3,500-year-old Gilgamesh tablet to return to Iraq

The 'Epic of Gilgamesh' was acquired by US collector David Green in 2019

A portion of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' looted from Iraq sold for $1.6 million to Hobby Lobby for display in the Museum of the Bible. AP
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The US will formally return an illegally imported 3,500-year-old tablet recounting the Epic of Gilgamesh to Iraq this week, Unesco announced Monday.

The Gilgamesh tablet, which wealthy US collector David Green had acquired along with other Iraqi artefacts to display in the Washington Museum of the Bible, will be handed over to Iraqi officials at the Smithsonian Institution on September 23.

In July, the US returned to Iraq about 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years and looted in recent decades in an 'unprecedented' restitution of stolen history, the culture minister in Baghdad, Hassan Nazim, said.

Unesco called the repatriation of the tablet "a significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects".

"The theft and illicit trafficking of ancient artefacts continues to be a key funding source for terrorist groups and other organised criminal organisations," Unesco said.

During 2014-2019, when ISIS controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, Iraqi archaeological sites and museums were systematically looted.

The rare fragment, which recounts a dream sequence from the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian cuneiform script, is one of many ancient artefacts from Iraq and the Middle East collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. It was seized by the US Justice Department in 2019, two years after Mr Green opened the museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington.

Earlier this month, the Norwegian police seized nearly 100 Mesopotamian archaeological artefacts, claimed by Iraq, from another collector during a search of their house in south-east Norway. The prosecutor on this case said the collector in question is contesting the Iraqi request, is not suspected of a crime and had not been arrested.

Updated: September 21, 2021, 6:36 AM