Category Archives: Repatriation; restitution

Solution to ownership controversy surrounding Rosetta Stone

Egypt, Past, Present and Future

Egypt’s Antiquities Caught in the Revolution
by Alexander H. Joffe
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2011, pp. 73-78 (view PDF)
The initial spasm of images from the Cairo Museum shocked observers. As tens of thousands of demonstrators confronted the security forces in what quickly evolved into the first popular revolution in Egypt’s history, the museum was ransacked in a scene reminiscent of the looted tombs of ancient Egyptian kings. A statue of Tutankhamun astride a panther was ripped from its base but then cast to the floor when thieves discovered it was gilded and not solid gold. A boat model from a tomb was smashed, the figures huddled in the boathouse pulverized but the navigator at the bow still pointing sadly forward. Two mummies were beheaded, mouths agape; it was rumored that they were Tut’s grandparents.

At the Cairo Museum, a statue of Tutankhamun astride a panther was ripped from its base but then cast to the floor when thieves discovered it was gilded and not solid gold.
The extent of the chaos was unknown but ominous. Egypt’s antiquities were suddenly caught up in a revolution. But those antiquities have always been both a tool to create Egypt and Egyptians in the present as well as a telling map of Egyptian society.
Conflicting Narratives
A second narrative quickly appeared. In this one, the police, military, and most importantly “everyday Egyptians,” joined together to protect museums and sites. Farid Saad, a 40-year-old engineer, was quoted as saying, “I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure.”[1] The nation was united in protection of its past.
For his part, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, reacted with characteristic histrionics, which for once might have been justified: “Of course, I was so worried. I have been protecting antiquities all my life. I felt if the Cairo Museum is robbed, Egypt will never be able to get up again.”[2] Hawass’s ego is perpetually on display; every television documentary about ancient Egypt appears contractually bound to feature him in his full braggadocio, and he has long been the absolute master of which archaeologist does and does not work in Egypt.
But after forty-eight hours, his assessment of the situation changed. Hawass, appointed Mubarak’s minister for antiquities after the eruption of chaos, now reported that nothing much had been stolen or destroyed, that all the museums were safe, that the people stood united against the looters, and that even the looted objects had been restored. “People are asking me, ‘Do you think Egypt will be like Afghanistan?'” he recounted. “And I say, ‘No, Egyptians are different—they love me because I protect antiquities.'”[3]
After seventy-two hours, Hawass was even more resolute:
I am the only source of continuing truth concerning antiquities, and these rumors are aimed at making the Egyptian people look bad. If anything happens to the museum, I would bravely tell everyone all over the world because I am a man of honor, and I would never hide anything from you. It is from my heart that I tell people everywhere that I am the guardian of these monuments that belong to the whole world.[4]
Now Egypt’s monuments belonged to the world, but the source of all truth was made clear. The identification of Egypt’s antiquities with a single man is not simply supremely egotistic but telling of a tradition where rulers point to monuments and demand respect, legitimacy, and obedience. It is only one of many apparent constants in Egyptian history.
Whether or not Egyptians are different from their Iraqi or Afghan brethren, however, remains to be seen. As the Taliban came to power, the contents of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul were moved to safe locations.[5] The museum itself was destroyed in 1994. Other antiquities, most notably the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were destroyed by the Taliban in a campaign of iconoclasm in 2001. The Baghdad Museum was looted in 2003 by local Iraqis and probably museum insiders and professional thieves during the U.S-led invasion.[6] Though the site had been used as a firing position to attack U.S. forces, Washington was blamed for the looting and for failing to secure Iraq’s thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were mined for antiquities that have disappeared, presumably onto world markets.
Even as Mubarak held on, Hawass’s positive narrative of the regime in command was challenged by telephone calls, faxes, and tweets that were aggregated on various web sites outside of his control. Near Cairo, reports indicated that looters attacked tombs and antiquities storehouses in Saqqara and Abusir. In Middle Egypt, the site of Ehnasya was attacked, but in Upper Egypt, Luxor and Aswan, sites with major tourism interests, were reported to be safe. And in a curious echo of ancient Egypt, “Sinai Bedouins” apparently attacked the Qantara Museum. Some allegations have even emerged that the thugs and villains who attacked the Cairo Museum, and who attacked opposition demonstrators gathered on Tahrir Square, were policemen and goons in the employ of the regime. True or not, such allegations have galvanized the opposition. After the fall, Hawass was forced to admit that another gilded statue of Tutankhamun was missing from the Cairo Museum, along with other objects. “I have said if the Egyptian [Cairo] Museum is safe, then Egypt is safe. However, I am now concerned Egypt is not safe.”[7] As ever, the fate of Egypt was tied together with that of its leaders and its past.
