The polished fragment with inscriptions in two languages is considered the most famous piece of rock in history: The Rosetta Stone. A piece of dark granite a little over a meter long, found in the Egyptian sands in 1799, with a chiseled text in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also in a then more common script, and in ancient Greek. Thanks to the knowledge of the latter language, the hieroglyphs, which appear on many ancient monuments and objects, could be deciphered. The partially crumbled stone is considered one of the most important artifacts from Egypt’s rich pharaonic history.
Small problem: The 760-pound chisel has been on display at the British Museum in London since 1802, and Egyptians have long demanded its return to their country, from where they say it was looted. Last Friday again, through 75-year-old Zahi Hawass, renowned archaeologist, Egyptologist, former minister of antiquities and equally famous for his inseparable Indiana Jones hat. After the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, his ministry ended, but not his zeal to restore the Egyptian heritage.
IN The national, an English-language daily for the Middle East, last week he called for the return not only of the Rosetta Stone, but also of the famous bust of the pharaoh Nefertiti – since 1920 in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin – and of the Dendera Zodiac, a piece of ceiling from the ancient Egypt depicting the firmament and its constellations. This relief has been in the Louvre in Paris for a hundred years.
Hawass revealed in the newspaper the plan to launch a petition from a ‘group of Egyptian intellectuals’, aimed at European museums: ‘I think these three objects are unique and that they belong in Egypt.’ His appeal subsequently attracted attention from international media.
The timing of the requested refund is not random. On the desert plain near the pyramids of Giza, the Egyptians have been building the gigantic ‘Grand Egyptian Museum’ for years. Its completion has already been postponed several times, but was supposed to take place this autumn. The three archaeological highlights from London, Paris and Berlin would not look out of place in the collection of statues, mummies and paintings, including those of the most famous pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Earlier, in 2019, Hawass had harassed the directors of the British Museum, the Louvre and the Egyptian Museum: “How can you refuse to lend to the Grand Egyptian Museum when you have stolen so much from Egypt?” But his pleas were rejected by the museums.
For decades, countries, mostly former colonies, have reclaimed heritage that would have been wrongfully taken by Western powers. For a long time, the return of these taxes was out of the question. This has changed in recent years, in part due to the anti-racism protests and attention to the history of slavery.
The Netherlands is working on a procedure for requests for the return of colonial heritage. France and Germany lead the way. Recently, these countries announced that they would return their collections of the so-called ‘Benin bronzes’ to Nigeria. These are statues that were made from the 16th century on behalf of the then kingdom of Benin, now the territory of Nigeria. In 1897, thousands of them were looted by British troops.
The British Museum has more than 900 objects from this former kingdom, but has yet to mention anything about restitution. The institution has also been under pressure for many years to return another treasure from antiquity: the Parthenon friezes, a collection of marble sculptures that adorned the exterior of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Greece wants these ‘Elgin Marbles’ (named after the Englishman who took them to London between 1801 and 1804) back, but Britain has so far refused to do so.
Still, it seems the rejection has had its time. In June, the chairman of the British Museum’s board suddenly proposed a deal to share the Parthenon friezes with Greece. He proposed to display the marble treasures in both Athens and London. However, he added that he was not speaking on behalf of all members of the board. It has been quiet since.