Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Egypt asks for its history back, but its pleas fall on deaf ears

AFP , CAIRO

With calls for Britain to agree to a three-month loan of the celebrated Rosetta stone and demands for Germany to relinquish a priceless bust of Queen Nefertiti, Egypt has launched a massive campaign for the return of its antiquities from Western museums.

Chief architect of the campaign is Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, who with his trademark panama hat has long graced foreign television cameras with his inflammatory calls for the return of ancient treasures.

And to mark the 100th anniversary of Cairo's Egyptian Museum in December, the truculent archaeologist told egyptologists across the globe of his intention to "recover all the antiquities stolen from Egypt."

"Next year, I hope we can mount an exhibition of stolen artefacts," he said.

At the heart of his vision are some of the most prestigious treasures in the world's best museums, such as the glittering Egyptian collection at the British Museum.

He has already approached London over a "three-month" loan of the renowned basalt Rosetta stone, but British authorities were said to be reluctant to agree as they feared the stone might never return to London.

"We have asked the British Museum to allow us to display the Rosetta stone in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for three months, to mark the renovation of the entire museum," he said on Monday.

He insisted that it was not a permanent request, even though the stone was uncovered in Egypt before being shipped off to Britain, because at the time "there was no legislation in place concerning antiquities."

But, according to the British press, at a recent private dinner Hawass asked British Museum director Neil MacGregor for the outright return of the stone to Egypt.

It was only then, that he reduced the demand to a simple loan request.

The Rosetta stone was unearthed in 1799 by a French soldier at the Rosetta fort in the Egyptian Mediterranean port of Rashid.

It later enabled Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the writings of ancient Egypt as it contained a decree by Ptolemy V in hieroglyphics and Greek scripts, opening the door to an understanding of the ancient Egyptian writing.

The stone passed into British hands in 1801 and has since been on display in London's British Museum, where it attracts millions of visitors each year.

But Hawass has also reignited calls for Germany to return a 3,300-year-old bust of legendary beauty Queen Nefertiti, currently housed in a Berlin museum.

"We're asking for the return of this statue, which was smuggled out of Egypt illegally," he said.

An all-out row erupted between Egypt and Germany in June when the Berlin museum allowed artists to temporarily fuse the limestone bust to a bronze statue of a scantily clad woman.

The horrified Egyptian press slammed it a "crime," while Hawass denounced the exhibit as "an insult to Egypt's history" and Culture Minister Faruq Hosni demanded the return of the Pharaonic bust.

Director of the Egyptian Museum at Berlin-Charlottenburg, Dietrich Wildung, dismissed the uproar as "tasteless and absurd."

He said that the bronze statue was a model of an ancient Egyptian figure of the same period, wearing transparent clothing.

The bust was sculpted around 1372BC, during the 18th dynasty, and discovered in 1912 in Tell al-Amarna, in southern Egypt.

Egyptologist Mohamed Saleh said that German archeologist Ludwig Borchadt, who worked in Egypt in the early 1900s, took the bust back to Germany under a law that allowed him take 50 percent of what had been excavated.

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