Why Antiquities?
But why were antiquities targeted? The simplest answer is that most of Egypt’s eighty-three million people survive on approximately US$2 per day. Antiquities represent valuable commodities to be exploited, whether directly as gold and other precious metals or as saleable items on a black market. The world’s antiquities markets and museums could easily absorb better objects, disguise their recent origins, or hide them in stasis for years. This happens every day with loot from every corner of the earth. Wealthy collectors would be made aware of these objects as well, and private deals arranged. Common objects, which were not destroyed in the search for more excellent ones, would also be absorbed and marketed at the street level in places such as London and Geneva. Tourism annually contributes $15 billion to Egypt’s gross domestic product of some $216 billion. How much looted objects would bring in is unknown.
Looting tombs has a particular antiquity in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, tombs of commoners and kings were often looted just hours after the burial. The practice of sending the deceased toward the afterlife with elaborate and even lavish equipment was taken to an extreme by Egyptians. To these customs, the world owes thanks for the preponderance of items that fill museums today, which originated in the grave. Pyramids were burrowed into, subterranean chambers were mined, and mummies were torn open in search of gold, silver, and precious stones. Little seems different today. As in the past, stolen loot will fill the stomachs of Egyptians.
But another answer to why Egypt’s antiquities have been targeted has to do with the relationship of past and present in Egypt. Nationalism everywhere uses the imagery of the past and the fruits of archaeology to create a narrative about the greatness of today, in particular the “nation” and its leaders. The Egyptian state has not been an exception, but there are features that make it unlike other places. For one thing, Egypt, despite its immense size and subregions, has always been a single geographical and cultural unit. It was unified under a single dynasty—really military rule that later assumed theocratic dimensions—before 3200 BCE. Egypt is a container, bordered by deserts to the west and east, populated with unruly sand dwellers, and to the south in Nubia by tribes that are racially distinct.
The novelty of pharaonic antiquities was not lost on Egypt’s Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic rulers. The mythical power of Egyptian hieroglyphs and their mystical knowledge were compelling, and objects from scarabs all the way up to obelisks were bought, sold, and gifted. But the Islamic era also created a new series of monuments and narratives regarding Egypt’s singularity and glory. The neighborhoods of old Cairo were the Fatimid, Mamluk, and Ottoman core of the city; they contained alleys and lanes, mansions and apartments that were the settings for Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. Al-Azhar seminary, Khan al-Khali bazaar, and the al-Hussein mosque were the monumental core of another authentic and distinct Egyptian culture.
That culture did not always mesh with the pharaonic past. In 1156, al-Aziz Uthman, son of Saladin, tried to demolish one of the Giza pyramids. The fourteenth-century Sufi Muhammad Saim ad-Dahr is reputed to have smashed the nose of the Great Sphinx when he saw peasants making offerings. After an earthquake in 1300 loosened the casing stones of the Giza pyramids, Sultan an-Nasir Nasir ad-Din al-Hassan took the opportunity a few decades later to remove them to build the mosques and fortresses of the still new city of Cairo. Symbols always vie with utility even for rulers. But the Islamic heritage of Egypt forms another important strand in the modern identity of Egypt, one that complements yet stands somewhat at odds with the more dramatic pagan monuments of the pharaohs.
Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799 ushered in antiquarian and then scientific research. His hundreds of artists and savants spread out across the land as part of a vast scientific and military enterprise documenting things as they were on the very edge of modernity. Europeans poured into the country and by the middle of the nineteenth century the continent’s museums were filled with Egyptian objects and even monuments, torn from that country with no thought for science and still less for Egyptians. A sense of violation formed a thread in the growing Egyptian national consciousness and was made more intense by the British occupation of the country in 1882. But this began the golden age of Egyptian archaeology, tourism, and the growth of the modern state. The Oriental style that shaped Cairo and Alexandria and the obvious privileging of the pharaohs was a joint European and Egyptian project. Egyptian art and literature valorized the age of the pharaoh in the poems and plays of Ahmad Shawki and Mahfouz’s early novels. Like Iraq and its Mesopotamian past, and Lebanon with its Phoenician past, the achievements of Egyptian ancestors were inspiration and legitimization for the emerging greatness of the present.
Divergent Identities
But the Nasserite revolution of 1952 and pan-Arabism brought contradictions into the open. Was Egypt part of the “Arab nation” or was it Egyptian? The nearly simultaneous rise of the Muslim Brotherhood brought out similar contradictions with respect to Islam. Was Egypt an Arab or Egyptian country, or part of a Muslim world that knew no earthly borders? Just what is Egypt and Egyptian nationalism?
These questions, too, have a certain antiquity. Egypt was always ruled from the core outward, but the pharaoh spent much time traveling the length of his realm paying obeisance to local deities, checking up on local authorities, and putting down rebellions. In the core today, in Cairo and its surroundings, where there is a developed upper and middle class, the answers will likely lean toward a nationalist explanation of pride and connection to the past. Egypt’s pharaonic past is integral in the same way that the Cairo Museum, built in 1902, is an inextricable part of that city where a medieval Muslim core melds with the Oriental style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries while flanked by the looming monuments of antiquity to the west, and everywhere surrounded by the ugly towers and slums of modernity. That geography points to the shape of today’s problems.
As in the past, more remote areas of the Nile delta and those in Middle and Upper Egypt, which are removed from the political, cultural, and religious centers at Memphis or Cairo, were more underdeveloped, impoverished, backward, and traditional in outlook and practice. Only a few sites, such as Luxor and Thebes were patronized by the royalty and later by the modern Egyptian regimes in the name of tourism. The Bedouins of the Sinai rankled under the pharaoh’s control and yearned to break free and lash out. In all these respects, little has changed today. The interpretation of nationalism and treatment of the past will likely follow this geography, at least for a while. Everywhere, however, the competing Islamic narrative looms.
Egypt at least is an integral unit. One useful contrast is with Iraq. Ancient Mesopotamia saw the land divided into Babylonia in the south and Assyria in the north. These two regions were socially and ethnically distinct, but from an early time, Mesopotamian kings created a mythological vision of unity, which they then used as justification for violently attacking and dominating their neighbors. Unity was a fiction but a divine one. The reality consisted of fractious tribes, agricultural villages, competing city-states, and violent politics. This was no less true for Saddam Hussein at-Tikriti than it was for Sargon of Akkad, the “true king,” who rose from cup-bearer to the king of Kish to the king’s killer, and went on to unite Mesopotamia and found a dynasty. Kings themselves were the greatest source of disorder.
In ancient Egyptian tradition, one of the greatest roles of the ruler was ma’at, the legitimate maintenance of order and balance. Of course, minions of the ruler recorded this pretension for posterity, but fear of chaos was pervasive, not only for the ruler but the ruled. Invasions by desert tribes, the annual floods—which could bring too much water or not enough, or bring it too early or too late in the growing season—and famine, hunger, and violence were all too real. The reward of living in a rich ecosystem is plenty with the caveat that nature is fickle. A kind of national awareness emerged in ancient Egypt, at least with respect to xenophobia toward foreigners, in part through fear of chaos. The fact that the kings of Egypt were depicted literally as gods who held heaven and earth together was another metaphysical dimension of the ancient Egyptian “nation,” always backed up by military force. Piety vied with poverty and with fear. But then as now, the state was the provider. Most ancient Egyptians were bound to various royal or temple establishments. Despite any liberalization undertaken by Mubarak, state and military industries continue to dominate the Egyptian economy. The fate of many Egyptians was and is tied directly to the regime.
Uncertain Future
A similar sort of chaos is playing out in Egypt today. Price subsidies for food and fuel account for 7 percent of the state’s budget, and more than 40 percent of Egypt’s food is imported.[8] Food inflation reached 17 percent in December 2010,[9] and hundreds of thousands of university graduates are unable to find jobs.[10] Chaos thus has many sources—an educated population shut out from prosperity and an underclass on the verge of hunger. Antiquities—identified now with the Mubarak regime and a potential source of revenue for impoverished Egyptians—have suffered from time immemorial. The upper and middle class Egyptians who locked arms to protect the Cairo Museum from the initial bout of looting are too few and spread too thin to defend even a fraction of Egypt’s museums and monuments. But the rioting that has unfolded, perhaps with the regime’s contrivance, has given Egyptians a clear picture of chaos. Egypt’s prisons have been emptied of criminals, terrorists, and political prisoners, and reports indicate that looting of shops and homes is widespread.[11] The army stands as the last defender of order and balance and may yet step in to restore order, end the neo-liberal economic experiment, and defend its own prerogatives. It has done so for 5,000 years.
