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CAIRO: The debate over who owns ancient artifacts has been a growing challenge for museums in Europe and the US, and the spotlight has fallen on the most-visited piece in the British Museum: the Rosetta Stone.
The inscriptions on the black granite slabs became a seminal breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs after they were taken from Egypt by British Empire forces in 1801.
Now, as Britain’s largest museum marks the 200-year anniversary of the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the return of the stone.
“The British Museum’s placing of the stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport.
The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was tied up in the Imperial War between Britain and France. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s military occupation of Egypt, French scientists uncovered the stone in 1799 in the northern city of Rashid, which the French knew as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and a dozen more antiquities were handed over to the British under the terms of the surrender deal of 1801 between the generals of both sides.
Since then it has been in the British Museum.
Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, states that the stone was illegally confiscated and constituted “spoils of war”. The claim is echoed in an almost identical petition by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities, which has more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass argues that Egypt had no role in the 1801 agreement.
The British Museum denies this. The 1801 treaty includes the signature of an Egyptian representative, the museum said in a statement. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. At the time of Napoleon’s invasion, the Ottoman Sultan was primarily the ruler of Egypt in Istanbul.
The museum also said that the Egyptian government has not submitted any request for its return. It states that there are 28 known copies of the same inscribed decree and 21 of them remain in Egypt.
The controversy over the original stone copy stems from its unrivaled importance to Egyptology. Carved in the 2nd century BC, the slab contains three translations of a decree relating to an agreement between the then ruler Ptolemy and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classic hieroglyphs, the next in a simplified hieroglyphic script known as Demotic, and the third in ancient Greek.
Through knowledge of the latter, academics were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, with French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion finally cracking the language in 1822.
Ilona Regulsky, head of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum, said, “Scholars from the last 18th century yearned to find a bilingual text written in a known language.” The Regulsky Museum’s winter exhibition, “Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt “, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the success of Champollion.
The stone is one of over 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics kept in the British Museum. A large percentage was obtained during Britain’s colonial rule over the region from 1883 to 1953.
It has become increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin, with new examples being reported almost monthly. Often, it is the result of a court decision, while some cases are voluntary, symbolizing atonement for historical wrongs.
In September, New York’s Metropolitan Museum returned 16 antiquities to Egypt after a US investigation concluded they were illegally smuggled. On Monday, London’s Horniman Museum signed over 72 objects, including 12 Benin bronzes, to Nigeria following a request from its government.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney specializing in matters related to art and artifacts, said no common international legal framework exists for such disputes. Unless there is clear evidence that an artifact was acquired illegally, repatriation is largely at the museum’s discretion.
“Given the treaty and the time frame, Rosetta Stone is an uphill legal battle to win,” Donnell said.
The British Museum has acknowledged that there have been several repatriation requests from various countries for the artifacts, but it did not provide The Associated Press with any details on their status or number. It also did not confirm whether he ever repatriated any artwork from his collection.
For Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and CEO of the online academic forum Past Preserve, the museum’s lack of transparency suggests other motives.
“It’s about money, maintaining relevance and a fear that people will stop coming back to return certain items,” he said.
Western museums have long boasted of better facilities and draw larger crowds to take possession of the world’s treasures. Following the upheaval following the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt saw a boom in smuggling of artifacts that cost the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US-based Antiquities Coalition . In 2015, it was discovered that cleaners at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum had damaged Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial mask by attempting to reattach the beard with super glue.
But the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has since invested heavily in its antiquities. Egypt has successfully retrieved thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a newly built, state-of-the-art museum that could house thousands of objects. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for more than a decade and its opening has been repeatedly delayed.
Egypt’s plethora of ancient monuments, from the Pyramids of Giza to the colossal statues at Abu Simbel on the Sudanese border, are magnets for a tourism industry expected to attract $13 billion in 2021.
For Hanna, the right of Egyptians to access their own history must remain a priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” he said.
Egyptian officials did not respond to a request for comment regarding Egypt’s policy towards the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts displayed abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they are not expecting the government to return it.
“The Rosetta Stone is a symbol of Egypt’s identity,” Hawass said. “I will use the media and the intelligentsia to tell the (British) Museum that they have no right.”