United States to return 3,500-year-old looted historical artefact to Iraq: The Gilgamesh Tablet – ABC News

The United States will formally return an illegally imported 3,500-year-old tablet recounting the epic of Gilgamesh to Iraq this week, the United Nations’ cultural body UNESCO says.

Key points:

  • The tablet describes a dream sequence from The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known religious and literary texts

  • During the Islamic State’s reign, Iraqi archeological sites and museums were systematically looted

  • The artefact was seized by the US Justice Department from billionaire David Green in 2019

According to the Iraqi Culture Minister who spoke in Baghdad last week, in an “unprecedented” restitution, the US will return to Iraq some 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years and looted in recent decades.

“This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” said Dr Hassan Nadhem, hailing it as “the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington”.

The ancient tablet, which a wealthy US collector had acquired along with other Iraqi artefacts to display in the Washington Museum of the Bible, will be handed over to Iraqi officials at the Smithsonian Institution on September 23.

A likeness of Gilgamesh in stone, France

This stone carving depicts Gilgamesh, a mythological hero-king of Sumeria, who was probably a real ruler in the late Early Dynastic II period (circa 27th century BC).(

AFP: Manuel Cohen


On Monday, UNESCO 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”.

It said that when the Islamic State extremist group controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019, Iraqi archaeological sites and museums were systematically looted.

The rare fragment — also known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,  which recounts a dream sequence from the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian cuneiform script — is one of many ancient artifacts from Iraq and the Middle East that were collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.

In 2019, the artefact was seized by the US Justice Department, two years after Mr Green opened the museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The clay tablet is inscribed in Sumerian, a civilisation of ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran). 

It contains sections of a Sumerian poem from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and is one of the world’s oldest religious texts, according to UNESCO.

Scholars believe that The Epic of Gilgamesh originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems about the mythological hero-king Gilgamesh, which were gathered into a longer Akkadian epic much later.

The most complete version existing today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library collection of 7th-century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.


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