We all know what happened, or think we know. When American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003, hordes of looters rushed into the Iraq Museum, repository of the world's greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities, and stripped the place while our GIs were busily pulling down Saddam statues for CNN.
The truth, wouldn't you know it, is a bit more elusive. About 15,000 objects were stolen, not 170,000 as first reported (actually the size of the museum's entire collection), an exaggeration resulting from misunderstandings between the first journalists to reach the shattered museum and distraught Iraqi curators. Some objects were irretrievably damaged, but nearly half those stolen have since been recovered, as museum director Donny George writes in this absorbing book. Its editors aren't interested in raking over old coals or giving a definitive account of how the looting happened. Instead they offer an eloquent, moving and abundantly illustrated history of an institution housing the remains of 40,000 years of Iraqi cultural life, from Neandertals to Ottomans.