After a 30-year “epic” adventure worthy of its protagonist, the ancient Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is finally on its way back home. The 3,500-year-old tablet, one of the artifacts smuggled out of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, was formally returned at a ceremony last week at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The 5- by 6-inch tablet, which contains the oldest-known epic poem, changed hands numerous times after it was looted. In 2014, the private craft-supply company Hobby Lobby purchased it for $1.6 million from Christie’s in London. The auction house later claimed it wasn’t aware that documents had been falsified.
Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, who began collecting antiquities to display at his family’s Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has admitted he “trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years.”
Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the U.S. government’s investigations and repatriation efforts. In 2017, the company was fined $3 million for its involvement with the artifacts. Hobby Lobby also has countersued sellers for deception.
Gilgamesh Dream Tablet Returns to Its Home
At last Thursday’s repatriation ceremony in America’s capital, Stacy White with the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs said, “The tablet is a treasure to the world, and it will now return to its home.”
Fareed Yasseen, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, said, “The attachment to our artifacts is so deeply rooted amongst Iraqis.” He added, “Our history is really important to us. Our history is what makes us. We’re an old country, and so you can’t take that from us.”
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is one of about 17,000 artifacts that America is returning to Iraq. Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, says, “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism.”
Earlier this year, a federal court in New York ordered the forfeiture of the tablet, which the Justice Department determined had “entered the United States contrary to federal law.” Labels falsely claimed that the shipped packages contained “ceramic tiles.”