US to hand over two stolen artefacts to Iraq

One clay piece is from the ancient city of Ur, while the other is from Babylon

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Iraq will receive two stolen artefacts dating back more than 4,000 years from US authorities this week, its foreign ministry announced on Tuesday.

The pieces are made of clay with cuneiform writing. One is from the ancient city of Ur, while the other is from Babylon, the ministry’s spokesman Ahmed Al Sahaf said.

An official ceremony will be held at the Iraqi Consulate in Los Angeles on Thursday to mark the occasion, Mr Al Sahaf added.

He didn’t provide more details about the pieces or how they reached the US.

Ur and Babylon were major cities in ancient Mesopotamia, south of Baghdad.

The Bible mentions Ur as the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, where wealthy empires flourished. Babylon, meanwhile, was famous for its hanging gardens.

The antiquities will be the latest items Iraq has received from the US and other countries in its long-running struggle to retrieve its stolen cultural trove.

Last year, Iraqis welcomed more than 17,000 ancient artefacts retrieved mainly from the US. The priceless relics, dating back as far as 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and smuggled onto the black market, mainly after the Gulf War in the 1990s.

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

The 127mm by 152mm fragment, which dates back 3,500 to 4,000 years, 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.

Many of the objects taken from Iraq were seized from the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby. The chain of arts and crafts shops was forced by the US government to relinquish artefacts in 2017 and fined $3 million for failing to act on expert advice that the objects may have been looted or to declare their provenance to the authorities.

Iraq’s archaeological sites have all been badly affected by decades of war, a lack of security and mismanagement.

After the 1991 Gulf War, when a US-led coalition drove Saddam Hussein’s army out from Kuwait, illegal digging was widespread as the former dictator started to lose control of the country. Some of Saddam’s close circle officials were involved in artefact smuggling.

When the US led another coalition to topple Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iraqi artefacts suffered a major blow.

Looters burst into the Iraqi National Museum the day after Baghdad fell to US troops in April, making off with scores 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.

Updated: January 18, 2022, 9:53 AM