Arts & Entertainment

US returns ancient “Epic of Gilgamesh” tablet to Iraq

By Beatriz Pascual Macias

Washington, Sep 23 (EFE).- The United States on Thursday returned to Iraq a cuneiform clay tablet that tells a portion of one of the first epics in history but was stolen from Iraq three decades ago and, after a long journey, wound up in a Washington museum, from which it was rescued by federal authorities.

The repatriation of the so-called “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet” – a reddish clay tablet some 15 x 13 cm (5.9 x 5.1 inches) in size, covered with ancient cuneiform writing and 3,500 years old – came at a ceremony held in an auditorium at the Smithsonian Institution.

There, on a stage, the tablet – resting on a table covered with a black cloth – was photographed by dozens of photographers and admired by members of UNESCO and both US and Iraqi politicians.

UNESCO director Audrey Azoulay said that returning the tablet to Iraq means returning to that country an essential element of the “soul of … one of the world’s most ancient nations.”

The tablet, she explained, tells a portion of the story of a demigod named Gilgamesh who 5,000 years ago ruled the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, set off on various adventures in search of immortality but also had doubts and dreams like any human being.

Gilgamesh, she said, also had a dream about life, death, fate, friendship and love, and he had questions that are eternal and which are just as real to us now as they were to people thousands of years ago.

Gilgamesh is considered to be the protagonist of the first known epic tale in history, where – for the very first time – a worldwide flood is discussed, a purported event that inspired some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible.

The tablet that the US returned to Iraq is one of 12 on which the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is inscribed, and during the course of the long and involved tale the demigod is accompanied on some of his adventures by his friend Enkidu, a savage human-like creature who wound up facing his own humanity.

Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nadhem, who formerly was a professor of literature, alluded to the figure of Enkidu and drew a parallel with the current situation of his country, saying that just as Enkidu did, the country of Iraq “is establishing a road for the civilized world.”

Iraq, in addition, sees itself as the “guardian of the world’s history” because it is one of the places where the Mesopotamian civilization took hold and, thus, the return of the tablet has “special symbolic value,” Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen said.

The tablet was discovered in 1853 in some archaeological ruins in northern Iraq and spent years stored and/or on display in a museum, from where it was stolen in 1991 during the Gulf War, as Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the US Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said.

Apparently, he said, the tablet turned up in 2001 in the United Kingdom and six years later art traffickers illegally brought it to the US.

An auction house obtained it and sold it in 2014 for $1.6 million to Hobby Lobby, a US arts-and-crafts retail firm, the owners of which are evangelical Christians famous in the US for their support for conservative organizations that oppose abortion. In addition, the company has established the controversial Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, where the tablet was put on display and where law enforcement agents seized it in accordance with a judicially-authorized seizure warrant in September 2019.

Federal authorities also seized other ancient objects of contraband from Hobby Lobby, which was ordered to pay a $3 million fine.

“We hope that returning the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to the Republic of Iraq is a message to the people of Iraq, and to the world, that the United States government will take action to seize and repatriate antiquities and other significant items of cultural heritage that have been unlawfully brought into the United States,” Polite added.

When it gets back to Iraq, the Gilgamesh tablet will be put on display at the National Museum of Iraq along with other relics of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

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