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- Published on Amazon.com
I remember Secretary Rumsfeld getting a laugh when he tried putting the looting of Baghdad in proper perspective. "The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over," he said, "and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?'" Well, this book shouts out from the audience, "Yup!" and in doing so, puts a new face on the war in Iraq, and tells a story as ironic and poignant as what we saw in the Iraqi soccer team at the Olympics last summer. Here the team is a group of experts -- a kind of dream team of Iraqis, Americans, Italians and Brits -- each taking a turn as an expert witness in the most talked about art heist in history. Unlike most of the reporting at the time, this book doesn't presume you already know your Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic history. Ralph Solecki takes us to the very beginning and recalls his prehistoric discoveries in Northern Iraq, where we have possibly the earliest known evidence of human compassion. Harriet Crawford's coverage of the dawn of civilization brings the dawning realization that ancient Mesopotamia is a lot closer to life today than we thought. Paul Collins presents an account of the amazing developments in Sumer, illustrated with some of the most beloved pieces from the Iraq Museum. All right, the Iraqis invented human emotion, agriculture, cities, empires -- what else? Robert Biggs adds writing and literature, using macro lens close-ups and a cuneiform comparison chart. And if you wonder why a quarter million people in America call themselves Assyrians, you'll certainly know after reading Julian Reade's chapter about these great achievers 2500 years ago. The East-meets-West story, starting with Alexander the Great, is vividly told by Elisabetta Fino. After seeing news photos of the mosque in Samarra vandalized, reading Alastair Northedge's piece on Islamic architecture was a form of grief counseling for me. Now as I watch daily footage of car bombings in Baghdad, I think of Vincenzo Strika's review of Baghdad through the ages, and put my hope in his last line: "Baghdad, for all its tumult and suffering, has the potential to become again, as it was in the Middle Ages, the cultural bridge between East and West." Other parts of the book use the museum building itself or specific artifacts as a point of departure: the essential "A Museum is Born" by Lamia Al-Gailani Werr and the exquisite "Small Treasures of the Iraq Museum" by Fiorella Strika. When I first opened the book, I skipped through it reading the double-page spreads here and there by Diana McDonald, and that made me want to read everything else. It was strong stuff for me to read kidnapping survivor Micah Garen's words on universal ideas - heroism, friendship, and our fear of death - drawing a comparison between the quest of Gilgamesh and the purpose of archaeology. Garen and his partner, Marie-Helene Carleton, remind us that we are all Gilgamesh, and archaeologists are our genius scribes. This elegant invitation to preserve our historical memory is echoed throughout the book, in most urgent terms by Selma Al-Radi, by Angela Schuster and Zainab Bahrani, by William and Milbry Polk, by Usam Ghaidan and Anna Paolini, and by the tireless Iraqi archaeologist, Donny George. All of these contributors are within two degrees of separation from everyone else in the cultural heritage community that reacted to the looting of the Iraq Museum. Although they are distinguished writers individually -- worthy of their own Listmania List -- this is a fine ensemble piece. Of course, the real stars of the book are the antiquities themselves, the figurines, bas reliefs, stelae and other vocabulary-building artifacts, along with, yes, the vases. The 190 color pictures on heavy paper make this a compact coffee-table book, but not too heavy to read in bed as well. University archaeology departments would be nuts not to make this required reading for new students. I can't think of a book that will more directly engage and motivate the newcomer, and possibly spark a thousand careers as luminous as those referenced in its pages. The book itself is an example of how people can work together across borders, across cultures and civilizations, clash or no clash. Many of these writers were first responders, rushing in to protect fragile human knowledge, and in the process modeling for the rest of us what we most need these days in Iraq: charity, hope and faith.