With the provenance of artifacts becoming a subject of international interest, the Rosetta Stone, Dendera Zodiac, and the Bust of Nefertiti are at the center of the demand for antiquities to be returned to Egypt.
Honest, proud, and eloquent – Egypt’s stones transcended their ephemeral, bygone status centuries ago when they were chosen as messengers, sent from one of the world’s oldest civilizations to the future to tell the tales of its ancestors. Deciphering tongues, preserving the features of the pharaohs, and narrating the secrets of the stars, they were objects of mastery when they were first made; centuries later, they are a global subject of interest. History is said to be written by the victorious, yet, in some cases it is also kept by them. According to Unesco, artifacts and monuments that embody values such as symbolic, historic, H artistic, aesthetic, or ethnological, or carry anthropological, scientific, and social significance, are recognized as cultural heritage. They are protected from illicit traffic by the international solution devised by the organization in 2003. After years of debating the return of artifacts to their origin countries – rectifying years of unregulated trafficking powered by war and political unrest – recently, museums and collectors have been summoned to return objects that were acquired illegally.
Most recently, in September this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returned 16 antiquities to Egypt based on a US investigation, which proved that they were illegally smuggled out of the country. With the 200-year anniversary of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics approaching this year, calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone have been growing rapidly in the country, opening a conversation about the current whereabouts of three of its most significant antiquities. Atop the list is the Stone, the British Museum’s most visited piece. The dark gray granite slab depicts priestly decree concerning Ptolemy V in three blocks of text: Hieroglyphic (14 lines), Demotic (32 lines), and Greek (54 lines). These inscriptions changed the way ancient Egyptian history is perceived to this day as it facilitated the breakthrough of deciphering hieroglyphics by French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
With two petitions currently gaining momentum online, and a viral social media campaign, the Rosetta Stone is currently the main subject of interest for both archaeologists concerned about the provenance of artifacts, as well as the public. Signed by more than 100 000 individuals since its launch in October this year, a petition by Dr Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister for antiquities affairs, is spearheading the campaign, demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone and the basrelief Dendera Zodiac. “Returning these two iconic artifacts to Egypt would be an important acknowledgment of the commitment of Western museums to decolonizing their collections and making reparations for the past. They would be prominently displayed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to be opened in 2023,” reads the petition.
A known champion of history and antiquities, Dr Hawass successfully orchestrated the return of over 6 000 artifacts during his time as head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2010. “The Rosetta Stone is the emblem of our Egyptian identity and I quite believe that the rightful place for this stone is with the Zodiac [currently at the Louvre] and Bust of Nefertiti [at Neues Museum in Berlin] in the Grand Museum, when we open it next year,” he adds. “I really expect the petition that I wrote, in Arabic and English to reach a million,” he states [at the time of writing, it had garnered almost 150 000 signatures]. “When it does, I will make a press conference to announce that I am writing the official letter for the return of these objects.” The famed Egyptian archaeologist and Egyptologist continues, “It is important to note that this petition is not signed by only Egyptians. It is signed by people from everywhere and from every country. I am not asking for other objects. In the British museum, the Louvre, and Berlin, there are millions of Egyptian artifacts, taken out in the time of imperialism. I am asking however for two things; number one unique artifacts as their home should be Egypt and number two that museums should stop imperialism.”
Being home to the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside Egypt, the British Museum got its most prominent antiquities – including the Rosetta Stone – in 1801 due to the surrender deal signed when the British forces defeated the French in Egypt. In a statement shared regarding the Stone, the Museum stated that the 1801 treaty includes the signature of a representative of Egypt, referring to an Ottoman admiral as the sultan in Istanbul was the ruler of Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s invasion. One of the biggest traits of the colonial era, looting Egyptian archaeological sites and trafficking artifacts was largely unregulated until the year 1983, when the Egyptian parliament enacted a stringent law that declared all antiquities on national territory to be the property of the state. Nevertheless, the political events of 2011 facilitated the smuggling of a massive number of artifacts, amounting up to 33 000, as declared by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities in 2017. Naturally, the Egyptian parliament toughened the 1983 law in 2020 by adding that any individual illicitly buying or selling an item of cultural heritage outside Egypt would face a fine up to 10 million Egyptian pounds and serve maximum-security jail time.
Other artifacts are also part of the debate, including a granite stele (slab) engraved with the seal of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun, bought by Louvre Abu Dhabi and currently the subject of an ongoing investigation in France. These unwavering endeavors continue to force strict procedures leading up to the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum. Housing more than 100 000 objects, including 30 000 that have never been exhibited before, the US$1 billion project is set to showcase the ancient Egyptian civilization through a new lens and on its home soil.
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia