Iraq retrieves Assyrian artefact from Switzerland dating back to 7th century BC

Baghdad has recovered thousands of stolen pieces from different countries in recent years

The Assyrian artefact is a gypsum mural depicting a horse and chariot carrying three people. Photo: Iraqi Foreign Ministry
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Switzerland has handed over an ancient Assyrian artefact to Baghdad, Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday, in the latest effort by the war-torn nation to recover its stolen history.

The Assyrian artefact, dating back to the 7th century BC, is a gypsum mural depicting a horse and chariot carrying three people, a ministry statement said.

The piece, which stands on a metal base, measures 64cm in length, 41cm in height and has a thickness of 9cm.

The return ceremony took place on Monday at the headquarters of the Specialised Body for the International Transfer of Cultural Property at the Swiss Federal Office of Culture.

The ministry statement did not give details on how or when the piece arrived in Switzerland, nor when it was seized.

The Assyrian civilisation arose about 4,500 years ago and at one point extended from the Mediterranean to Iran.

Their ancient buried cities, palaces and temples, packed with monumental art, are scattered across what is now northern Iraq and parts of neighbouring countries.

Thousands of Assyrian artefacts are on display at the Iraqi National Museum as well as others around the world, while many others can be found at auction houses.

The focus of many major Assyrian artefact is Lamassu, a celestial being with a human head and a bull's body. In some examples, the head includes the horns and ears of a bull as well as wings.

This is the latest artefact to be returned to its homeland.

Last month, Iraq received a stone tablet from Italy that was seized by Italian police nearly 40 years ago.

The 2,800-year-old tablet is unique, Iraq’s culture ministry said at the time, because of the completeness of its cuneiform writing in the Babylonian alphabet.

Significantly larger than many other clay tablets found in Iraq, it also bears the insignia of Shalmaneser III, the Assyrian king who ruled the Nimrod region – close to present-day Mosul – from 858 to 823 BC.

In May, the UK handed over 6,000 artefacts which were borrowed from Iraq more than a hundred years ago for “studying purposes”.

A total of 34,502 have been recovered in five years, the Foreign Minister said in May.

Iraq’s archaeological sites, museums and heritage troves have suffered hugely due to 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 archaeological digs became widespread, mainly in remote areas that troops were unable to secure.

With the fall of Baghdad during the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam's government, looters broke into the Iraqi National Museum, walking off with thousands of priceless artefacts and leaving the floor littered with shattered pottery. Only a few thousand 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.

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: July 18, 2023, 4:06 PM