October 26, 2021

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Workers celebrate as a South African Airways (SAA) plane prepares to take off at Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, after a year-long layover because the national airline ran out of money.  Photo: SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS

The United States returns to Iraq the ancient Gilgamesh tablet that was stolen 30 years ago

A 3,500-year-old tablet recording the Epic of Gilgamesh was returned to Iraq on Thursday after it was stolen three decades ago and brought to the United States illegally.

“For me, this means restoring self-confidence and confidence in Iraqi society,” Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said during the handover ceremony in Washington.

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Although the piece is small in size, it has enormous cultural and historical value. It contains parts of the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, an ancient epic poem from Mesopotamia, considered among the oldest literary works in human history.

It is a story that has influenced all the major monotheistic religions, and also left its mark in the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” said Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Audrey Azoulay.

Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the first Uruk dynasty – the first known urban civilization located in what is now Iraq. Regarded as the most famous ancestor of the Sumerian kings, he ruled around 2650 BC and was the subject of legends and poems, becoming revered as a hero, and later a deity.

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For Assistant US Attorney Kenneth Polit, the banner’s return “in itself is a story of epic proportions.” According to him, the clay work is believed to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum in 1991, during the first Gulf War, and reappeared in the United Kingdom in 2001.

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An American art dealer bought it from a Jordanian family living in London in 2003 and sent the piece to the United States without disclosing its true nature to customs. It was then sold to antiques dealers in 2007 for $50,000 with a forged certificate of origin, and then, in 2014, for $1.67 million to owners of the Hobby Lobby craft chain.

The curator was concerned about the tablet’s assets in 2017 due to a lack of documentation and the work was finally confiscated in 2019.

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture has asked other organizations to examine the artifacts of questionable origin.

Iraq’s archives have been looted for decades, including after the 2003 US invasion.