Ancient Gilgamesh tablet to return to Iraq on Tuesday

The 3,500-year-old relic depicts the story of a superhuman king and was looted from an Iraqi museum in 1991

The Gilgamesh Tablet, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablet that was believed to be looted from Iraq around 1991 and illegally imported into the US to be displayed in a Washington museum. AFP

An illegally imported 3,500-year-old clay tablet looted from Iraq 30 years ago will be returned from the US on Tuesday, the country’s foreign ministry confirmed to The National.

The cuneiform tablet depicts the story of a superhuman king from the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem. It measures approximately 6 by 5 inches and is written in the Akkadian language.

It is known to be one of the world's oldest works of literature and was looted from an Iraqi museum in 1991 during the Gulf War.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry is to hold a ceremony in Baghdad to receive the tablet, one of many artefacts repatriated in recent years, spokesman Ahmed Al Sahaf told The National.

“Our diplomatic efforts have succeeded in recovering more than 17,496 antiquities and a file containing 150 documents belonging to the Iraqi royal family,” he said.

“Within a year, we succeeded in recovering the items from our embassies in America, Italy, Britain, France, Japan and the Netherlands."

In 2014, the tablet was bought for $1.67 million by US company Hobby Lobby for display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington.

One of the museum's curators became concerned about the tablet's origins in 2017, feeling that its documentation was incomplete.

In 2019, the US Department of Justice ordered the tablet to be handed over because it had been illegally imported. The department said at the time that the tablet was "encrusted with dirt and unreadable" when bought from "the family member of a London coin dealer" in 2003.

"The antiquities dealer and a US cuneiform expert shipped the tablet into the United States by international post without declaring the contents as required," the department said.

"After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognised it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh epic."

The tablet was officially handed over to the Iraqi authorities in Washington last September.

Iraq's Ambassador to the US, Fareed Yasseen accepted the tablet during a ceremony in the US capital with the presence of Culture Minister Hassan Nazim.

"To me, it means restituting self-esteem and confidence in Iraqi society," Mr Nazim said.

Despite its small size, the ancient artefact has immense cultural and historical value.

Unesco called the repatriation of the tablet, along with 17,000 other artefacts sent back to Iraq in July, "a significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects".

"By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history," said Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay.

Updated: December 8th 2021, 12:55 PM