Despite its small size, this artifact holds great cultural and historical value. The clay carving depicting parts of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is considered one of the oldest literary works in human history. The epic tells the story of a mighty king of the Mesopotamian Civilization on a quest for immortality.
Speaking at a reception in Washington, Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim stressed that returning the artifact was meant to return self-respect and trust in Iraqi society.
The director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Audrey Azoulay, described the Gilgamesh epic as a “treasure of humanity” and the return of the artifact back to Iraq was ” a great victory for the international community against the vandals of heritage”.
Assistant US Attorney General Kenneth Polite said that “the repatriation of the artifact itself is considered an epic piece”.
According to Mr. Polite, the clay tablet carved with cuneiform characters is believed to have been stolen from a museum in Iraq in 1991, during the First Gulf War. In 2001, ancient clay tablets appeared in England.
An American art dealer bought the artifact from a Jordanian family in London in 2003, before it was brought to the US without truthfully declaring its provenance.
In 2007, the artifact was sold to antique dealers for $50,000 with a forged certificate of origin. In 2014, the owners of the Hobby Lobby handicraft chain, the Green family, spent $1.67 million buying the artifact with the desire to display it at their Museum of the Bible in Washington.
However, in 2017, a museum curator questioned the documents related to this artifact. By 2019, US authorities had seized the artifact.
Many of Iraq’s historical artifacts have been stolen or looted over the decades. The country’s culture ministry has urged organizations to scrutinize artifacts of questionable origin in an effort to find such treasures.
In July, the US returned Iraq about 17,000 ancient artefacts. The artifacts mainly date from the Sumerian period about 4,000 years ago – one of the oldest Mesopotamian civilizations.