The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum
by Lawrence Rothfield
University of Chicago Press, 2009
eISBN: 978-0-226-72943-5 | Cloth: 978-0-226-72945-9
Library of Congress Classification DS79.76.R68 2009
Dewey Decimal Classification 956.704431
Reference metadata exposed for Zotero via unAPI.
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.
Lawrence Rothfield is the former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago and associate professor of English and comparative literature. He is the author of Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and the editor of Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War.
"The Rape of Mesopotamia is both a testimony and an appeal. It is a testimony to the cultural disaster which occurred in April 2003 under the eyes of millions of TV viewers. Lawrence Rothfield has carried out what he thought was his duty as a scholar and presented the facts and figures to the reader on what happened to the cultural heritage of Iraq. The book is also an appeal to the conscience of humanity, because the situation in Iraq has, unfortunately, led to continuous looting and destruction of works of art. Because the antiquities of Iraq are still unprotected, this book is coming at the right time to awaken those who are responsible for returning this country to a normal life."
“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.”
"In this 'autopsy of a cultural disaster,' Rothfield breaks down the disaster into its discrete parts, using the looting as a perfect metaphor for the failures of planning and execution that have characterized the conflict thus far. . . . This book serves as a frightening cautionary tale."
1 Cultural Heritage Protection in Iraq before 2003: The Long View
2 “Nobody Thought of Culture”: War-Related Heritage Protection in the Early Prewar Period
3 Getting to the Postwar Planning Table
4 The Meetings
5 A Punctual Disaster: The Looting of the National Museum of Iraq
6 The World Responds
7 The Slow-Motion Disaster: Post-Combat Looting of Archaeological Sites
8 Deathwatch for Iraqi Antiquities