About 15,000 pieces of cultural relics from the Stone Age, the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Islamic periods had been stolen or destroyed by looters after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled by US-led troops, reports Asian Lite News
Iraq has managed to recover some 17,000 stolen artefacts from the US, marking the return of the largest amount of smuggled Iraqi antiquities, Minister of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities Hassan Nadhim said in a statement.
In the statement issued on Wednesday, Nadhim praised the return of these artefacts as a “momentous event”, and expressed hope for more efforts to retrieve other Iraqi antiquities smuggled to Europe.
According to the official statistics, about 15,000 pieces of cultural relics from the Stone Age, the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Islamic periods had been stolen or destroyed by looters after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled by US-led troops in 2003.
The Mosul Museum and ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud had also been destroyed and large numbers of antiquities smuggled after the Islamic State terror group took control of large territories in northern and western Iraq in 2014.
More than 10,000 sites in Iraq are officially recognised as archaeological sites, but most of them are not safeguarded and many were still being looted.
US takes step to return 3,500-year-old looted artefact
Meanwhile, a US federal court has verified that a 3,500-year-old rare artefact was legally seized by authorities, paving way for its return to Iraq. US district judge Ann M. Donnelly ruled that the tablet recounting the epic of Gilgamesh, written in Akkadian, originated in present-day Iraq and entered the US contrary to federal law.
The US state department on Tuesday said that the rare fragment was illegally imported to the country after it was bought by Hobby Lobby, a prominent arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, from an international auction house for more than $1.67 million. The law enforcement agents seized it from the museum in 2019.
“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” acting US Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis said in a statement.
“This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts,” she added.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was discovered in 1853 in the ruins of the library of the Assyrian King Assur Banipal in Nineveh, situated in modern-day northern Iraq. In 2003, a US antiquities dealer purchased the tablet from a family member of a coin dealer in London and shipped it to the US by international post without declaring formal entry, according to the US state department.
The antiquities dealer then allegedly sold the tablet with a false provenance letter that stated the ancient artefact had been inside a box of miscellaneous ancient bronze fragments purchased in an auction in 1981. The tablet changed hands several times in different countries along with the false letter.
“Hobby Lobby consented to the tablet’s forfeiture based on the tablet’s illegal importations into the United States in 2003 and 2014,” the department added.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi is reportedly set to take back 17,000 pieces of archaeological treasures when he returns on Thursday. However, it was not immediately clear whether the Gilgamesh tablet would be among those thousands of artefacts.