Looted ancient Gilgamesh tablet returns to Iraq after three decades

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A small clay tablet dating back 3,500 years and bearing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was looted from an Iraqi museum during the first Gulf War in 1991, is returned to Iraq along with two other artefacts.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world, telling the story of a Mesopotamian king on a quest for immortality.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world, telling the story of a Mesopotamian king on a quest for immortality.
(Sabah Arar / AFP)

A 3,500-year-old tablet featuring the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh has been returned to Iraq three decades after it was stolen and illegally imported to the US.

The Iraqi foreign minister delivered three artefacts recovered from the US and the UK to the culture minister in a press conference on Tuesday: the tablet of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian ram’s head and a Sumerian tablet.

“This day represent a victory in the face of the desperate attempts of those who try to steal our great history and our ancient civilisation,” Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said.

The clay tablet features characters in cuneiform and is believed to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum in 1991 while the country was caught up in the first Gulf War.

The tablet of Gilgamesh “is of great importance, it is one of the oldest literary texts of Iraq’s history,” Minister of Culture and Antiquities Hassan Nazim said.

READ MORE: US to return some 17,000 looted antiquities to Iraq

The Sumerian ram's head which was repatriated along with the Gilgamesh tablet.
The Sumerian ram’s head which was repatriated along with the Gilgamesh tablet.
(Sabah Arar / AFP)

The tablet’s odyssey

Believed to have been looted from Iraq around 1991, the ancient tablet reappeared in Britain in 2001.

An American art dealer bought it from a London-based Jordanian family in 2003, before sending the piece to the United States without declaring its true nature to customs.

It was then sold to antique dealers in 2007 for $50,000 under a false certificate of origin.

The tablet was sold once again in 2014 for $1.67 million to the owners of craft chain Hobby Lobby, the Green family, fundamentalist Christians who wanted to display it at their Museum of the Bible in Washington.

A museum curator became concerned about the tablet’s origins in 2017, feeling that its documentation was incomplete. It was finally seized in 2019.

READ MORE:
UK to return looted 4,000-year-old plaque to Iraq

Decades of looting

Iraq has seen its historical artifacts looted for decades, including since the US invasion in 2003 and the rise of Daesh years later.

In one year, Iraq has recovered nearly 18,000 artefacts, including 17,899 pieces returned from the US in the summer.

About 4,000 years old, the artefacts were returned in late July aboard a plane carrying Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhemi from a trip to Washington where he met US President Joe Biden.

The “message sent to all those who smuggle our antiquities and have sold them at international auctions: ultimately, the fate of such operations is restitution,” stressed Nazim during the press conference on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Iraq’s Babylon arts festival back after almost two-decade hiatus

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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