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Thursday, 10 December 2009
Stone the crows

Muslims want to get their hands on a stone. This time it isn't to lapidate some hapless rape victim, but to preserve "Egyptian" identy. Ben Macintyre in The Times:

The first sight of the Rosetta Stone was so remarkable that the Napoleonic Army, it was said, immediately snapped to attention: “It halted itself and, by one spontaneous impulse, grounded its arms.”

Quelle surprise! You could knock me down with a white feather. Anyway, back to our muttons.

An edict in honour of Ptolemy V, the Macedonian-Greek Pharaoh, written in three scripts, deciphered by a British and a French scholar, the stone not only unlocked the written secrets of Ancient Egypt, but stands as a vivid symbol of how intellectual changes move with physical artefacts, by conquest, colonisation and trade, but also through the free, borderless exchange of ideas.

This object — partly Hellenic in origin, Ancient Egyptian in provenance, the subject of Anglo-French scholarship and an object of universal reverence and importance — is now the focus of a furious repatriation debate.

Zahi Hawass, the formidable secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has demanded that the stone, which he calls an “icon of Egyptian identity”, be returned from the British Museum to Egypt. “We own that stone,” he told al-Jazeera television recently. “The motherland should own this.”

For Dr Hawass, and many others in so-called “source” countries, this is a simple issue of restoring looted cultural property: “For all of our history, our heritage was stolen from us. They [the British Museum] kept it in a dark, badly lit room until I came and requested it.”

There are several objections to this, beginning with what he means by “we” and “the motherland”. Modern Egypt did not exist in 1799, let alone in 196BC, when the stone was carved. Unlike some controversial items in Western museums, the stone was not smuggled away, but handed over to the British as part of a legal treaty, signed not only by the French and British, but by the Ottoman Government in Egypt.

As for the absurd notion that it was undervalued and poorly exhibited: the Rosetta Stone has been on almost continuous, prominent display since 1802, the single most visited object in the entire museum.

But more than that, the Rosetta Stone is an emblem of universality, and a product of the multiple cultures that existed in the 2nd century BC, in what we now call Egypt. Dr Hawass, a brilliant and inspiring defender of the past, has selected the wrong object over which to fight a narrow, nationalistic political campaign for “repatriation”.

Macintyre doesn't mention Islam - how little people think about Islam and how much they ought to - but surely a compelling argument against giving the stone "back" to Egypt is the way Muslims view the products of jahilia, the age of "ignorance" before Islam. Perhaps Dr Hawass is "a brilliant and inspiring defender of the past", but if he, or his successor, or the Egyptian government  falls to "adult onset Islam", the Rosetta Stone may go the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

If Dr Hawass is serious about preserving the legacy of ancient Egypt, perhaps he should campaign against the oppression of the Copts, who are the true Egyptians.

While we're on the subject of finders keepers, message to the Greeks on the Elgin marbles: bugger off, Greek style.

And don't get me started on the scone of Scoon, or I'll come over all Sellar and Yeatman.

Posted on 12/10/2009 2:38 PM by Mary Jackson
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