As the Muslim Brotherhood emerges from the shadows to participate and perhaps dominate the revolution, the question of its regard for antiquity must also be raised. Egypt’s Islamists also have a vision of the past. It is difficult to discern what their attitudes toward antiquities would be except indirectly. For example, Egypt’s grand mufti Ali Gomaa issued a fatwa in 2006 banning the display of statues in homes and was joined in his condemnation by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The fatwa was condemned by Egyptian intellectuals and even by the Muslim Brotherhood.[12]
It is also well to remember that Khalid al-Islambouli cried, “I have killed the pharaoh,” after shooting Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981.[13] The pharaoh is not a positive Qur’anic image but a tyrant. The Luxor massacre of 1997, where sixty-two tourists were slaughtered, saw the Islamist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya attack the Temple of Hatshepsut. The modern Egyptian and Western relationship with the Egyptian past was the setting for the attack. Tourism was clearly intended to be the victim. How the Muslim Brotherhood, dedicated to Islamizing Egypt, would deal with tourism, museums, and antiquities is unclear. Certainly, in the short term, for the sake of foreign currency and appearances, little will change. But the example of Afghanistan under the Taliban is in the background. The destruction wrought on remains of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem by the Palestinian Islamic authorities should also be mentioned. Perhaps most telling, however, is the almost complete erasure of Islamic historical remains from the cities of Mecca and Medina, including structures associated with Muhammad.[14]
An Egypt dominated by the military will almost certainly seek to restore both the country’s symbols and the practical mechanisms of tourism. Whether the military can ride the crocodile of popular unrest and a population empowered by social media yet lacking meaningful liberal democratic roots remains to be seen. But the religious desire to create a rupture with the past in the name of fighting idolatry is deep.
In all this, the practicality and wisdom of repatriating antiquities to Egypt is dubious. Zahi Hawass in particular has been determined in his pursuit of antiquities that were taken from Egypt over the past centuries. The Rosetta Stone, found by French engineers but taken as British war booty, tops his list. But even objects given by Egypt as gifts have come under his acquisitive eye. Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park was erected in 1881, a gift from the Khedive of Egypt. But 130 years of standing out in the rain does no obelisk good, and Hawass has demanded that it be preserved, or he will take it back. His pursuit of Egyptian objects outside of Egypt has been almost as relentless as his drive to become the face of Egyptian archaeology everywhere.
The pharaoh is gone and so is Hawass. [15] In the meantime, those concerned about Egypt’s past can only sit back and watch as a genuinely Egyptian transformation takes place, one in which the relationship of past and present will inevitably be redefined yet along familiar lines.
Alexander H. Joffe is a Middle Eastern historian and archaeologist. He is the author of “Museum Madness in Baghdad,” published in the Spring 2004 Middle East Quarterly. He has taught archaeology at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, State University of New York.
[1] The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 28, 2011.
[2] The Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2011.
[3] The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2011.
[4] Zahi Hawass, “State of Egyptian Antiquities,” Zahi Hawass website, Feb. 3, 2011.
[5] “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul,” National Geographic, accessed Feb. 8, 2011.
[6] Alexander H. Joffe, “Museum Madness in Baghdad,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2004, pp. 31-43.
[7] NewsCore Agency, Feb. 13, 2011.
[8] Al-Masry al-Youm (Cairo), June 8, 2010.
[9] The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo), Jan. 18, 2011.
[10] “Youth Unemployment, Existing Policies and Way Forward: Evidence from Egypt and Tunisia,” The World Bank, Washington, D.C., Apr. 2008.
[11] The Gulf Today (Dubai), Jan. 30, 2011.
[12] Middle East Online (London), Apr. 3, 2006.
[13] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 50.
[14] “Muslims start petition to stop Saudi destruction of Mecca and ‘The House of Mohammed,'” Militant Islam Monitor, Sept. 29, 2005.
[15] The New York Times, Mar. 3,


