A Passion For Egypt

Plundered art and antiques should rightfully be returned to their countries of origin and displayed in situ.

So I believed, very passionately, until I learned of the burning of the Institute d’Egypte near Tahrir square in Cairo in December 2011. And of the destruction of almost all the precious manuscripts it contained.

Among them, it was reported, was one of eleven original editions of the Description de l’Egypte. A twenty three (?) volume illustrated compilation of nearly twenty years of observation by the team of French scholars and scientists that accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign of 1798. The most comprehensive record of Egypt’s history and its monuments ever written and the bible of modern Egyptologists.

The fire is alleged to have been started by demonstrators attacking army sharp shooters on the roof of the institute. What the army was doing on that roof in the first place, without having ensured the safety of the institute’s precious collection, is another matter.

The original copper plates of the Description d l’Egypte are said to be safe in the Chalcographie in the Louvre and digitised versions are now available online. But the incident still underlines the patent risk to what is essentially world heritage during turbulent times.

The fire must also have been a setback, surely, for Egypt’s aggressive campaign for the return of a few of its most valuable artefacts from museums around the world. (A threat from their director of antiquities to cut off ties with the Louvre museum and ban all French excavation teams from its archaeological digs resulted in the return of the Tetaki tomb frescoes in 2009.)


Dendera Zodiac - Musee du Louvre
Zodiac ceiling of Dendera

This past July, we dedicated our Louvre visit to some of those treasures in the Egyptian Antiquities section. Chief among them the Zodiac Ceiling: an earliest known map of the sky that I had been longing to set eyes on ever since I saw its soot covered reproduction in the incredible Temple of Hathor in Dendera.

Another, is the Seated Scribe from Saqqara: an uncannily lifelike statue of an unidentified man. Every minute detail, from his red veined magnesite and black rock crystal inlaid eyes to his nipples made of wood, seems meticulously crafted. Making it even harder to believe that he is 4500 years old!


The Seated Scribe of Saqqara
The Seated Scribe from Saqqara – 2620 – 2500 BC!!

Below are some more equally impressive pieces ranging from antiquity to the Coptic period. Should they go back? I still think they should but I was selfishly glad to have had one more opportunity to see them. For, as much as my heart bleeds for its people, I don’t see myself returning to Egypt anytime soon.

Next on my wish-list of (confiscated) Egyptian relics: Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin!

Edit November 2018: I finally got to see her!




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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

66 thoughts on “A Passion For Egypt

  1. fascinating trip and photos. You bring up a great discussion on the country of origin etc… The Vatican has stolen and retains thousands of pieces of historic christian significance, the public will probably never see it. But the bigger travesty would be to have it all destroyed by a people who did not care about it!

    1. I bit of a catch 22 situation if ever there was one 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  2. my mothers ancestors migrated from that area to the near and far east…and back to some of the same areas besides the Americas. DNA show that some are still in those same areas and also in Spain, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, and Israel. Her ancestors always believed in one God, they were Druze! I love the photos, they are gorgeous! Hugs and blessings my sister!

    1. Thank you Wendell. Fascinating about your mother’s ancestors! Have you tried to track down any of their descendants?

  3. I love the direction your posts are taking at the minute, Madhu. Thought-provoking. The Egyptian culture is totally fascinating. I can never resist reading about/watching documentaries/seeing the artwork, wherever I can find it. Berlin next? 🙂

    1. I can never get enough of Egypt either Jo. No Berlin isn’t on our near horizon, but that exquisite bust is the next big Egyptian artifact that I am longing to see. The rest are all in the British Museum 🙂

  4. Unfortunately, the people who live in a country may not appreciate its artifacts and treasures.

    During the Scottish Religious Reformation when Protestantism became the favoured Scottish Christian religion instead of Catholicism. Protestant reformer John Knox returned to Scotland from exile and preached a sermon against idolatry in Perth which unleashed a seething Protestant mob.

    Iconoclasm (the destruction of religious images) swept the nation. In St Andrews the army of the Lords of the Congregation stripped the altars, smashed the icons, destroyed the relics and whitewashed the walls of its churches over night.

