The Gilgamesh tablet, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian jewel that was returned to Iraq by the United States, was shown to the public on Tuesday, with the Iraqi authorities proclaiming it as a “win” against those who want to take “history” from the nation.
The clay tablet with cuneiform letters was allegedly taken from an archaeological site or an Iraqi museum in 1991, during the Gulf War that started when Iraq invaded Kuwait. It includes sections of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which is regarded to be one of the first literary works ever written, and which describes the exploits of a great king of Mesopotamia who is on a quest for immortality in the form of a golden apple.
Three artifacts returned by the United States and Great Britain were presented to the Minister of Culture on Tuesday at a press conference in Baghdad: the tablet of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian ram’s head, and a Sumerian tablet. The Minister of Foreign Affairs presented the artifacts to the Minister of Culture on Tuesday.
Hassan Nazem, Iraq’s Minister of Culture and Antiquities, told AFP that the Gilgamesh tablet “is of significant value since it is one of the earliest literary writings in the history of the country.” His news conference focused on the “message given to all of those who smuggle our antiquities and sell them at foreign auctions: the destiny of these activities is restitution,” as he put it.
Iraq retrieved approximately 18,000 artifacts in a single year, including 17,899 pieces that were more than 4,000 years old, which had been returned by the United States this summer. “This day marks a success in the face of the desperate efforts of those who want to take our magnificent heritage and our old civilization,” Fouad Hussein, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement on Tuesday.
In 2001, the Gilgamesh tablet was discovered in the United Kingdom. It was purchased by an American art dealer in 2003 from a Jordanian family that lived in London. He subsequently transported it to the United States without mentioning the nature of the item to customs, and in 2007, he sold it to antique dealers for $ 50,000 with a forged certificate of origin in his possession. After years of negotiations, it was ultimately sold for $1.67 million in 2014 to the proprietors of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.
In 2017, a museum curator expressed concern about the tablet’s provenance, claiming that the paperwork presented after the acquisition was insufficient. This concern eventually led to the tablet’s seizure in 2019. In recent years, Iraq has suffered from theft of its antiquities, which has increased in severity after the American invasion in 2003 and the advent of jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) organization 10 years later.