Looted Iraqi Relics Return Home
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
There was a joyful repatriation in Iraq this week of a 4,400-year-old statue of a Sumerian king. It's considered one of the most precious artifacts that was looted from Baghdad's National Museum in the chaos after the U.S. invasion. Now, after seven years of exile and some shady black market deals, King Entemena of Lagash is back home.
Reporter Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe watched as the statue was packed up for shipment from the Iraqi embassy here in Washington.
Farah, welcome to the program.
Ms. FARAH STOCKMAN (Reporter, Boston Globe): Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Describe the statue of King Entemena. What does he look like?
Ms. STOCKMAN: Well, he's rather short, and he's about 3 feet tall, dark. He's wearing a skirt. He has inscriptions on his arms and on his back, and he has no head.
BLOCK: He's headless?
Ms. STOCKMAN: He's headless, yes.
BLOCK: And what happened to the head?
Ms. STOCKMAN: Archeologists think that it was actually lopped off 4,000 years ago when his city was conquered, and they think it might be a symbol of the emancipation of the city of Ur, which was where the statue was actually discovered.
BLOCK: What about the real King Entemena? What do we know about his significance to Iraqi ancient civilization?
Ms. STOCKMAN: I think he's known as a powerful king. This was the cradle of civilization, was one of the earliest known civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, and I think the kings after him were much weaker than he was.
BLOCK: We mentioned that this statue, hundreds of pounds worth, of King Entemena was stolen from the National Museum in 2003. What happened? And how did he end up where he did, here in Washington?
Ms. STOCKMAN: Well, the curators of this museum are used to hiding things. Every time Saddam Hussein went to war, they would pack up a lot of their ancient objects and put them in the basement, but King Entemena was heavy, and they couldn't move him. And so they left him there when the U.S. arrived, and thieves broke in, and they actually, literally, just rolled him down the stairs. And every single stair in this main staircase of the museum was broken.
BLOCK: It couldn't have been too good for the statue either.
Ms. STOCKMAN: Right. I think there might be a few chips...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STOCKMAN: ...from that time.
BLOCK: So he's taken from the museum, and then where did he go?
Ms. STOCKMAN: Well, he disappeared for several years, and the FBI have a most wanted list - Interpol was looking for it, and it's a bit shady. U.S. officials have not publicly said exactly how they got it back as it gets pretty clear that they did pay a reward for it. But sort of shady art dealer in New York ended up getting shown a picture of the statue by someone who wanted to sell it, someone who had it in Syria, and the FBI ended up organizing to get it back.
BLOCK: At some point, the United States transfers the statue to the Iraqi embassy here in Washington.
Ms. STOCKMAN: Yes. So after they recovered it, they ended having a ceremony here in Washington, D.C., where U.S. officials handed it over to Prime Minister Maliki, and this is kind of a symbolic moment - the old ancient ruler in Iraq with the new ruler in Iraq - and they handed him over. But Baghdad was too dangerous to bring him back, so they actually kept him here for years. And the Iraqi ambassador had this king in his office, and I happened to be interviewing him about the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers, and this is something he told me.
He pointed to the empty case and said, by the way, we're taking our ancient king back. And this is very exciting. It was very moving to hear him talk about the statue and what it meant to him personally to have it come back and how it was this metaphor for Iraq, basically how, you know, how destruction is so much quicker than construction. He said it took four days for them to loot all these things, and it's taken seven years for us to get even a third of them back. And he said we'll be working on this for 20 years, and we may never get them all back.
BLOCK: Well, here's one complication. The same Iraqi ambassador to Washington has pointed out that there were hundreds of artifacts that were sent back to Iraq from the United States that have disappeared...
Ms. STOCKMAN: Yeah.
BLOCK: ...taken into the custody of the Iraqi government, and no one knows where they are.
Ms. STOCKMAN: Yes. He was rather diplomatic, wasn't he? And the way he described it, he said that there was this shipment last year of things that he'd worked tirelessly to collect, and that he delivered it to the prime minister's office. And now there's a big question as to what happened to them, nobody knows.
BLOCK: Farah Stockman, thanks for coming in.
Ms. STOCKMAN: Thank you.
BLOCK: Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe talking about the repatriation to Iraq of the 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena.
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