The United States will reportedly be sending around 17,000 archaeological antiquities back to Iraq, after they were illegally smuggled from the country over the decades.
According to Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim yesterday, the artefacts will be returned today onboard the flight of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi who is returning to the Middle East after meeting US President Joe Biden in the capital Washington DC.
Hailing the move as the "largest return of antiquities to Iraq" and the "result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington," Nazim expressed his hope that "in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe."
His ministry identified the artefacts as recording the "commercial exchanges during the Sumerian period" as well as some which are historically prominent, such as a 3,500-year-old clay tablet with a sequence from the famed epic of Gilgamesh.
That tablet, along with others, was seized by the US Department of Justice in 2019 after it was placed two years prior in the Bible Museum in Washington, which documents and showcases ancient biblical history.
It was initially purchased by the museum's owner and founder – billionaire David Green who also owns the Hobby Lobby store chain – for $1.67 million in 2014, after it was smuggled to the US in 2003 by a dealer who bought it from a Jordanian antiquities' trader in London.
Other artefacts were traded illegally by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates, making up the vast network of smugglers in underground antiquities market that characterises the fate of the archaeology of the Mesopotamia region, which has been plundered over decades of instability and conflict in Iraq and the Levant.
In 2017, it was reported that the terror group Daesh was making $100 million per year through its looting and selling of historical artefacts in the region.
The tablet's journey and the US Justice Department's handing over of the artefacts to the Iraqi government signify a huge step in the return of ancient antiquities and artefacts to their lands of origin, which various countries and organisations have urged European and Western countries to do for decades.
Washington's return of the 17,000 artefacts is part of Baghdad's drive to recover tens of thousands of its lost historical items in recent years, and comes after the British government and the British Museum returned looted artefacts to the country last year.