In a revival of an earlier initiative to repatriate treasures looted during the colonial era from formerly colonised countries by the European powers, leading Egyptologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass is putting his name to a petition to be sent to various European museums in October that demands the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum in London, the Queen Nefertiti bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin, and the Dendera Temple Zodiac Ceiling from the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The petition is also being signed by many other Egyptian and foreign historians and intellectuals.
“We must build up a strong national campaign to return these unique objects that were illegally smuggled out of the country during the 19th century,” Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I believe those three items are unique and their home should be in Egypt. We have collected all the evidence that proves that these three items were stolen from Egypt.”
This is not the first time that Hawass has asked for the return of these artefacts. In 2005, when he was secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Hawass said at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin held at the UN cultural agency UNESCO in Paris that Egypt had been deprived of five key items of the country’s cultural heritage and that these should be handed over to their homeland.
He said that the objects in question were the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London, the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, the Dendara Temple Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre Museum in Paris, and the bust of the Kephren Pyramid builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Hawass said that the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta by soldiers belonging to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. In 1801, the French surrendered to Britain, and the stone fell into the hands of British officials who sent it to London. The following year, it was presented to the British Museum, where it is still the most visited exhibit.
Dating from 196 BCE, the Stone is inscribed with a royal decree of Ptolemy V in three scripts, hieroglyphic, demotic and ancient Greek, and in 1822, this enabled French scholar Jean-François Champollion to make a breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphics. Two modern inscriptions on the stone now record key moments in its modern history — “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” and “Presented by King George III”.
The bust of Nefertiti, perhaps the best-known work of art from ancient Egypt, was unearthed in 1912 by the German excavator Ludwig Borchardt. Hawass said that Borchardt, anxious to preserve the bust for Germany, took advantage of the practice at the time of splitting the spoils of any new discovery between the then Egyptian Antiquities Authority and the foreign mission concerned.
Back then, the law required discoveries to be brought to what was called the “Antiquities Service”, where a special committee supervised the distribution. Borchardt, who discovered the head at Tel Al-Amarna in the Minya governorate, either did not declare the bust or hid it under less important objects. Either that, or the Egyptian authorities at the time failed to recognise its beauty and importance.
According to Borchardt, he did not clean the bust but left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division of spoils. The Service on that occasion took the limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti that had been found and gave the head of Queen Nefertiti to the expedition because it was made of gypsum, or so they thought.
Some said that Borchardt had deliberately disguised the head, covering it with a layer of gypsum to ensure that the committee would not see its beauty and realise that it was actually made of beautiful painted limestone. Whatever happened, Hawass said, the antiquities authorities at the time did not know about the bust until it was put on show in Berlin in 1923 and they had certainly never expressly agreed that this piece should be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.
Since the earliest days of cultural property legislation, the principle has been that the country of origin must expressly permit any and every export of a national cultural treasure. With respect to the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian authorities did not give that permission. The Egyptian government later made an attempt to have the bust returned, but Adolf Hitler, in power in Germany at the time, had fallen in love with it and refused.
He announced that the bust was his “beloved possession” and would remain in Germany forever. The exquisite painted limestone bust has been on display in dramatic surroundings at the Berlin Museum ever since.
The loss of the Dendara Temple Zodiac Ceiling to the Louvre Museum in Paris is felt not only for its artistic value, but also because it demonstrates what the science of astrology owed to the ancient Egyptians. When General Desaix, a member of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, set eyes on the ceiling he was so enchanted that he commissioned the artist Denon to draw it for the Déscription de L’Égypte, the record the expedition put together of its exploration of Egypt.
When French collector Sebastien Saulnier saw the Zodiac Ceiling, he decided that such a remarkable piece should belong to France. Because he did not want others to hear of his plan, he announced that he was excavating at Thebes, where he bought some mummies and antiquities to cover his tracks. At that time, some English visitors were also sketching at Dendara, and only after they left did Saulnier return. He and his French agent then set about removing the Ceiling of the Temple. It then arrived in Paris and was sold to King Louis XVIII for 150,000 francs.
The statue of Hemiunnu, architect of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, in the Roemer- Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, is another example. Hemiunnu, Khufu’s nephew, served his uncle as vizier. His statue was discovered in 1912 in his tomb in the shadow of the Great Pyramid at Giza and was transported to the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum that belonged to a wealthy German citizen, Pelizaeus, a collector who backed scientific excavations at Giza.
The bust of the Kephren Pyramid builder, Ankhaf, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is another unique piece of Egyptian heritage. American Egyptologist George A. Reisner found it in Ankhaf’s tomb at Giza.
The Ankhaf statue was the only one of the five objects named by Hawass that left Egypt legally, but it is also a unique and valuable object that should be returned to its homeland.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.