Smuggled artifacts returned to Iraq

The Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) arranged two major repatriations of ancient artifacts to the people of Iraq, demonstrating U.S. respect for Iraqi culture and adherence to the rule of law. The largest ever repatriation of artifacts to Iraq coincided with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s July 2021 visit with the president of the United States, when Cornell University and the Museum of the Bible voluntarily returned 17,000 artifacts, including 13,000 clay tablets inscribed with the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia. The museum and the university cooperated fully when they learned these artifacts had been illegally removed from Iraq. The prime minister personally carried the artifacts back to Baghdad on his aircraft. Trafficking ancient artifacts from their countries of origin is a multi-billion-dollar, transnational, organized criminal enterprise that often involves and benefits violent extremist networks. The United States investigates these crimes and returns the smuggled artifacts. NEA also coordinated a repatriation ceremony, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution, to celebrate the return of the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” Sept. 23, 2021. This tablet recounts one episode from the 4,000-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the world’s oldest written story. The Iraqi ambassador accepted the tablet for the Iraqi people in an event that drew the attendance and participation of senior leaders from the Departments of Justice (fourth from left) and Homeland Security (third from left), NEA principal deputy assistant secretary (far left), the Iraqi minister of culture (fourth from right), and the director general of UNESCO (fifth from left).

Photo by Michael Barnes

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