The repatriation of antiquities and historical justice

Ioannis Kotoulas
Tuesday 12 Dec 2023

There can be no more excuses for denying the repatriation of stolen antiquities to Egypt and Greece and the implementation of historical justice.

 

The soft opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum’s Grand Staircase in late November highlights the importance of the unification of historic collections, monuments, and cultural artifacts. Egypt and Greece, two ancient nations and modern states that are the inheritors of two great civilisations, face similar challenges concerning the protection of their cultural identity and their historic antiquities.

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is gradually opening to the public, is one of Egypt’s most significant mega-projects. It is the nation’s first eco-friendly museum and another great project launched under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. It is also the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilisation.

In Greece, the Acropolis Museum, which opened to the public in 2009, was built to house every artifact found on the Acropolis in central Athens and on its surrounding slopes, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece. It was also built to host the Parthenon Marbles, currently in the British Museum in London.

These two museums, the GEM and the Acropolis Museum, rank among the most advanced in the world. Both are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and facilities for the protection and preservation of their exhibits.

There are important antiquities held outside Egyptian and Greek borders, namely the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles. The Rosetta Stone is a stele inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in 196 BCE in Memphis during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The top and middle texts are in the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts, respectively, while the bottom text is in Ancient Greek.

The Rosetta Stone made possible the decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts after its discovery at the end of the 18th century. Egypt has repeatedly raised the issue of its repatriation from the British Museum in London.

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 of Athens, such as the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Marbles were violently detached from the Parthenon and stolen at the same time that the Rosetta Stone was also stolen in the early 19th century.

Given today’s technological breakthroughs, such as advanced digital 3D-printing, foreign museums that hold emblematic ancient Egyptian and Greek antiquities and other artifacts can host faithful copies. Additional long-term exhibitions of such artifacts loaned by the museum authorities of Egypt and Greece could also enrich the temporary exhibitions of other museums.

Simply put, there are no more excuses for denying the repatriation of stolen antiquities and the implementation of historical justice. On a diplomatic level, Egypt and Greece could create a cultural alliance to safeguard their rich heritage and ensure the restoration of emblematic ancient works of art to their rightful owners.

They could set up a forum for the Repatriation of Stolen Antiquities that would actively push for the return of antiquities, most emphatically those having great symbolic value for modern Egypt and Greece.

The ancient past forms a fundamental aspect of today’s national identity. Egypt is a nation that is based on a rich and multifaceted historical identity embracing all historical periods. Greece is the inheritor of ancient Greek culture and has a multiple modern identity.

Culture may be international, but it is national too. The ancient Egyptian civilisation has an international dimension, but it is also a distinctly national civilisation that is above all connected to the Egyptian people and a structural component of modern Egyptian identity. The ancient Greek civilisation also has an international dimension, but it too is distinctly the national civilisation of the Greek nation and an integral part of modern Greek identity.

The repatriation of antiquities to modern state-of-the-art Egyptian and Greek museums is a top diplomatic priority that is essential to historical justice.

 

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


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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