A 3,600-year-old tablet showing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh will be formally handed back to Irak by the US on Thursday.
The tablet, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, shows parts of a Sumerian poem from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest known religious texts. It is believed to have been looted from a museum in Iraq in 1991, and “fraudulently” entered the US in 2007, according to Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural body. It was acquired by Christian arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby for display in its museum of biblical artefacts in 2014, and seized by the US Department of Justice in 2019.
The formal handover ceremony will take place at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC on 23 September. “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism,” said Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay, who will speak at the Washington ceremony. “By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history.”
Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible was conceived by its billionaire president, the evangelical Christian Steve Green. In 2017, the arts and crafts retailer agreed to pay a fine of $3m, and forfeit thousands of smuggled ancient Iraqi artefacts it had acquired. Green said at the time that the company “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled”.
Unesco called the return of the tablet a “significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects”, adding that the theft and illicit trafficking of ancient artefacts is “a key funding source for terrorist groups and other organised criminal organisations”.