Egypt Protests and the Repatriation Debate: Is Egypt Burning?

Also publ UK magazine History Today: April/May 2011

By Jonathan Downs

The anti-government protests in Egypt swept through Cairo and Alexandria before measures could be taken to protect the many thousands of antiquities in museums and archaeological sites across the country. Since the uprising, looting at a number of sites has apparently grown even worse. Understandably this raised fears over the repatriation debate: should artefacts go back to a country apparently so unstable and unable to defend such precious objects? The answer is not as resounding a ‘No’ as many might think.

There can be no question that the population of Egypt has as high a regard for its ancient heritage as it does for winning basic human freedoms. The first people to act in defence of Egypt’s antiquities were not police or government officials, but ordinary Egyptians. As the Party Headquarters in Tahrir Square burned, looters took the opportunity to scale the outer walls of the Cairo Museum, dropping into the yard from overhanging trees. Amid shouts trying to call the vandals back, a phalanx of protesters, who had picked up discarded police truncheons and other implements, linked arms with the Tourism Police, and blockaded the museum to prevent any further incursion. Inside the building, protesters helped police arrest several men caught sacking the ticket office and gift shop, the cry going up ‘we are not like Baghdad’. General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and Junior Culture Minister Dr Zahi Hawass, prevented from attending the scene by the police curfew, went the following morning to be mobbed by well-wishers and grateful museum defenders; even when the military secured the premises a dedicated unit of protesters, young and old, remained on site throughout the demonstrations.

The same pattern was enacted beyond the cities: within 24 hours of the first major gatherings in central Cairo, a well-organised gang of looters attacked the storehouse magazines of Qantara in eastern Sinai, containing a large number of pieces from the Port Said Museum. According to intermittent reports from archaeologists and overseers, the armed gang reversed a lorry into the area, broke into the storage facility and carted off several crates of priceless treasures. Nomadic Bedouins, originally blamed for some of the thefts, lent their support to the recovery operation, retrieving stolen artefacts and returning them to the authorities. Officials learned that the Qantara site had suffered the loss of 288 objects – Mohamed Abdal Maksoud, Archaeology Director of Lower Egypt confirmed to Zahi Hawass on 3 February that every item had been recovered.

There were other clashes across the country: local residents took it upon themselves to watch over the sites, beating off looting criminals. According to a report from Middle Egypt on 3 February, ‘The situation in Luxor is reported to be deteriorating as well, with tear gas and thugs being used against the protesters. Thus far, however, the people are still protecting the temples and museum…

As people swarmed in the streets of Alexandria, there were fears for the new library, but a communiqué from Dr Ismail Serageldin on 30 January put these to rest: ‘…Young demonstrators have been acting responsibly protecting their own public institutions including the library…’ Equally surprising came the following: ‘The Library doors are still open with reduced hours as the curfew imposed mandates. Our faith in the people of Egypt and our country is boundless.’

In decades past, the chief argument against the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles had been the lack of a secure modern venue in Greece to present and protect the artefacts. With the unveiling of the New Acropolis Museum this stance has now proven untenable. Given this argument, the breakdown of security during the Egyptian protests might be grounds for similar concern – yet this would be merely a convenient pretext rather than adequate grounds for the rejection of a claim: such crises are not peculiarly Egyptian, and in the past have happened closer to home.

In 1990 London witnessed the Poll Tax Riots, where anti-government protests descended into indiscriminate violence in Trafalgar Square – one building was set ablaze, shop and restaurant windows were smashed and businesses looted, cars overturned and set alight, as mounted police charged repeatedly into demonstrators. No Londoners linked arms to protect the artworks in the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery which front Trafalgar Square and the beginning of Charing Cross Road.

Ironically, the recent rejection by Germany of Egypt’s demand for the return of the bust of Nefertiti makes no reference to Egypt’s stability, despite the political climate or the protests rising at the time – or any fears over the object’s safety or future preservation. On 23 January a press release issued by Egypt’s SCA announced that, after four years’ research into the matter, they had submitted a formal request approved by Prime Minister Dr Ahmed Nazif, and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, for the return of the bust. The request was sent to Dr Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, on the strength of Article 13(b) of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). Through a flurry of German media coverage Nefertiti was declared ‘an icon of Berlin’, rather than of Egypt and, curiously, the ‘best ambassador’ between the two nations. Parzinger rejected the Egyptian claim: according to the Foundation’s press release, the SCA request had not been signed by the Egyptian Prime Minister and was therefore not sufficiently official. Monika Grütters, chairwoman of the Culture Committee in the German Parliament confirmed the rejection curtly: “She will remain here. Egypt has no legal claim.’ Evidently the mass protests, riots and revolutionary change in government (which happened only days after the statement above) have not set the repatriation campaign back at all – which is good news for Egypt.

