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Ancient Egyptian Wisdom ... Daily Practice

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who Owns Ancient Egypt's Magnificent Artifacts?

This past April 454 ancient artifacts were returned to Egypt from the United Kingdom's Myers Museum. The items included ancient bronze coins and pottery which were probably smuggled from Egypt between 1972 and 1988; after the 1970 banning of the trafficking of antiquities by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A specific listing of the items were announced by Hussein Al-Afuni, the Director of the Egypt's Red Sea antiquities department; they included 12 bronze coins, 4 scarabs, 94 beaded necklaces, 99 fragments of pottery with colored drawings, and 109 funerary figures. While 5,000 artifacts have been returned to Egypt through the UNESCO program since 2002, the trafficking of Ancient Egyptian artifacts continues to be a major concern. In December of 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned 79 artifacts to the Ma'adi Museum in Cairo. The artifacts were among 370 items which were stolen from the museum in 2002 and ended up on the private antiquities market. With all of the articles that have been returned to Egypt, there are probably tens of thousands of items in museums, on public display, and in private collections.

As a native New Yorker, I think of all the items in our city alone. The collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) are among the best in the world. In fact, a large section of the Temple of Dendur was meticulously dismantled block by block and shipped to The MET to be situated in the middle of an indoor moat in their Sackler Wing. While the temple was legally given to The MET, many other antiquities were presented as gifts during foreign/colonial rule or simply smuggled. Consider that the most ubiquitous architectural monument of Ancient Egyptian art, the tekhen (known by the Greek name obelisk), is actually more prevalent outside of Egypt. While there are 29 known tekhenui (plural of tekhen), 20 of them have been shipped to many major cities around the world including London, New York, and Paris.

The Egyptian government's continuing demand for the return of many Kemetic artifacts leads us to one very important question; "Who owns the magnificent artifacts of Ancient Egypt?" Initially this question might seem rudimentary. Ancient Egyptian artifacts must belong to the people of Egypt ... right? Well what if we focused on the fact that the current government of Egypt is primarily comprised of individuals most would consider "Arabic" who entered the country during the Arab and Turkish invasions. Ethnically, these people are probably quite dissimilar to the indigenous Africans who peopled Kemet (Ancient Egypt) during the time of dynastic Egypt. After the decline of the Ancient Egyptian Empire, it was conquered by the Persians, Greeks, Romans and others.

Some of our readers probably think that linking the current Egyptian regime to foreign invasions is unfair. After all, we must acknowledge that while the majority of Egypt's current occupants are not indigenous to the nation, they are certainly not "colonial" rulers. They live in Egypt and view themselves as Egyptian. I recall having conversations with Egyptian friends during my trips about their ethnicity. In the United States, we would certainly call them "Arabs", but they always state that they are not Arabs, they are Egyptians. Their national identity tends to be very different than other nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Identity politics and self-determination are complex matters. They make this debate even more challenging.

While most would probably agree that most of Egypt's antiquities should probably remain on Egyptian soil, our question is really about the cultural and ethnic legacy of Ancient Egypt. Are these artifacts the birthright of Egypt's current Arab occupants, the much maligned Nubians, other indigenous Africans, the countries who currently own them, Diasporan Africans, or others? Be sure to watch the video of Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, attached to this post. Regular readers of The Udjat are aware that I am certainly not a fan of Hawass, but he does discuss (overtly and subtlety) some of the major issues in this debate. My personal belief is that these cultural prizes are the particular birthright of indigenous Africans and their relatives in the African Diaspora, but that they are also shared by all of humanity. Do you agree? What do you think? Please weigh in and let's get a dialogue going! Shem em Hetep (Go Forth in Peace)!


Al-Ahram Weekly - http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/946/eg3.htm

Bloomberg Online - http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=aTp8L4YyrY6I&refer=muse

Survey Results - GlowDay.com

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It is a very interesting debate, and one that I am trying to keep an open mind on. I have spoken to several Egyptians (in Egypt) who feel very hard done by because their artefacts have been stolen, but I think their definition of stolen may be rather wider than our traditional meaning. I have also spoken to Egyptians (in the UK) who acknolwedge that their artefacts are far better preserved and looked after in the British Museum, than they would be in Cairo.

I am currently studying the impact on our awareness of the original culture by saving monuments, and shipping them abroad, to measure just what difference it makes by having these temples in different countries. Follow my progress on my website www.whithernubia.co.uk. I am happy to receive your comments.