to initiate dialogue with the Muslim world through its network of institutions abroad.
The DAI’s archaeological excavations in Arab countries and the Mid East which are committed to preserving the regions' cultural heritage and identity lend themselves naturally to dialogue and exchange said Margarete van Ess, the scientific director of the DAI’s Near East section.
Responding to an email interview from Lebanon, van Ess said, "Archaeology contributes enormously to understanding between different cultures and this is particularly the case in Arab countries, which are so rich in archaeological and historical treasures."
Archaeology more effective than diplomacy?
Van Ess pointed out that archaeology often went far beyond diplomacy in winning hearts and minds. "Archaeologists usually pursue long-term projects, so they come regularly, stay for long and known the region well," she said.
"It's thus easier for them to win the trust of the local populace as well as the administration and politicians they come into contact with at the excavation sites. They can even act as interlocutors between the various social classes in the country."
Digging around the Muslim world
In recent years, the DAI has conducted excavations across the Muslim world in cooperation with local archaeologists and researchers.
These include the excavation of the Moghul park Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul, archaeological investigations into the ancient town of Marib in northeastern Yemen, and excavations in Tayma in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few.
The UNESCO, the cultural arm of the U.N., also used DAI's expertise in its mission to assess the archaeological damage in postwar Iraq.
In addition, the DAI signed a ten-year project with the authorities of the antique department in Iran last year, thus becoming one of the first institutions to be let into post-revolution Iran for archaeological research.
Dwindling funds limiting DAI's work
The institute's headquarters in Berlin
But despite its achievements, the DAI’s 175th anniversary won’t just be an occasion for celebration. Budgetary cutbacks have cast a shadow over the institute.
"We have to put with up the cuts that the foreign ministry too has been facing in its budget," said Dostert.
"Jobs have been slashed and we’re considering which foreign projects are viable in the long run. Funds for most of the excavations abroad have already been reduced," she added.
DAI’s budget for the current year is EUR 21.3 million, almost the same as last year, but it still amounts to a reduction by almost 15 percent when compared to previous years according to Dostert.
Archaeologists concerned about Iraq
The unfolding political situation in Iraq also has DAI archaeologists worried. The institute’s branch office in Baghdad has been vacated in the face of growing violence.
Van Ess said that dozens of large, historically significant towns are being systematically destroyed in the search for valuable artifacts that can be sold on the illegal art market.
"If quick action isn’t taken to stop it, in a few months all that was known as 'Old Mesopotamia' will be completely destroyed," van Ess warned.