UK returns cursed Babylonian stone treasure looted during Iraq War

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A 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia, said to place a curse on anyone who tries to destroy it, is to be flown home from Britain after being looted during the Iraq War. (British Museum)
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Dr. St John Simpson making a speech during the British Museum handover. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
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Dr. St John Simpson with Iraqi Ambassador Salih Husain Ali during the British Museum handover. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
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Curator Jonathan Taylor discussing the 3,000-year-old Babylonian tablet. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
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The 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
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The 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
Updated 20 March 2019

UK returns cursed Babylonian stone treasure looted during Iraq War

LONDON: A 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia, said to place a curse on anyone who tries to destroy it, is to be flown home from Britain after being looted during the Iraq War.
British Museum director Hartwig Fischer handed over the priceless work to Iraqi Ambassador Salih Husain Ali during a ceremony on Tuesday after museum experts had verified its authenticity.
“It is a very important piece of Iraq’s cultural heritage,” said Fischer, praising the “extraordinary and tireless work” of border officials.
The attempt to smuggle the piece into Britain was thwarted by the UK Border Force at London’s Heathrow airport in May 2012.




Dr. St John Simpson with Iraqi Ambassador Salih Husain Ali during the British Museum handover. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

It had been declared at customs as a carved stone made in Turkey and valued at $330. But when the package was opened it caught the attention of a Border Force officer who recognized that the declaration was false.
After a long investigation against the importer, the case was resolved in favor of Iraq, with coordination from the British Museum, which acts as the specialist adviser on cultural property for the British government.
“They seized this item when they saw it at a British port and several years later, after a lot of legal work, we are able to effect this transfer,” said Michael Ellis, Britain’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism. “It’s a very important and significant moment.”
It is still not clear how the object was taken out of Iraq, “but we believe it was probably stolen about 15 years ago during troubles in Iraq,” Ellis added.




Dr. St John Simpson making a speech during the British Museum handover. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

Ambassador Ali said the handover came after continued cooperation between the Iraqi embassy in London and the British authorities, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the British Museum and British police.
“As a representative of the Iraqi government, I am looking to receive more handovers in the future if any Iraqi antiquities are found here,” Ambassador Ali told Arab News.

Dr. St. John Simpson, curator at the British Museum, also told Arab News that they "identified it very quickly as a very important inscribed Mesopotamian document of the 12th century B.C. of known king Nebuchadnezzar I, and that this object must have come from illegal excavations fairly recently in Iraq.”
He said from the contents of the inscription it appeared the piece came from Nippur, which was a big ancient Sumerian and Babylonian site in southern Iraq. It was heavily looted in 2003 and the museum believes the object came from that phase of destruction of a known archaeological site.
British minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, said: “Iraq’s rich civilization, culture and history are globally important and sit at the core of its contemporary national identity. I am therefore delighted that the UK Border Force was able to retrieve the illegally trafficked kudurru and that today we can repatriate it, to sit proudly in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.”




Curator Jonathan Taylor discussing the 3,000-year-old Babylonian tablet. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

The kudurru is a ceremonial stone tablet recording the legal gifting of land by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I to one of his subjects in return for distinguished service, according to curator Jonathan Taylor.
On one side are depictions of the great Babylonian gods Enlil and Marduk, and on the other, legal text written in cuneiform, the Babylonian alphabet.
Taylor told Arab News: “What had happened a generation before King Nebuchadnezzar I was that the old dynasty had been swept away, the enemies had invaded, they captured the king, they looted the cities, they also looted the temples and they took away the statue of the city god Marduk, which meant not only the statue had gone but the god Marduk himself had been taken away and they no longer had his protection.”
Taylor added that the inscription says that the great god Enlil, the father of the gods, came up with a plan to save the day, so he created Nebuchadnezzar as the avenger of the Babylonians and the brave king marched into enemy territory, defeated the Elamite, took the statue back, brought it to Babylon and order was restored.
“It is such an important moment in Babylonian history. Forever after the Babylonians told stories about this great, brave king who brought Marduk back, and in response they created the Babylonian epic of creation, which tells about how Marduk was appointed to defeat the forces of chaos and to put order into the universe. So, every spring at the new year festival they recite this epic of creation.”
Taylor said the object also carried “terrible curses” for anyone trying to claim the land or damage the tablet.
“The gift is designed to last forever and there are a list of curses or protective formulas so if anyone should dispute that the gift was made or if they try and hide it, bury it in the dirt, try to destroy it with fire, smash it or get somebody who does not know any better to do it on their behalf, then the gods will curse them in a variety of really horrible ways. So, it is to protect forever this gift in recognition of this act of bravery,” said Taylor.




