U.S. to return 3,500-year-old ‘Gilgamesh’ tablet to Iraq this week

File – An ancient tablet recounts the epic of Gilgamesh (Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via BBC)

SULAIMANI (ESTA) — The United States will formally return an illegal imported 3,500-year-old tablet recounting the epic of Gilgamesh to Iraq this week, the United Nations said on Monday,

UNESCO said the ancient tablet, which a wealthy U.S. collector had acquired along with other Iraqi artifacts to display in the Washington Museum of the Bible, would be handed over to Iraqi officials at the Smithsonian Institute on Thursday.

It called the repatriation of the tablet, along with 17,000 other artifacts sent back to Iraq in July, “a significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects.”

“The theft and illicit trafficking of ancient artifacts continues to be a key funding source for terrorist groups and other organized criminal organizations,” it said in a statement.

The rare fragment, which recounts a dream sequence from the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian cuneiform script, is of many ancient artifacts from Iraq and the Middle East collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, according to AFP.

It was seized by the U.S. Justice Department in 2019, two years after Green opened the museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington.

Iraq’s antiquities have been extensively looted during decades of war and insurgency, often by organized crime groups, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Archaeological sites across the country have been severely damaged and neglected, and museums looted, with some 15,000 pieces stolen from Iraq’s only national museum in Baghdad.

In July, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the reopening of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, after 17,000 artifacts were returned from the U.S.

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