Zainab Bahrani studied the History of Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University where she earned her MA and PhD degrees in a joint program of Ancient Near Eastern and Greek art and archaeology. Prior to her appointment as the Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, Bahrani taught at the University of Vienna in Austria, The State University of New York, at Stony Brook, New York and was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Near Eastern Antiquities Department from 1989-1992.
Professor Bahrani is the author and editor of nine books, including Women of Babylon (London: Routledge, 2001) and The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). Her most recent book, Rituals of War: the body and violence in Mesopotamia (New York: Zone Books, 2008) was awarded the James Henry Breasted Book Prize by the American Historical Association. Bahrani's books are investigations into the ontological relationship of the image, the monument, and the world in antiquity. She has been particularly fascinated by the Mesopotamian conception of the image as a form of infinite presence, an argument she expounded in The Graven Image. She writes on the status and meaning of images and of art in general, addressing both ancient and modern philosophies of representation. Her other areas of interest include intellectual history, antiquarianism and the politics of art and archaeology.
In addition to her books, Bahrani has written some fifty articles and reviews on subjects ranging from ancient Near Eastern archaeology to contemporary art criticism in publications such as Art History, Art Journal, The Oxford Art Journal, and October. Bahrani teaches a wide range of undergraduate and graduate lectures and seminars on ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology, as well as on the theories and methods of art history, and she advises PhD students in these fields. In 2008 she was awarded the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Prize for excellence in teaching.
Another aspect of Bahrani's work has been in the area of monument preservation, conservation, and the politics of cultural heritage. Some of her academic publications focus on this subject from a theoretical perspective. Since 2003, Bahrani has also written widely on the destruction of the cultural heritage of Iraq in the popular press, in publications such as The Nation, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal.
In the summer of 2004 Bahrani was Senior Advisor to Iraq's Ministry of Culture. During that time she conducted a survey of war damage at the archaeological site of Babylon and instigated the state of Iraq's official request for the removal of the military base from the site. She is currently adviser to the World Monuments Fund project for the site management of Babylon and a UNESCO consultant for Iraqi patrimony. Bahrani considers archaeological fieldwork to be central to her work, and she continues to be a team member of the Yale University Excavations at Tell Leilan in Syria where the team is currently excavating a third millennium palace complex.