The United States has begun returning more than 17,000 ancient artefacts looted and smuggled out of Iraq following its invasion in 2003, according to Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi culture and foreign ministries said US authorities had reached an agreement with the government in Baghdad to return treasures seized from dealers and museums in the US, including a 3,500-year-old clay tablet bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
“The US government seized some of the artefacts and sent them to the [Iraqi] embassy. The Gilgamesh tablet, the important one, will be returned to Iraq in the next month after legal procedures are finalised,” Minister of Culture Hassan Nadhim told Reuters news agency on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of antiquities disappeared from Iraq after the 2003 invasion that overthrew leader Saddam Hussein.
Many more were smuggled out or destroyed by the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, which held a third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017 before it was defeated by Iraqi and international forces.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Sumerian tale considered one of the world’s first pieces of literature.
US authorities seized the Gilgamesh tablet in 2019 after it was smuggled, auctioned and sold to an art dealer in the state of Oklahoma and displayed at a museum in Washington, DC, the Department of Justice said. A court ordered its forfeiture last month.
A US antiquities dealer had bought the tablet from a London-based dealer in 2003.
Nadhim said other artefacts being returned included tablets inscribed in cuneiform script.
Iraq’s ancient heritage has been decimated by conflict, destruction and looting especially since 2003, with archaeologists saying thousands of other pieces are still missing.