Egypt, under the leadership of Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian Supreme Leader, is determined to recover its ancient treasures scattered throughout the world. The case, which has reached unimaginable heights and encouraged other countries wishing to get back their artefacts, was set off by a trivial administrative bone of contention.
Egypt’s decision to recover its ancient treasures has sent panic waves among big western museums. Egypt and other countries, mainly African, have embarked on a determined crusade. Early April, a conference for the return of “stolen artifacts”, organized by the land of a thousand pyramids, brought together some twenty countries determined to retrieve their artefacts. France, Germany and Great Britain, although invited to the event, were conspicuously absent.
A total unwillingness to cooperate? Sort of. It would seem like the major museums are hesitant to the idea of returning Egyptian artefacts or those from other countries, for that matter. But official requests to that effect are numerous, although they only concern artefacts that have been proved as having been stolen. The bust of 18th Dynasty Queen Nefertiti (Berlin) and the Rosetta Stone (London), for example, are among those objects whose return Egypt considers top priority.
It all started with a trifle. Zahi Hawas, Secretary General of Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) of Egypt had asked the three major museums in Paris, London and Berlin to loan some objects to grace the opening of the Egyptian Museum, near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, originally scheduled for year 2011, or the Atum museum, which is scheduled to open this year in the Nile Delta city of Meniya.
Reluctant to grant such a request, the museums in question found many excuses not to honor the demand. Finally, some claimed the request did not reached them, while others, like Berlin, simply refused to lend the artefacts in question.
Outraged, Zahi Hawass said, “We will make the lives of these museums miserable… It will be a scientific war.”
And the snowball effect was immediate. Other African countries with rich ancient past, such as Libya and Nigeria, have seized the opportunity to reiterate their decades long and unsuccessful requests for the return of their artifacts. African countries now hope to garner enough support through concerted efforts, with the aim to speak with one voice. The group is yet to adopt a common strategy on how to proceed.
Nonetheless, Egyptian authorities announced the recovery of Akhenaten’s toe, which was stolen in 1907, on April 14. The toe had been stolen in Switzerland during an expert analysis on the bones of the mummy of the “child pharaoh”, son of Tutankhamun, who died at age 19.
But the Swiss authorities made sure to precise that the recovery was made through a “private initiative” undertaken by the same scientist who gave the toe back. “Frank Ruehli, a scientist at the University of Zurich and a specialist in mummies, obtained it ‘thanks to his personal contacts’ in ‘another European country,'”AFP cited a diplomat.
The return of antiquities is subject to regulation since the 1970 Convention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The problem, according to several countries, including Egypt, is the convention’s non-retroactive effect. The agreement, does not concern antiquities acquired by museums before 1970.