Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Egypt Wants its Stuff Back

Today’s Associated Press reported that Egypt’s antiquities department has severed ties with France's Louvre museum because it has refused to return what are described as stolen artifacts. The objects in question are four or five (the number is in dispute) fragments of a fresco discovered in the ancient tomb of a nobleman called Tetaki, near the famed temple city of Luxor. Egypt described the four fragments as paintings of a nobleman's journey to the afterlife chipped from the walls of the tomb by thieves in the 1980s. The pieces were taken to France in 2002 or 2003, although France says it wasn’t until last year that it found they might have been taken out illegally. Well.

Egypt has been trying for years to get museums to return objects it says were ‘stolen,’ and not just from France. Included in Egypt’s list are the bust of Nefertiti — wife of the famed monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten — and the Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The bust of Nerfertiti is in Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London. The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said Egypt also was seeking "unique artifacts" from at least 10 museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In one of the more high profile and acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum. Of course, most of the objects were taken out during the 1800s and early 1900s when European archaeologists made the discoveries and colonialism was rampant throughout the Middle East. This doesn’t excuse what in some circles might be called thievery, and it’s hard to argue for western country’s right to these valuable Egyptian artifacts especially if they were taken out in shady circumstances. It’s even harder to argue France’s right to the fresco fragments. Last time I checked, France no longer stakes a claim to the Middle East.

I will say that, I strongly remember seeing some of the ancient Egyptian papyrus texts housed in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum last year.  I do hope Egypt, if it receives these precious artifacts back, decides to actively share them with the rest of the world. It is in these texts we find evidence of some of the first written autobiography, poetry, stories and song. They are breathtaking and still seem somehow alive. Which is why, I suppose, anyone would want them close to home.

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