Securing Treasures amid the Middle East Turmoil

Article excerpt

Conflict and unrest are ill winds that often bring little good to the cultural artifacts housed in these troubled zones. But the recent turmoil that continues in the Middle East may serve to strengthen the positions of those major Western treasure houses that are fending off demands for repatriation of artifacts.

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In recent years, the standout example of the looting of treasures was the theft of artifacts from Iraq following the U.S.--led invasion in 2003. The British Museum estimates that about 8,000 objects were unaccounted for after the Iraq Museum International in Baghdad was looted. Archaeological sites, such as Ur and Babylon, were also damaged.

Scholars and archaeologists warned of the risks to cultural artifacts and sites before the invasion but to little avail initially. Thankfully, the recent turmoil in the Middle East has not led to vandalism and theft of anything resembling the scale of that which took place in Iraq.

Theft of Egyptian Antiquities

This year, the focus has been on the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of recent protests and unrest in Cairo. So far, the museum and its contents have escaped relatively unscathed. In January 2011, Zahi Hawass, antiquities minister, reported that artifacts were stolen during a break--in on Jan. 28. He listed 18 items that had disappeared, including a gilded wood statue of the King Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess.

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Some of these items were eventually recovered. In March, Hawass resigned his ministerial post for a brief period. In a statement on his official website, he claimed the looting and thefts at archaeological sites in Egypt had contributed to his decision to resign. He also accused two unnamed colleagues of wrongdoing and cited that as another reason for his decision to leave his ministerial post.

Hawass wrote on his website that people had been asking the question, "How can you ask for the bust of Nefertiti to be returned to Egypt, if your own people are stealing and damaging the monuments?"

But this is not a new issue for Hawass. He has called for the repatriation of high-profile artifacts from collections in the West, including the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's Neues Museum. The stone was acquired in dubious circumstances in 1801 by British agents in Egypt after the British defeated occupying Napoleonic forces. The bust of Nefertiti was unearthed in 1912 by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt.

The chances of these artifacts being returned to Egypt are slim. Just as the British Museum has stood firm in the face of regular requests for the return of the Elgin Marbles (Frankly, given the parlous state of the Greek economy, why not offer a monetary settlement to resolve the issue?), it is unlikely to change its position about the stone.

British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton says that although "it has been reported in the media that Dr. Hawass has requested the loan of the Rosetta Stone, the British Museum has not received an official request in writing from the Egyptian government, either before the revolution, or subsequently, for the permanent return of the object. We were asked for a short--term loan of the Stone (by Dr. Hawass), but it is not clear whether this request is still valid." Hawass did not respond to requests for comment.

No Western museum will even consider sending its treasures to a zone of conflict for obvious reasons. Indeed, unrest and conflict (or even the fear of it) in countries that are demanding the return of antiquities has played into the hands of major Western museums that will argue that any artifacts of contentious provenance are better housed in their collections, where they are secure, cared for, and accessible by visitors from around the world. …