In the midst of the turmoil facing former President Mubarak, the universally popular Dr Hawass was made a full member of a new cabinet as the Minister of State for the Dept of Antiquities Affairs. He ran a communications room with feeds from all of the major sites across Egypt and kept sources informed with daily reports. In an email of 4 February he said: ‘The most important thing everyone needs to know is that the people in the streets defended the museums, monuments, and sites. When I came into work today, I had to pass through a checkpoint. When the men in the Popular Committees running the checkpoint saw me, they asked,Sir, how is the museum?” These men may not know how to read or write, but they are worried about their cultural heritage.’

However, since the troubles, looting has continued – to such an extent that Zahi Hawass resigned his cabinet post in the first days of March, to the criticism of erstwhile political colleagues. Whether this was linked to the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq on the same day is unknown. What remains now is the question over security at the remote sites and artefact storehouses – in the face of an international black market second in value only to the drugs trade. Egypt’s planned museum construction programme will obviate most security worries and provide state of the art facilities, much as those currently at the new Alexandria Library.

The almost bloodless revolution of February 2011 showed a unified hunger for human rights and freedoms not seen by many ever before – a hunger that will strengthen the repatriation campaign, not weaken it. All that is required is for the transitional government to implement a more effective security system.

If a joint ownership proposal for the Rosetta Stone between Britain, France and Egypt is tabled by UNESCO in light of this political change, the British Museum should calculate the potential benefits – if ever there were an ambassador created to bridge the cultural divide, it was the multilingual Rosetta Stone, and where better for it to stand than the new Alexandria Library. With events in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, the impact of Egyptian popular opinion is clear. As to security measures, only time will tell, but as the new Egyptian state emerges next Autumn, perhaps it would be better to greet it more with a token of welcome than the obstinate and outdated status quo.


Returning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt

The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196 BCE, discovered in the foundation of a wall at the Borg Rashid, Fort Julien, Rosetta, July 1799 by Lt Pierre Bouchard

The status of antiquities such as the Rosetta Stone 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. The question of whether the Rosetta Stone should be repatriated to Egypt affects the political as well as the popular relationship between Egypt and Britain, and could have positive consequences in relations with the Islamic world.

It is clear that the Rosetta Stone falls into a unique category of controversy, quite different to the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, owing to the complexity of its past. It sits in London largely as spoils of war, a trophy of a victory by Britain over France in Egypt in 1801. It was not excavated and subsequently looted, as in the case of the bust of Nefertiti. 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, in order to avoid direct confrontation with the largest military force in the Middle East.

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 was the result: Article 16 stipulated that all treasures recovered 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, Menou hid it amongst his baggage 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.

Enhanced inscription view., hieroglyphs at the top, demotic Egyptian in the middle and Greek at the bottom. Note hieroglyphs and demotic to be read from right to left, Greek at bottom to be read from left to right. Note also absence of punctuation in Greek text. Hieroglyph of the original shape of the stone is visible to the right in the last line of hieroglyphs, shaped much like a tombstone - from this it was deduced original stone was nearly half as tall again.

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 original surrender treaty of 1801 and found that it had indeed been signed by the Ottoman and Mameluke commanders, the legal representatives of the government of Egypt at the time. Apparently Egypt accepted this legal position. But this is not what should be 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 European nations had the right to recover artefacts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 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 Egyptian builders who used it and much other useful rubble as 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, their subsequent successful efforts thereby making it a priceless object. But the political world has changed dramatically 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 positive 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. Such an arrangement could be administered by an appropriate UNESCO committee to be agreed by all parties, and is certainly not beyond the scope of that body, which already acts as an arbiter and forum for the repatriation of artefacts to their lands of origin.

Of all the prime antiquities in the British Museum’s Alexandria collection, the Rosetta Stone is the most portable, durable and popular, and would suffer little from its new ambassadorial role. It was created in 196 BC to communicate a decree to a population divided by culture and language; let it now be used once more for a similar, higher purpose, and forge a link between these three nation-states as never before.