Ancient nations defend their heritage

Ioannis Kotoulas
Thursday 6 May 2021

Egypt and Greece should join efforts to bring about the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles

The Pharaohs Golden Parade, the magnificent display organised by Egypt that glorified the ancient historical past of the country, was an apt reminder of the importance of historical culture for modern nation-states. 

The historical past forms a fundamental aspect of our current national identities. Egypt is a nation based on a rich and multifaceted historical identity embracing all historical periods. Greece is also the inheritor of ancient Greek culture and has a multiple modern identity. Historical culture is not an abstract notion, but is one that is intricately linked to modern nation-states, their self-perception and their collective ideals.

Egypt and Greece could create a cultural alliance that would help to safeguard their rich heritage and restore emblematic ancient works of art to their rightful owners. They could form a Forum for the Repatriation of Stolen Antiquities that would actively push for the return of antiquities, and most emphatically of those having great symbolic value for modern Egypt and Greece. The proposed forum could initially focus on the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone for Egypt and the Parthenon Marbles for Greece.

The Rosetta Stone is a stele inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in 196 BCE in Memphis, Egypt, during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The top and middle texts are in ancient Egyptian in the hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts, respectively, while the bottom text is in ancient Greek. 

The Rosetta Stone was the key for the decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts. Discovered in 1799 during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, it was then removed by the British to London after the defeat of France. Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been on display in the British Museum. Egypt has repeatedly raised the issue of the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone. Calls for its return to Egypt were made in July 2003 by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s leading archaeologist and then secretary-general of Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass rightly commented that the Rosetta Stone was not just an ancient artefact, but rather was “the icon of our Egyptian identity.”

The Parthenon Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures that originally formed part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, such as the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Parthenon pieces are magnificent works of art made under the supervision of the architect and sculptor Phidias and his workshop. The Marbles were violently detached from the Parthenon and stolen in the same period that the Rosetta Stone was also stolen, in the early 19th century, by agents of the Earl of Elgin. The famous Romantic poet Lord Byron acutely likened the extraction of the artefacts to looting and theft. 

The collection is now on display in the British Museum in London. For years, the British have declined the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles under the pretext that Greece did not have proper museum facilities. Ironically, documents released under the UK Freedom of Information Act have since revealed that the Parthenon Marbles have not been at all safe in London, having suffered from damaging accidents, theft and acts of vandalism. The New Acropolis Museum in Athens, on the other hand, is considered to be one of the most advanced globally and is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and facilities for the protection and preservation of exhibits.

Of course, there are many other ancient Greek and Egyptian artefacts currently in museums around the world, but it is essential that Egypt and Greece focus their energies on these two cases, especially as in both the British Museum is implicated. In response to repatriation efforts, various museums back in 2002 issued a joint statement declaring that “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era.” Using vague expressions of cultural relativism and a still-present colonialist mindset, these museums have declined the repatriation of stolen antiquities to their rightful owners, the modern nations that are the inheritors of the ancient past.

The Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles are not just historical artefacts but are symbols of the national identity of Egypt and Greece. The repatriation of the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles is not only morally, but also legally, justified. Egypt and Greece could coordinate their efforts and put pressure on the British government to intervene and ensure the return of these ancient works of art to their rightful owners. 

In the 21st century of dynamic and confident nation-states there is no place for museum colonialism and similar ideological remnants of an unjust past.

*The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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