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Gilgamesh 'dream tablet' goes back to Iraq

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
September 21, 2021

UN and US officials will return a stone inscription bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh to their counterparts from Iraq at a ceremony in Washington this week.

A gloved hand holding a tablet with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh that was looted from Iraq
The 'dream tablet' is imprinted with cuneiform scriptImage: Immigration and Customs Enforcement-ICE/AP Photo/picture alliance

UNESCO officials will return a stone inscription bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known works of literature in the world, to Iraq, the UN agency has said in a statement.

They will hand the tablet to their counterparts from Iraq at a ceremony in Washington on Thursday, September 23, at the Smithsonian Institution, the statement said.

Some 17,000 other artifacts that were also looted following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 will be returned to Baghdad at the event.

"By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said, adding that this restitution was a "major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism."

'Unprecedented' restitution

In July, the US Department of Justice announced it would be returning the artifacts to Iraq.

Calling the restitution "unprecedented," Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said  in a press statement at the time that it was "the largest return of antiquities to Iraq" and a "result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington."

In 2018, the British government returned ancient objects that were similarly looted after the US invasion and then appeared in England.

Joy in Iraq

Speaking to DW, Iraqi historian Abdullah Khorsheed Qader, who is an archaeologist and professor at the Salah-al-Din University in Erbil, northern Iraq, and director of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, said he was elated the objects were being brought back to his country. "Feeling great and hopeful because of the positive responses from the United States of America," he told DW in an email in July.

Stolen during the US invasion

"Most of these artifacts were part of the materials that were looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the US invasion," Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the Stony Brook University in New York, told DW.

Stone has been a part of various archaeological expeditions to Iraq, including a notable one in 2012, where she and her team excavated close to the site of Ur, the home of the biblical figure of Abraham.

According to Stone, these objects left Iraq as part of an illegal trade in antiquities. "It was clear to everyone that these had been stolen from the Museum since they had catalog numbers on them and so could not have come from illegal excavations."

Some objects were confiscated by customs officials, but others were bought by Cornell University and Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts chain, Stone said.

Hobby Lobby's involvement

Hobby Lobby was in the news recently after it was revealed the business had acquired a rare tablet in cuneiform script, inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The object was bought to display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC — the institution is funded by the family of David Green, Hobby Lobby's founder.

On July 27, a New York court ordered the forfeiture of the object, which was reportedly purchased from the family of a London coin dealer by an American antiquities dealer, the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

"The antiquities dealer and a US cuneiform expert shipped the tablet into the United States by international post without declaring the contents as required. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh Epic. The tablet measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches [15 x 12 centimeters]  and is written in the Akkadian language," according to the press statement.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Sumerian poem is considered one of the oldest works of literature, and together with several thousand other objects, comprises one of the largest caches of archaeologically important artifacts stolen from Iraq during its turbulent years in the past few decades.

According to UNESCO, the Gilgamesh tablet was stolen in the 1990s, following the Gulf War, emerging fraudulently in the US market in 2007.

Illegal excavation, theft and smuggling of historical artifacts is an ongoing problem — especially in Iraq and Syria — with black market dealers, smugglers and members of the "Islamic State" (IS) exploiting the chaotic situation in the region, where it is relatively easy to find antiquities and sell them abroad.

Iraqi officials prepare            

Meanwhile, archaeologists like Qader are happy that efforts to bring back the treasures have borne fruit. "Iraqi contacts with the American side made it clear that the smuggled antiquities are in the safe hands of the American Homeland Security," Qader says. Embassy officials had been communicating for many years to recover these pieces and "this has become a reality, finally," adds Qader.

He hopes that the rest of the world, too, will step in and help recover other lost artifacts. Meanwhile, the archaeologist and his colleagues are busy laying the groundwork for re-establishing archaeological institutions that were damaged during years of war and conflict.

Together with US organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Delaware, Qader is training young professionals and educating the community.

One important goal of his program is "restoring confidence and self-belief in the Iraqi Museum community and archaeological professionals by building and strengthening a national conservation program for cultural heritage."

This article was updated from a previous version published on July 30, 2021.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.
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