ARCHEOLOGY – This clay work with cuneiform characters is said to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum in 1991, when the country was plunged into the first Gulf War.
The Gilgamesh tablet, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian gem that was looted and illegally brought to the United States, will be returned to Iraq on Thursday, Unesco announced on Monday. This clay tablet with cuneiform characters was said to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum in 1991, when the country was plunged into the first Gulf War.
The precious archaeological piece, also called the “Gilgamesh’s dream tablet”, would then have been “Fraudulently introduced on the American art market in 2007”, before being seized by the country’s judicial authorities in 2019, according to Unesco.
Despite its small size, the tablet has immense value. It contains fragments of the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, considered one of the oldest literary works of humanity and which recounts the adventures of a powerful king of Mesopotamia in search of immortality. This restitution is “A major victory over those who mutilate heritage” and allows “To the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page of their history”, said in a statement Audrey Azoulay, Director General of Unesco, who will be present at the ceremony in Washington for the handing over of the work to the Iraqi authorities.
As of July, 17,000 pieces, most of them some 4,000 years old, were returned to Iraq by the United States. The majority of them date from the Sumerian period, one of the oldest civilizations in Mesopotamia. Iraq has seen its antiquities looted for decades, over the course of the country’s conflicts, including the US invasion of 2003. “Over the past decade, the world has witnessed an alarming increase in the destruction of cultural heritage due to armed conflict”, said Interpol in 2017.
“The Middle East, in particular, is affected by this phenomenon, even if other regions are not spared”, like North Africa, West or Central Asia, added the organization. Priest Nedjemankh’s imposing sarcophagus was stolen in Egypt in 2011, during the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, then sold to the Met in New York, one of the most prestigious museums in the world, for around $ 4 million . It was not until 2019 that the archaeological treasure, dating from 150 to 50 BC, was returned to its country of origin.
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