The 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

Fewer than 200 such objects are known to exist, and the one handed over on Tuesday was broken and eroded, presenting a problem for sleuths trying to establish its history.
“The basic identification was quite straightforward,” said Taylor. “More difficult was tying down exactly who the king was and what the circumstances were. For that we needed to read the inscription and it was quite worn, there was a lot of damage in the middle of the text. It was old-fashioned bookwork, but we had a few clues.”
Ellis said: “It’s more than just a carved stone... It is a testament to the remarkable history of the Republic of Iraq.”
This is the second handover so far on such a significant level. Eight antiquities were given back to Iraq seven months ago from the British Museum and it is investigating other cases of material coming from Iraq that will have to be returned.
“We would like to reboot our bilateral relations in many fields not just on the humanities side, but we are getting good support from our friends and through the global coalition to defeat terrorism in Iraq, especially Daesh,” said Ali.
Burt added: “This latest repatriation, in conjunction with the British Museum, is just one example of the UK’s ongoing commitment to helping Iraq create for itself a prosperous and secure future following the fall of Daesh; a goal it is well on the way to achieving.”
The initiative is part of a wider Iraqi scheme between the British Museum and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq (SBAH) in Baghdad.




The 3,000-year-old carved stone tablet from Babylonia. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

The scheme was initiated by Jonathan Tubb, keeper at the museum, in 2015 following the dreadful destruction of places such as Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra, all in the Mosul region.
“It was quite clear that we couldn’t do anything on the ground, I mean nobody could get into that region and it would have been foolish to do so,” Tubb told Arab News.
The scheme introduced a constructive method of training SBAH employees in all the techniques they would need to confront the aftermath of the destruction, enabling them to work methodically and systematically from day one to record and excavate what was left.
They are trained in surveying, photographic and field archaeology techniques, as well as drone technology and have two excavation projects in Iraq, one in the north in Iraqi Kurdistan and one in the south at ancient Girsu (modern Tello).
“By the end of this scheme of which the first phase will be finished next April, we will have trained 50 employees altogether and they will go back to their various departments and train other people so there will be a drip-down effect of the expertise,” said Tubb.
“We are delighted to say that because of our training, several of the participants have been now appointed to senior positions within the state board and have been given responsibility for assessing the damages at these sites.”


