A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Egyptian Campaign for Recovering Antiquities

UPDATE: Two days after I posted this, The National ran this piece on Zahi Hawass. The photo alone, flanked by the pyramids, says it all.

France has given back to Egypt a (relatively obscure) antiquity from the Louvre. It's getting a lot of coverage for a reason. The inimitable (and increasingly inevitable) Zahi Hawass has started a major campaign for the return of "stolen" Egyptian antiquities in foreign museums, most notably the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and the incomparable bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The old issues of which antiquities taken to European museums by 18th and 19th century Orientalists ought to be returned is an old one and a thorny one. It is true that some of these antiquities might have been lost in the Ottoman provinicial era; preservation then was better in Europe, etc. etc. But does that permit the removal of a superb example of cultural heritage? The biggest issue between Greece and its NATO ally Great Britain, at least that I'm aware of, remains the Elgin Marbles. Now Egypt is pushing hard for the Rosetta Stone and Nefertiti. I'm sure that's why the publicity was given to this relatively low-profile return from the Louvre.

As I've noted before, Zahi Hawass — a contemporary of mine whom I met once or twice, impressing my Discovery Channel viewing daughter more than the two or three Kings I've met — has become the face of Egyptian archaeology to the world. Whatever else you may say about him, Hawass is a showman. The Indiana Jones hat he regularly wears (now marketed, I understand, as a "Dr. Zahi Hawass hat": possibly still available in time for Christmas) is part of the show, but it is going to take a showman to get any of this stuff back. And, though I don't think he uses a whip, Dr. Zahi is otherwise the closest thing to Indiana Jones out there right now, at least in an official position. The Greeks, if they really want the Elgin Marbles, need to find a Greek Zahi Hawass. (And from what I know of Greeks, they probably have one somewhere.)(Later addition: Maybe a Zorba Hawass?)

Dr. Zahi is not just a showman: he practically owns Egyptian-themed shows on the National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and History Channel. The other day my daughter was watching the beginning of a documentary on one of those channels about animal mummies. I said to my wife we should have a betting pool on how long it took for Hawass to show up.

Too late. He showed up before we could bet. (Just a non-speaking clip, but I hadn't conditioned the bet.)

Egypt is certainly perfectly capable today of preserving and displaying the Rosetta Stone or Nefertiti, as Greece is the Elgin Marbles.

Will they ever get them back? Probably. When? I don't know. But I do know they'll need a fast-talking salesman who can run rings around the old guard of the British Museum, the Neues Museum, etc.

European museums: do not dismiss Zahi Hawass. My daughter thinks he's better than Indiana Jones, and is aware of the similar hats. I think he's a scholar who could have prospered selling souvenirs in the suq, but has now come to deal with the suq of international archaeology.

Moral suasion isn't going to persuade the British Museum, Louvre, Neues Muesum etc. to give up their most famous tourist attractions. PR genius might. In archaeology today, the PR genius is Doctor Zahi. Good luck.


Al-Farabi said...

Excellent post.

I suppose the British Museum has top men working on it right now....Top....Men.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

For those who didn't get Al-Farabi's comment, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoy4_h7Pb3M


The Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, the Parthenon Marbles, the Benin Bronzes as well as all the other cultural artefacts illegitimately taken away during the heyday of imperialism will eventually be returned to the countries of origin. What is missing now is proper organization and cooperation of those seeking restitution.The situation is changing rapidly and we shall soon see increasing coordination among the States. This will bring to an end the period of impunity and re-establish order and justice in the cultural field. Zahi Hawass has shown the way. He has the support of many people all over the world.