Iraq to receive hundreds of stolen artefacts from Lebanon

The looted items, mostly cuneiform tablets, have been in the possession of a private Lebanese museum

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Lebanon will return to Iraq hundreds of artefacts held by a private Lebanese museum, which were dug up illegally and put on the international market after being smuggled out of the country.

“The efforts by the Culture, Foreign and Justice Ministries as well as the Iraqi Intelligence Service bore fruit with receiving 337 artefacts from Nabu Museum on Sunday in Beirut,” Iraq's Culture Ministry said.

“A ceremony will be held on Monday at Baghdad International Airport to hand the artefacts over” to the Iraqi National Museum, the ministry said.

Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, Mohammed Murtada, told the Iraqi News Agency on Saturday that most of the pieces were clay cuneiform tablets.

Nabu Museum in northern Lebanon became a subject of controversy shortly after it opened in 2018, over suspicions that some items in its collection may have been taken illegally from Iraq and Syria.

Experts from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon determined that the pieces were of Iraqi and Syrian origin and were smuggled out in the time of conflict.

The museum is named after the patron god of writing and wisdom in ancient Mesopotamia, which mainly covers present-day Iraq, in addition to some neighbouring areas.

On its website, the museum says it has unique selections of cuneiform tablets dating from 2,330BC to 540BC.

They include literary works and extensive social and economic records that together provide detailed and often new information on the history and culture of the Sumerians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia, it says.

The museum last month returned five Roman artefacts from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra to Damascus, Reuters reported. The limestone statues and carved funerary stones date from the second and third centuries.

The cofounder and director of the museum, Jawad Adra, acquired them from European auction houses before Syria's war began in 2011, Syrian antiquities chief Mohamed Nazir Awad said during the handover ceremony.

Decades of war, a lack of security and mismanagement have badly affected Iraq’s archaeological sites.

Illegal digging became widespread in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, when the dictator Saddam Hussein began to lose control of the country following the rout of his forces in Kuwait by a US-led coalition.

Members of his close circle were involved in smuggling artefacts.

The fall of Saddam's regime in the 2003 US-led invasion dealt another blow to Iraq's cultural heritage.

Looters burst into the Iraqi National Museum the day after Baghdad fell to US troops in April, making off with thousands of priceless artefacts and leaving the floor littered with shattered pottery.

The US was widely criticised at the time for failing to protect the site. Only a few items were saved.

The arrival of artefacts from Lebanon is the latest in Iraq’s years-long effort to retrieve its stolen antiquities.

Last month, US authorities handed over to the Iraqi embassy in Washington several ancient artefacts confiscated from private collectors on its soil.

They include an ivory plaque of a winged human-headed sphinx, dating from about 800BC to 700BC, that was used to decorate royal furniture, and a bowl with a scalloped flower looted from Nimrud, a city in northern Iraq that dates back to the Neo-Assyrian period between 911BC and 612BC.

Among the other items were manuscripts, cylinder boxes and two clay fragments with cuneiform writing from the ancient cities of Ur and Babylon.

Last year, Iraq received more than 17,000 ancient artefacts, most of them from the US. The relics, dating as far back as 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and smuggled on to the black market mainly after the Gulf War.

Among them was an antique clay tablet that bears a portion of the Epic of Gilgamish, the oldest known surviving piece of literature.

The 127 millimetre by 152mm fragment is known as the Dream Tablet and is written in the Sumerian language.

In the epic poem, the hero describes a dream to his mother, predicting the arrival of a new friend.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 8:10 AM