Sunday, 25 October 2009

POV: Antiquities & Colonialism

© Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters. Courtesy The New York Times

Antiquities and its politics are hardly topics that stay for long on my radar screen, but this time it involves Egypt, my birth country so I'll take a stab at the recent news which involves the bust of Nefertiti, currently displayed in a Berlin museum. What does this have to do with travel photography, you ask? Not much...but I need this off my chest.

A New York Times' article (written by Michael Kimmelman) on this issue starts as follows:

"As thousands lined up to catch a glimpse of Nefertiti at the newly reopened Neues Museum here, another skirmish erupted in the culture wars. Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced that his country wanted its queen handed back forthwith, unless Germany could prove that the 3,500-year-old bust of Akhenaten’s wife wasn’t spirited illegally out of Egypt nearly a century ago."

The article goes to great lengths to describe this request as being a riposte to the recent political snub suffered by Egypt when its candidate for the UNESCO head position wasn't successful. It seems that a group of intellectuals (led by a triumvirate of Jewish writers or polemicists in Europe, as well as French and Germans) argued that the Egyptian candidate had expressed anti-Semitic comments in the past.

I don't disagree with that possibility, but so what? Egypt is well within its rights to demand the return of every item of its patrimony. The German museum generates a considerable amount of money from displaying what is Egypt's most famous Pharaoh queen (well, almost as famous as Cleopatra). Does Egypt see a dime from this revenue?

The article also informs us that over the years Egypt has requested for Nefertiti to be returned, but Germans point out that Ludwig Borchardt, who discovered the bust at in 1912, had Egyptian approval to take it to Berlin.

And 1912 is the problem. At that time, Egypt was ruled by Abbas II (one of the vestiges of the ruling Albanian house of Mehmet Ali) who, when showing a few weak signs of nationalism, was neutered (I hope only figuratively) by Lord Cromer. In 1914, Britain declared Egypt its protectorate and deposed of Abbas. Under these circumstances, an "Egyptian" approval is highly dubious, and Borchardt may have exploited a bureaucracy made malleable by the presence of various colonial powers, which at that time, had special privileges in Egypt. A similar case involved the Axum Obelisk which was plundered from Ethiopia by Italy, and was returned in 2005.

If Mr Kimmelman wanted to tie a more plausible news event to this request, he should consider the implications of the recent murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, a pregnant Egyptian pharmacist who was stabbed 18 times by an Islamphobe German man in a Dresden courthouse, and the flaccid response of the German media and its police to this hate crime. This was interpreted in the Muslim world as evidence of a deep-seated Islamophobia in Germany...so I'm sure that Germany is not on Egypt's most favored nations' list at this point of time.

Setting aside hypocritical politics and the residual ills of colonialism, there's no question in my mind that countries' patrimonies such as the bust of Nefertiti, the Elgin Marbles, the Ishtar Gate and a plethora of other lesser-known artifacts should be returned to their rightful owners.

Haven't the erstwhile colonial powers plundered enough?

It's off my chest now...sort of.