Even the least prepared in history know very well what they are talking about. The Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum in London since 1802, was an archaeological find of revolutionary significance. Thanks to the same inscription reported in three languages – hieroglyphics, demotic and ancient Greek – he paved the way for the decipherment of the Egyptian language.
After a long series of attempts and negotiations that began in 2003, thousands of Egyptian citizens are asking for its return. An online petition was launched by Monica Hanna, dean of the “Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport”. Hanna’s petition, which has garnered several thousand signatures, claims that the seizure of the stone was “an act of plundering spoils of war.” Which is the same thesis of the petition of Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian minister for antiquities affairs, which has collected more than 100,000 signatures.
The story of the stele is linked to Napoleon Bonaparte and the Egyptian campaign designed to undermine the British dominance in the Mediterranean Sea and open the way to the Indies. The discovery of the stele is traditionally attributed to the French captain Pierre-François Bouchard, on July 15, 1799. When the French had to surrender in 1801, a dispute arose over the finds found by the French: they wanted to keep them, while the British considered them their booty. The French general to whom the Stele had been entrusted tried to hide it. But he was discovered and after long and complicated negotiations he handed her over to the British.
La replica del British Museum
According to the British Museum, the 1801 treaty included the signature of an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. The museum’s thesis is that this signature is sufficient to represent Egypt, given that the Ottoman sultan nominally ruled Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s invasion. Furthermore, adds the London museum, there has been no request from the Egyptian government regarding the return.
The Stele is just one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics brought to the British Museum, many of them taken during the period when Britain colonized the two countries, between 1883 and 1953.
The restitution of archaeological finds in the world
More and more museums and collectors are returning artifacts to their country of origin: sometimes by court order, sometimes voluntarily, as an act of atonement for historical wrongs.
In September, the Metropolitan Museum in New York returned sixteen artifacts to Egypt after an investigation concluded they had been trafficked illegally. In recent weeks, the Horniman Museum in London has returned more than 72 objects to the Nigerian government, including 12 Benin bronzes that were looted in 1897.
For a long time, the thesis of Western museums has been that larger and more equipped exhibition spaces can allow a higher number of people to appreciate the works.
According to scientist Hanna, the right of Egyptians to access their history is the priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she asks in the petition.
After the 2011 uprising that ousted former leader Hosni Mubarak, there was a surge in artifact smuggling in Egypt: according to estimates by an independent American association, this “leakage” cost the country about 3 billion dollars between 2011 and 2013. But since then the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has invested heavily in the recovery of its archaeological treasures: in recent years, Egypt has recovered thousands of artifacts smuggled around the world.