The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

April, 2009

Lawrence Rothfield
University of Chicago Press, 2009

"Lawrence Rothfield has written a remarkable account of the looting that occurred in Iraq and the efforts in the aftermath to recover the invaluable representations of an important historical culture that may be lost forever. This is a must read for all those who value our heritage and the need to preserve it during conflicts that threaten it."

–General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Ret)

"Behind the looting of the Iraq Museum lies a tale, told with brutal candour by Lawrence Rothfield, of gut-wrenching negligence and astonishing incompetence by American (and British) politicians and military leaders, and of their disastrous outcome. He documents in incriminating detail the scale of the disaster, the unsuccessful attempts by archaeologists to avert it, and the crass unconcern of official responses. The lasting and bitter legacy remains a telling indictment of the two allied governments. I defy any citizen who reads this disquieting book to do so without a sense of shame at the failure to avert this predictable and preventable disaster."

—Colin Renfrew, professor emeritus of archaeology and former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

On April 10, 2003, as the world watched a statue of Saddam Hussein come crashing down in the heart of Baghdad, a mob of looters attacked the Iraq National Museum. Despite the presence of an American tank unit, the pillaging went unchecked, and more than 15,000 artifacts—some of the oldest evidence of human culture—disappeared into the shadowy worldwide market in illicit antiquities. In the five years since that day, the losses have only mounted, with gangs digging up roughly half a million artifacts that had previously been unexcavated; the loss to our shared human heritage is incalculable.

With The Rape of Mesopotamia, Lawrence Rothfield answers the complicated question of how this wholesale thievery was allowed to occur. Drawing on extensive interviews with soldiers, bureaucrats, war planners, archaeologists, and collectors, Rothfield reconstructs the planning failures—originating at the highest levels of the U.S. government—that led to the invading forces’ utter indifference to the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage from looters. Widespread incompetence and miscommunication on the part of the Pentagon, unchecked by the disappointingly weak advocacy efforts of worldwide preservation advocates, enabled a tragedy that continues even today, despite widespread public outrage.

Bringing his story up to the present, Rothfield argues forcefully that the international community has yet to learn the lessons of Iraq—and that what happened there is liable to be repeated in future conflicts. A powerful, infuriating chronicle of the disastrous conjunction of military adventure and cultural destruction, The Rape of Mesopotamia is essential reading for all concerned with the future of our past.

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