The highly anticipated opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is so close in 2023, some archaeologists, therefore, world-famed Egyptologists are calling for the return of Egyptian antiquities that they are overseas to their homeland.
Prominent Egyptologist Zahi Hawass said: “People were asleep for years, and now they’re awake,” adding: “I’m sure [Westerners] have nightmares of what happened: taking the history and the heritage of Africa to their countries with no right. There is no right for them to have this heritage in their country at all.”
Egypt has an outstanding combination of cultures as Egypt was the centre of Ancient Egyptian civilization, alongside the lands of Egypt were invaded by the Greeks, and Romans, and then they saw the rise of the Islamic and Coptic civilizations.
After that, Egypt fell under Ottoman control, and since then the immigration of Egyptian artefacts started. The Ottomans took the obelisks and reinstalled them in Rome.
In the same context, the British Museum had artefacts from ancient Egypt. In the 1820s, Friedrich Wilhelm III bought thousands of historic Egyptian objects now placed in the Neues Museum in Berlin.
In the same decade, France’s Charles X ordered the creation of an Egyptian museum in the Louvre Palace in Paris, with Champollion as its first director after decoding Rosetta Stone.
In the 1850s, Frenchman Auguste Mariette was appointed as Egypt’s first director of antiquities. He also tried to control the Department of Antiquities following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882.
Under his reign, Egyptian Egyptologists were excluded from the organization, but several Egyptian figures such as Ahmed Kamal Pasha fought for a seat in the department.
European delegations had the chance to work in Egypt at all important archaeological sites, and they were allowed to take home half of their finds, but the other half had to remain in Egypt.
Donald Malcolm Reid said in Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: “[The] legal outflow of antiquities from colonized Egypt contrasted with Italy, where few foreigners were allowed even to dig, and Greece, where foreign excavators had to renounce any claim to their finds."
Hawass, he has worked to return a number of high-profile Egyptian artifacts to his country, including the Rosetta Stone (housed at the British Museum), the Dendera Zodiac (in the Louvre) and the bust of Nefertiti (in the Neues Museum). With the opening of the GEM imminent, Hawass in October launched an online petition asking these European museums to send the Egyptian treasures back home. So far, the petition has garnered more than 130,000 signatures.
“These are our monuments,” Hawass says. “The Rosetta Stone is the icon of our Egyptian identity. Without the Rosetta Stone, there is no archaeology of Egypt. It’s really sad to see in the [Dendera] temple a replica of the zodiac, and the original is in France.”
In September, a group of Egyptian archaeologists launched a separate petition similarly seeking to return the Rosetta Stone. Called Repatriate Rashid, the campaign demands that Egypt’s prime minister submit an official request to the British Museum.
“Egypt is one of the countries that’s had the most consistent, driven repatriation effort,” says Alice Procter, a historian of material culture and the author of The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It. “The Egyptian government has been largely pretty successful in getting objects returned, and that’s partially due to the fact that so many pieces have been taken illegally in a very easily documented way.”
“Egypt has put in every possible effort to try to repatriate its objects,” says Ahmed Issa, Egypt’s newly appointed tourism minister. “But we’re also 100 percent committed to all the laws. Every piece that has left Egypt lawfully is owned by the person who owns it. But for every piece that has left Egypt unlawfully, we’re going to exert every possible effort to return that piece to Egypt.”
“I’m not after every artefact,” says Hawass. “Museums have thousands and thousands of artefacts. I’m only after the three unique [objects] that should come back to be shown” in the soon-to-open GEM.