During visits to distinguished museums such as the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, my impression has always been one of pride that Egyptian treasures rank among the most prominent exhibits on show in these institutions.
However, it usually has not taken long for pride to be eclipsed by anger and dismay. How come Egyptian treasures are housed abroad in museums where visitors from all over the world come to view them in awe and admiration? How did these museums come by these treasures? Did Egyptian officials donate them to their new proprietors for in-kind efforts, or were they looted and then illegally smuggled out of Egypt? Will Egypt ever regain its treasures?
Museums, jam-packed with Egyptian artefacts, are not the only exhibitors of Egyptian monuments. Squares in cities worldwide, from Rome to London and from Paris to New York, are adorned by obelisks that stand tall to tell the world of a civilisation like no other. The obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris was gifted to France in 1829, for example, and that in Central Park in New York, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, was gifted to the US by the Khedive Ismail in the 1880s. Rome has the most Egyptian obelisks in the world, more than the ones in Egypt by far, and these were smuggled out of Egypt during the Roman occupation of Egypt.
Let’s return to what today’s museums hold. According to the Cairo magazine Egypt Today, Egyptian artefacts can be found in over 39 museums across the world. The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities holds over 24,000 pieces, and Egyptian treasures are ranked as among its primary attractions. The Museo Egizio in Turin in Italy is devoted entirely to Egyptian artefacts. At the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, the Egyptian collection comprises approximately 25,000 artefacts, with close to 2,000 of these on display.
Then there are exceptional pieces at special museums. The Egyptian Museum in Berlin houses about 80,000 artefacts and is one of the world’s most important collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts, including the iconic bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The British Museum in London, which welcomes approximately six million visitors a year, proudly exhibits the Rosetta Stone. As the museum prepared to reopen its doors after the Covid-19 pandemic, it put together a list of 14 items not to miss, citing the Rosetta Stone as number one and classifying it as “the most famous object on display” and “the key that unlocked ancient hieroglyphs.”
The Louvre in Paris houses one of the world’s major collections of Egyptian artefacts, approximately 55,000 pieces, in particular the statues of the Seated Scribe and the Great Sphinx of Tanis and one of the best-preserved mummies in the world. Today, the iconic pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre pays tribute to the artefacts from Egyptian civilisation that are housed inside and that have become landmarks of the museum.
In all fairness, these treasures are well preserved, carefully maintained and exquisitely exhibited at renowned museums, where millions are able to see them. They allow visitors to understand the Egyptian culture and its significance. Many of the Egyptian artefacts displayed abroad were donated to their current proprietors, including the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Egypt gifted this temple to the US in 1965 in recognition of the role it played in the campaign to move the Nubian Temples from the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.
Undeniably, the Temple of Dendur in its current home has the grandeur and honour it deserves. Visitors can view it from every angle and experience it to the fullest. It is an ambassador of Egypt and provides a glimpse of what visitors can expect to enjoy during a visit to Egypt.
But by the same token, many non-Egyptian excavators in the past assumed that they were entitled to the treasures they had excavated. These exceptional pieces, thousands of years old, were then smuggled out of Egypt and ended up in Berlin, London or Paris. It is unlikely that these museums will ever part with prized exhibits such as the Rosetta Stone and the Nefertiti bust. Whatever is repatriated to Egypt is unlikely to include such iconic pieces. But Egypt should continue to seek the repatriation of its irreplaceable artefacts.
When Egypt called on the Berlin Museum to return the Nefertiti bust, the response was that this should remain in Germany, most probably on the assumption that it is somehow better off there. One Internet site suggests that Egyptian museums, though many, are often smaller than others located in the UK, France, Germany, the US and Italy.
However, now that Egypt is completing the Grand Egypt Museum (GEM) on the Giza Plateau, the largest archaeological museum in the world, it is befitting that these iconic pieces should come back home. In April 2021, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat in Cairo also opened its doors to 22 royal mummies including those of Ramses II and queen Hatshepsut.
Both museums are more than worthy of housing rare and significant pieces currently exhibited elsewhere.
* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly