Given how much the British have revered the artifact as an icon of learning, the Rosetta Stone should stay exactly where it is.
When my family visited London in 2015, our first stop was the Egyptian collection at the British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone was uncovered by Napoleon’s troops during the French foray into the Nile region and then passed to the British after the French surrender of Egypt in 1801. The stone’s carvings in Greek, Demotic (an Egyptian version of short-hand), and hieroglyphics were a proclamation thanking Pharaoh Ptolemy V for the reduction of taxes.
The French expedition, which included a contingent of scientists, and Rosetta Stone’s translation (by both French and British historians and linguists) inspired interest in, and the eventual development of, Egypt.
Now the Egyptians have signed a petition demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone.
The debate over who owns ancient artifacts has been an increasing challenge to museums across Europe and America, and the spotlight has fallen on the most visited piece in the British Museum: The Rosetta stone.
The inscriptions on the dark grey granite slab became the seminal breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after it was taken from Egypt by forces of the British empire in 1801.
Now, as Britain’s largest museum marks the 200-year anniversary of the decipherment of hieroglyphics, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the stone’s return.
’The British Museum’s holding of the stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, and organizer of one of two petitions calling for the stone’s return.
I have thoughts.
Western civilization owes much to ancient Egypt. But modern Egypt also owes much to the West. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
It was western technology that helped build the Suez Canal. Egypt just earned $7 billion annually from revenues from its use, which is a record.
Egypt’s Suez Canal revenue hit a record high of $7 billion in the financial year to June 30, up 20.7% from the previous year, Canal Authority Chairman Osama Rabea said on Monday.
A statement from the authority attributed the rise to an increase in vessel numbers and cargoes, with total cargoes reaching a record high of 1.32 million tonnes, up 10.9% from 2020/21.
The number of vessels transiting the canal rose 15.7% to 22,032.
The canal is the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia and one of the Egyptian government’s main sources of foreign currency.
When the Egyptians partnered with the Soviets to construct the Aswan Dam, the famous temples at Abu Simbel were threatened by flood waters. Western countries joined together to save these magnificent monuments.
Saving the temples of Egypt and dismantling, stone by stone, the Abu Simbel temple in the early 1960s was a first act to recognize this idea. UNESCO launched an international safeguarding campaign to save monuments in Nubia from being flooded by the waters of Lake Nasser. The construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt drew unprecedented international attention to the protection of cultural heritage. At that time, many people thought they had to choose between culture and development, between flourishing crops and the traces of a glorious history. UNESCO has shown that we can have both.
One last point: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. As noted by Egyptologist Bob Brier in his wonderful book (Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World), the very British George Herbert Edwards, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, funded the excavation. The very British Howard Carter toiled, sweated, and battled (often on the side of the Egyptians) to make the find and ensure its treasures were properly handled.
Despite the massive amounts of gold and artifacts, the men most responsible received none of it. Instead, it is being kept by the Egyptian Museum.
It turned out that the treasure was not entirely safe in Egypt’s museum. In 2015, Egyptian cleaning crews damaged the iconic mask of the young king.
The Egyptians ended up with a German team to repair the mask.
Foreign archeological teams routinely fund their own expeditions to Egypt, helping Egyptians recover their ancient heritage and preserve it.
Rather than embracing the current Western export of victimization and decrying injustices based on distorted history, I would argue that it would be better for Egypt to focus on the benefits already obtained and reject actions that will only poison the nation’s relationship with those who might like to experience it via tourism and science.
The Rosetta Stone was originally part of a rubble pile that made up a fort’s foundation. It was not an object of worship or the treasure from a king’s tomb. The British have revered it for nearly 2 centuries as an icon of man’s love of learning.
The Rosetta Stone should stay exactly where it is.DONATE
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