January 15, 2011

Zahi Hawass reflects on the campaign for the return of Egypt’s stolen artefacts

Posted at 5:11 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Zahi Hawass looks back as the campaign he has spearheaded for the return of looted Egyptian antiquities in museums around the world.

Asharq Alawsat

Egypt’s Stolen Artifacts Must Be Returned!
By Dr. Zahi Hawass

When the campaign to restore Egypt’s stolen antiquities first began, the world – particularly the archeological community – was surprised by the force of our call and insistence that our stolen artifacts and heritage be returned to us. The initial rallying call for our antiquities to be returned to their homeland was made from the heart of the British Museum, after I was invited to give a lecture there.

After the lecture, the museum curator invited British intellectuals and several politicians to a dinner that was held in one of the museums halls, where I noticed that a number of Egyptian antiquities were on display. Such antiquities included the magnificent statue of King Ramses II, the greatest Egyptian pharaoh of them all, as well as a statue of King Tuthmosis III, who has been nicknamed the “Napoleon of Ancient Egypt” as he is credited with expanding the ancient Egyptian empire as far north as Anatolia and as far south as the fourth Cataract of the Nile [Dar al-Manasir]. After dinner, the museum curator delivered a pleasant speech welcoming me to the British Museum; the curator also paid tribute to British-Egyptian relations in the field of archeology and praised the cooperation that exists between the British Museum and Egypt.

Afterwards, I delivered a speech of greeting and thanks. I began by saying that [as an Egyptian archeologist] I understood the pharaohs and ancient Egypt, and that I felt a deep bond with both Ramses II and Tuthmosis III. As I ate my food, I felt as if the statues were speaking to me, telling me how they had spent more than 100 years in Britain and how they missed Egypt and wanted to return to the land of the Nile. Whilst these statues have played a major role outside of their homeland, showing the world the beauty of ancient Egyptian civilization, and teaching people from across the globe how the pharaohs ruled their land under the principle of “Maat” which advocates truth, justice, and order, it seemed to me as if it were time that they returned home after more than a century in exile.

In my speech, I said that Egyptian antiquities, including statues of its pharaohs, as well as its queens, princes, princesses, and viziers, have a strong presence in museums around the world. Although these antiquities have been removed from their natural environment, whether they were a gift [to a country from Egypt], whether Egypt formally renounced its claim on them, or whether they were legally sold and purchased – for Egyptian law allowed the legal sale of such antiquities in the past – Egypt cannot today demand the return of these antiquities for we are committed to respecting all the international charters and agreements signed by Egypt, even if this is not in the country’s best interests. However – I said – that Egypt was calling for the return of any antiquity that left Egypt illegally, and we will not give up this right, whether this is the return of antiquities to Egypt, or the return of other antiquities to their homeland, for example the antiquities stolen from Iraq.

I concluded my speech by drawing attention to a list of six major artifacts that Egypt hopes will be returned to it once more, in addition to all other stolen artifacts and antiquities. These artifacts are symbols of ancient Egyptian civilization, and it is not right for them to be on display outside of Egypt, even if most of these antiquities had been taken from the countries in a legal manner. Egypt is calling for these artifacts to be returned to their homeland, and is prepared to compensate museums [that return these] with other artifacts. At the top of the list of artifacts that Egypt wants returned is the Rosetta Stone which is on display at the British Museum, as this artifact was the key to unlocking ancient Egyptian civilization. In addition to this, we want the Zodiac of Dendera which is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris to be returned to Egypt; this Zodiac originally formed the ceiling of the Temple of Dendera. Other items that we want returned include a bust of Queen Nefertiti on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum; this was originally illegally removed from Egypt by [German archeologist] Ludwig Borchardt, as well as the statue of the architect of the Great Pyramid of Giza – and Uncle to King Khufu – Ham Iunu, which is on display in the Hildesheim Museum. We are also calling for the return of the statue of the architect of the Pyramid of King Khafre [second pyramid of Giza], Ankh-Haf, which is on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the statue of Pharaoh Ramses II on display at the Museum of Turin, which is a particularly fine specimen.

After I finished my speech, I looked around and noticed the surprise on the faces of the audience who did not expect me to make such an address, or call for the return of Egypt’s historic antiquities. This was the beginning of Egypt’s campaign to have its antiquities and heritage restored to it.

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