A trove of archeological objects, including more than 300 cuneiform tablets, were returned to Iraq from Lebanon over the weekend. Allegedly looted from several Iraqi archeological sites, the artifacts had been exhibited in the Nabu Museum, a private institution in northern Lebanon founded by the businessman Jawad Adra. Adra and his wife, former Lebanese defense minister Zeina Akar, have repeatedly denied any involvement in the international trafficking of cultural property, according to the Lebanese French-language newspaper L’Orient Le Jour.
The handover took place at a ceremony at the National Museum of Beirut, attended by the Lebanese Minister of Culture Abbas Mortada, the Iraqi Ambassador to Lebanon Haydar Chayyah Barrak, and Adra. A total of 337 artifacts were returned. Speaking at the ceremony, Mortada stressed the “common destiny of Lebanon and Iraq,” saying that “Beirut is in the hearts of the Iraqis, just as Baghdad is in the hearts of the Lebanese.” Barrak thanked the Lebanese people and government “for the continued cooperation that made this happy ending possible.”
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The Nabu Museum opened in Heri, on the Lebanese coast, in 2018. Named after the Mesopotamian god of literacy and wisdom, it houses a selection of the couple’s collection of 2,000 artifacts dating from prehistory to the Byzantine era. According to Adra, the aim of the museum is to “preserve and protect the regional ancient history, which would otherwise be scattered across the world.”
The museum has been under scrutiny for several months by international authorities for housing antiquities that were believed to have been illegally smuggled out of Iraq. Earlier this year, Iraq asked Interpol to issue a red notice against the museum and demand the restitution of hundreds of Sumerian tablets. The couple cooperated voluntarily with the investigation, with Akar traveling to Baghdad to negotiate the repartition of the artifacts.
Local news outlets report that the artifacts likely originated from the ancient Sumerian city, Irisagrig, which was a frequent target of smugglers after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2017, the U.S. craft store chain Hobby Lobby was fine $3 million and forced to surrender thousands of objects that had been smuggled from the area.
In recent years Iraq has increased efforts to recover cultural property looted during periods of political turmoil. Last year, the United States returned more than 17,000 smuggled artifacts to Iraq, including statues and Mesopotamian carvings dating back to 4,000 years. The handover included the Gilgamesh tablet, a 3,500-year-old cuneiform object thought to be one of the world’s oldest religious texts. It is believed to have been stolen from an Iraqi museum in 1990 and to have entered the U.S. in 2007. (It had been sold several times before being acquired by Hobby Lobby for $1.67 million at a 2014 auction.)
At the time of that return, the Iraqi foreign minister Faud Hussein said that his government would “spare no effort to recover the rest of our cultural heritage throughout the world.”