Iraq's heritage faces 'organised sabotage' as returned antiquities go on display

More than 300 mostly clay tablets with cuneiform writing returned from a private museum in Lebanon

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Hundreds of looted antiquities went on display in Iraq on Tuesday after being retrieved from a private collection in Lebanon.

The consignment of 337 mostly clay tablets with cuneiform writing from Lebanon’s private Nabu Museum is the second biggest received by Iraq in less than a year in an ongoing effort to restore its conflict-devastated heritage. They chronicle daily life in the rich civilisations that flourished in Ancient Mesopotamia.

The return brings to an end a four-year process after suspicions arose shortly after the opening of the Nabu Museum in 2018 that some items in its collection may have been taken illegally from Iraq and Syria.

The museum said it had bought the artefacts in question on the international market. On Monday, the objects were flown back to Baghdad.

“Today is a special day,” Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Hassan Nadhim said at Baghdad's National Museum where the items were briefly displayed before being packed in metal boxes.

The artefacts mostly show administrative texts such as contracts, receipts, commercial deals and legal issues, Dr Ali Jihad Murad, a specialist in old writings at the Iraqi National Museum, told The National.

They have been traced back to the Early Dynastic period between 2,900BC and 2,350BC, the Akkadian period between 2,350BC and 2,150BC and Middle Babylonian period between 1,595BC and 1,155BC, Dr Murad said.

Perhaps the most important of them is a two-piece clay item that bears the royal inscription of Prince Enannatum of Lagash (circa 2,500BC-2,400BC), telling the story of how he brought cedar wood for the gates of Ningirsu temple, he said.

Displayed next to it are two small brick stamps – one 107×62mm and another 91×75mm – with the royal inscription of Akkadian king Naram Sin, who reigned from 2,254BC to 2,218BC.

Also on display are foundation cones used by Mesopotamians, which were stuck into mud bricks to show the building was the divine property of the god to whom it was dedicated, and the name of the builder.

There are also six artefacts from the Old Babylonian period between 2,003BC and 1,595BC, including a cast depicting the face of the demon Humbaba and a clay showing the Ishtar goddess with a king.

Iraq’s archaeological sites, museums and heritage troves have suffered hugely under decades of war, a lack of security and mismanagement.

After the 1991 Gulf War when a US-led international coalition drove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait and the UN imposed economic sanctions, illegal digging became widespread, mainly in remote areas that the dictator's troops were unable to secure.

After the fall of Baghdad during the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, looters burst into the Iraqi National Museum, making off with thousands of priceless artefacts and leaving the floor littered with shattered pottery. Only a few thousands have been retrieved.

Since then, looters continued digging in thousands of unprotected archaeological sites nationwide, leading to hundreds of pieces showing up on the international market.

With the help of the international community, Iraq has managed to retrieve thousands of pieces of its stolen heritage from different countries.

Last year, Iraqis welcomed more than 17,000 ancient artefacts, most of them from the US.

The relics, dating back up to 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and smuggled on to the black market, mostly after the Gulf War.

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

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

"Our heritage has faced organised sabotage and pillage operations," Mr Nadhim, said. The recently retrieved artefacts, he said, will be displayed permanently at the museum soon.

Modern Iraq is the site of the world’s first civilisations. They span 7,000 years of Mesopotamian history, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.

Updated: February 08, 2022, 7:38 PM
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