Made of clay and priceless, the Gilgamesh Tablet features inscriptions in Sumerian, a civilisation of ancient Mesopotamia.
The 3,500-year-old treasure was taken from a museum in Iraq after the start of the Gulf War in August 1990.
In 2007, it was introduced fraudulently into the US art market. According to news reports, the artefact was acquired in 2014 by the craft retail chain, Hobby Lobby, for display at the Museum of the Bible, in Washington DC – which is funded by the family of Hobby Lobby’s owner.
The US Department of Justice announced in July, that it was ordering the official handing over of the tablet, as it had entered the US “contrary to federal law”, noting that federal agents had seized the tablet from the museum, in September 2019.
It will now be formally returned to Iraq at a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC this Thursday.
“By returning these illegally acquired objects, the authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history”, said UNESCO’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, in a celebratory message. “This exceptional restitution is a major victory over those who mutilate heritage and then traffic it to finance violence and terrorism.”
The tablet, with its distinctive wedge-like cuneiform impressions, contains sections of a Sumerian epic poem in which the hero, Gilgamesh, recounts his dreams to his mother.
Some of the stories are mirrored by the Old Testament – for instance the reference to the Great Flood - making it one of the world’s oldest known religious texts, UNESCO said.
The UN agency said that another 17,000 artefacts will be returned to Iraq from the US after Thursday’s ceremony.
According to Interpol, there has been a considerable global increase in the destruction of cultural heritage owing to armed conflict in the past decade.
UNESCO noted that the authorities in the United States, which represents an estimated 44 per cent of the global art market, have made significant progress in tackling stolen artefacts in recent years.
With the help of improved legislation and the assistance of key cultural institutions, the US Antiquities Trafficking Unit has helped to return valuable items to the people of Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka already this year, the UN agency said.
“The United States deeply values the cultural heritage of Iraq,” said Stacy White, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State, who will speak at the Smithsonian event.
“We have worked for nearly 20 years with Iraqi counterparts and American academic and non-profit institutions to protect, preserve and honour the rich cultural heritage of Iraq.”