December 16, 2009

Egypt to demand the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum

Posted at 2:25 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Egypt has made repeated requests in the past for the return of the Rosetta Stone. Most of these requests have been made to the press or at conferences – which rightly or wrongly are not counted as official requests. It now looks as though Egypt is planning on making a formal request for the return of the Rosetta Stone – Although I am uncertain that this will meet with a more positive response than previous informal requests did.

The Times

December 6, 2009
Egypt to demand the Rosetta Stone from British Museum
Cristina Ruiz

EGYPT is preparing to make a formal request for the return of the Rosetta Stone, the ancient artefact that helped to unlock the secrets of the pharaohs, from the British Museum.

Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said he is preparing to “fight” for the restitution of the stone which has been on display in the museum in London since 1802.

He regards the pinkish-grey tablet — the key to deciphering hieroglyphs — as one of the most important treasures removed from Egypt which now take pride of place in western collections. It dates from 196BC.

Hawass hopes Britain will hand it back in time for the opening of a new museum near the pyramids at Giza in 2013. The demand follows the decades-old tussle between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799 in the Nile Delta town of el-Rashid, or Rosetta. On Napoleon’s defeat in 1801, the artefact was taken by British troops and shipped to London.

The 3ft 9in by 2ft 4in stone is inscribed with a decree relating to the royal cult of Ptolemy V, a 13-year-old king. It appears in three scripts: hieroglyphics; demotic, the historic Egyptian script used for daily interaction; and classical Greek.

By comparing the pictorial hieroglyphs with their Greek equivalent, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion deciphered the ancient symbols in 1822, a breakthrough in understanding Egyptian civilisation.

Hawass first asked the British Museum to lend the Rosetta Stone to Egypt for a temporary display. However, he was angered when trustees asked him to provide assurances that the stone would be safe.

“The [security] standards of our new museums in Egypt are better than the standards of security at the British Museum and therefore I decided that we are not going to ask for a loan. We are going to bring [it back] for good,” said Hawass.

He is launching a new book on egyptology at the British Museum on Tuesday, but he is unlikely to make a formal request for the permanent return of the stone until next spring.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said it was considering Egypt’s request to borrow the stone and that asking for information about the conditions of display was standard for any loan request.

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1 Comment »

  1. Jonathan Downs said,

    12.20.09 at 7:08 pm

    To the Editor:
    Cape Times Letters
    11 December 2009


    The Rosetta Stone has been the subject of much recent media attention, and continues to have considerable impact on the way in which Britain is perceived abroad – particularly by those ancient nations whose treasures are currently on display in the British Museum. In my work as a research historian and author, I discovered that the Rosetta Stone falls into a unique category of controversy, quite different to the famous Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, owing to the complexity of its past. It sits in London largely as spoils of war, trophy of a victory by Britain over France in Egypt in 1801. It was not excavated and subsequently looted.
    There are many common misconceptions surrounding the stone’s discovery but it has long been proven and accepted that it was used as a building-block in the foundations of a fifteenth-century wall at Fort Julien in Rosetta, and discovered by chance during renovations by the French army in 1799. Had it been removed to France without the intervention of the British army in 1801, it could have been considered a clear case of theft. Napoleon in no way declared war on Egypt, or the Ottoman Empire (which governed Egypt at the time) and indeed did his best to avoid this. Instead he invaded Egypt in 1798 as a ‘friend’ of the Ottomans, to liberate it from the clutches of its corrupt Mameluke governors. Had he made a legal declaration of war, he could have taken whatever he chose under the internationally recognised rights of conquest – but no such declaration was made.
    The French were defeated in Egypt by an allied British and Ottoman army, but the British dictated the surrender terms. The Articles of Capitulation of Alexandria, signed in 1801 by the French, British and Ottomans was the result. Article 16 stipulated that all treasures discovered by the French in their three-year stay were to be handed over to the British. The French at first refused, claiming these items were personal souvenirs of various officers – the Rosetta Stone was supposedly the property of the French general, the universally despised Jacques-François Menou. Fearful of it falling into British hands, he hid it in the back-streets of Alexandria. It was only through the cooperation of French scholars and British agents that the Rosetta Stone was recovered and the negotiations successfully concluded. The surrender document legitimised British ownership of the stone and all of the other artefacts confiscated at Alexandria, elevating them from stolen goods to legally untouchable spoils of war. It is for this reason that the Rosetta Stone rests in London, and not Paris.
    Dr Zahi Hawass, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, first requested the stone’s return in 2002. It was not until 2005 that the British Museum could confirm its legal ownership of the object: archivists consulted the Alexandria surrender treaty and found that it had also been signed by the Ottoman and Mameluke commanders, the legal representatives of the government of Egypt at the time. Apparently Egypt accepted the legal position. But this is not at issue. What is now argued is the morality of the ownership of the stone, not its legality. Few commentators have addressed the question that it is not whether eighteenth and nineteenth-century European nations had the right to recover artefacts, but whether today they have the right to retain them.
    The Rosetta Stone stands alone in the hoard of sculpture and statuary taken from Alexandria, in that it is not a great work of art, taken from a temple or mosque. It is a functional item, a statement concerning the taxation of the priesthood. It was unimportant to the Egyptians who used it as building masonry to support a wall, a common practice. Many Europeans cite this as ammunition against Egypt’s claim for its return: though carved in the last days of the pharaohs, the stone’s value was appreciated only by the European scholars who worked to decipher it. But since those days, the state of Egypt has gone from being a mismanaged province in the Ottoman Empire to becoming a modern nation, very much aware of its cultural identity and heritage, which rightly includes the Rosetta Stone as the key to its most ancient script. Discovered and deciphered by the French and preserved by the British, the Rosetta Stone has an overlapping cultural and historical significance for all three nations. To claim it belongs more in one than another does not answer today’s problem.
    Although the repatriation of artefacts to their lands of origin holds justifiable fears for museums across the globe, the Rosetta Stone, by its very nature, could lead the way to a solution: rather than the current tug-of-war between Britain and Egypt, the stone could become the subject of a tripartite international ownership agreement, on a rotational display basis – from the British Museum to the Louvre, and to the new Grand Museum of Gizeh planned for 2012 – forging a link between these states perhaps as never before. One argument often touted by the British Museum is that the stone is visible to more people in London than in Cairo. With a touring display it would be enjoyed by the citizens and visitors in three great capitals, not just one. It is time for the countires concerned to consider the problem as it faces the others – only then will the stalemate be broken.

    – Jonathan Downs, author of ‘Discovery at Rosetta’ (London: Constable, 2008)

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