US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

Updated 12 November 2019

US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

A BASE IN EASTERN SYRIA: At a base in eastern Syria, a senior US coalition commander said Monday that American troops who remain in Syria are redeploying to bases, including in some new locations, and working with the Kurdish-led forces to keep up the pressure on the Daesh militants and prevent the extremists from resurging or breaking out of prisons.
The commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, said even though Bradley armored vehicles have arrived in eastern Syria, the mission’s focus has not changed. He said the “force mix,” including the mechanized armored vehicles deployed in Syria for the first time since the war against Daesh, has an array of capabilities to deny Daesh the chance to regroup.
“The mission still continues. And Daesh is trying to resurge wherever they can,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He said the forces have captured 700 IS fighters since its last territorial holding fell in March. “We’ve destroyed many and war remnants and we continue to do so as we find them.”
Speaking at a remote base in Syria where the Bradleys arrived last week, he said “our primary way that we do that” is through working with the US partners, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The deployment of the mechanized force comes after US troops pulled out from northeastern Syria, making way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters that began last month. Only several miles away from the base, fighting between Turkish-allied fighters and the SDF was ongoing, despite a cease-fire that has so far curbed the Turkish invasion but didn’t end the violence.
Smoke billowed in the distance, visible from across a major highway that has become a de-facto frontier between Turkish-held areas and areas where US troops are going to operate. An SDF official on the scene said Turkish shelling was continuing.
Further north, three car bombs went off Monday in the town of Qamishli, killing at least six people while a priest was shot dead. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the Armenian Catholic priest and his father as they drove from Qamishli to the city of Hassakeh, in a sign that the extremists still have reach.
The US withdrawal from northern Syria was widely criticized, even by allies of President Donald Trump. The Kurdish-led force, deserted by Washington in the face of the threat of a military operation by NATO ally, leaned on the Syrian government and Russia for help. The cease-fire reached in late October left Turkey in control of a stretch of land along the border that is roughly 120 kilometers (70 miles) wide and 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep. But fighting south of that zone continued. Kurdish officials say Turkey is seeking to expand its area of control.
Hill’s stress on the continued partnership with the Kurdish-led forces comes as US troops sent reinforcements to bases in the oil-rich region of eastern Syria.
Trump approved an expanded military mission which he said was to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria. The directive raised questions about how the troops will operate, particularly in an area where there are Russian-backed Syrian troops, who may try to take back oil facilities.
The decision was a partial win for those who were against the withdrawal from Syria. Pentagon officials said as many as 800 may stay in Syria, down from about 1,200 and including about 200 in a southern garrison.
Hill said while some troops are going home or withdrawing to Iraq, others are redeploying to Qamishli area, Deir Ezzor and Derik, an area where no US bases were before.
In a day visit to some of the bases where reinforcements were sent, Associated Press journalists spoke to some of the troops, many of them newly arrived. The military required that the names and exact locations of the bases not be identified.
First Lt. Jacob Moore said a group of his Bradley armored vehicles were asked to provide security for a US convoy passing through the fighting area, Tal Tamr, setting up a security blockade to allow the forces to pass.
“We were prepared for the worst,” said Moore, who arrived last week in Syria, “but we got the best. There was no fighting when we got there,” Instead, he said, locals were happy to see the new deployment.
In the crowded terrain, US officials say de-conflicting with Russia and Turkey is essential to avoid any friction.
But the reality created on the ground by US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion has made for a tense and at times, surreal terrain, where Russia, Turkish troops patrol together, while Syrian government forces clash with Turkey-backed allies despite a cease-fire brokered by Moscow, a main ally of Damascus. An earlier cease-fire negotiated between Washington and Ankara ensured that the two NATO allies don’t come into confrontation. But it left the Kurdish forces, which were in control of 30 percent of Syria’s territory, pushed away from the borders and reliant on a new political agreement that would protect a five-year experiment in self-administration.
If the US insists its mission is still fighting Daesh, for the Kurds their priority has now shifted. It is time for the alliance with the US to bear political fruit, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, who was present at one of the bases.
He said keeping the oil in the hands of his forces was a good card for political negotiations.
“Here in northeast Syria, we are part of the total picture that is dealing with a crisis and requires finding a track for a political resolution,” Bali said. “The presence of the US forces, a military weight, will have a positive role in finding a political way out.”
Pentagon officials have stressed that securing oil facilities was a way to ensure that the Kurdish fighters maintain control of an important source of revenue.
One of the bases visited by journalists Monday was close to oil fields, but there was no way of telling if there was an increase of security around the facilities. While one base was provided with the Bradley vehicles, Apache helicopters had moved in to another, apparently from a base dismantled further north.
US officials say the enhanced presence of Apaches and artillery are a deterrent to any hostile forces in the area.
Adding to the complicated terrain in Syria, Deir Ezzor province is divided between the Kurdish-led forces on one side of the Euphrates River and the Syrian government and their Iranian-backed militias on the other. In February 2018, US forces responded firmly to an attempted advance on Kurdish-held areas by Syrian troops, at the time backed by Russian contractors.
At the base, soldiers said the troop presence also secures other infrastructure, such as water facilities and major highways.
Hill said the continued US presence is also to assist and train Kurdish-led forces, including in securing prisons where over 10,000 Daesh militants are held. The US does not guard the facilities but helps the Kurdish forces do so.
“One of the missions that we will continue to support with the Syrian Democratic Forces is to contain the prisons and make sure that all the prisoners that are under SDF control remain in those prisons and secure,” he said.