    People would no longer be distracted from God’s glory by the glitter and rich hangings of the Catholic Church. For the men who “cleansed the altars” this was direct action against the iconography of Catholicism. Its abbeys and great cathedrals, irrelevant to the new godly society they envisioned, were left to decay. A great deal of Scotland’s Renaissance artistic legacy was lost forever.

    The only cathedral in Scotland which remained intact was Glasgow Cathedral.

    Yes, perhaps it is better to remove valuable things from a country, otherwise the mob will descend to destroy it, as they did in 16th century Scotland. Who knows what treasures were lost because of the hatred of Catholics.

    1. What a tragedy to lose so much historical art! Religion is like that though. Happens all over the world. Our history of treatment of religious structures isn’t great either. So who decides who is the better guardian? 🙂

  5. Ah, Madhu, you’ve captured these treasures beautifully – and set the cat among the pigeons vis-a-vis ownership and location of so many of the world’s treasures. I can remember being scandalised about the ‘rape’ of antiquities by the West but now, like you, I’m a bit ambivalent. When you look at how these treasures are housed and preserved in the great museums of the West you know they’re safe, and that hundreds of thousands of people have the opportunity to see them. I’m sure it’s changed, but my recollection of the museum in Cairo was of dust and dim, though I did feel that the treasures were safe. But as you’ve shown, all we need is a little unrest (or a city declaring bankruptcy, like Detroit, where it’s reported the museum and art gallery are to be used to pay back some of the city’s debts!) for priceless artefacts to be vulnerable. Speaking of which, I’m looking forward to going down to Brisbane to an exhibition of some of the rescued treasures (230 pieces, apparently) from Kabul’s museum.

    1. I still feel strongly about the theft of those articles. But safekeeping is another issue. Then again, who decides which country is the better guardian? Rather a tough one.
      That Afghan exhibition sounds exciting Meredith! Wish I could come along 🙂 Look forward to your report with anticipation.

  6. Madhu you are so good at collecting the information as well as photos. I’ve been there, even got similar photos but when I go to such places I get so overwhelmed that I forget what I read. Sometimes I take photos of info but even get that muddled up!

    1. There is always Google Gilly 🙂 I just couldn’t remember the name of the Goddess on my featured header. Took me quite a bit of trawling to hunt that down 🙂

  7. I completely agree on your opening statement, however, if a country is facing problems from which such treasures may be in danger, then every measure should be taken to protect them (even if that means taking them outside their country of origin BUT returning them as soon as the problems have subsided). Art and antiquities should be under international laws (maybe they are, I don’t know). Great post, Madhu. Just heard of the sad news of Mandella’s passing. May he rest in peace.

    1. I agree with you totally Marina. And thank you for the news about Mandela. I didn’t know until then, but it was too late at night (here) for me to respond. He will be missed the world over.

  8. Again my compliments on the quality of your pictures. Another great crime in the history of Egypt was the burning of the library in ancient Alexandria with all its antique treasures. Then there’s the destruction or defacing of ancient Buddhist treasures in Afghanistan and I suppose war has destroyed culture throughout history hasn’t it? But we can extend the thought of crimes against civilization by the wilful destruction of the elephant in its natural habitat. They are safer in zoos these days. We humans don’t value the accumulated treasures of civilization until we wake up one day and find them gone. Then we come to the awful realization we collectively are responsible for the loss of those treasures for all time

  9. Thank you for your insight, Madhu. I guess I don’t know what to think anymore, except to be grateful for the countries and organizations that have preserved a wealth of world art and antiquities. I enjoyed your photographs very much!

    1. There certainly is. But perhaps it might be more palatable, if it was treated as being on loan from the country of origin.

  10. A superb reportage… perhaps it is true that certain relics are now better protected inside the vault or international museums (I’ve visited a few times Louvre since it is famous for his Egyptology section). The ignorance of the “Man-beast”, unfortunately, leads to acts of vandalism such as the one you highlighted.
    I hope with my whole heart not to encounter problems in two weeks… on my list: Aswan, Luxor (with Memnon Karnak and the Valley of the Kings), Shalateen and Sharm el Luli … a hug :-)c

    1. A sad reality perhaps. I always feel cheated when I visit ancient sites and find most of their important elements are missing or stolen.
      I hope too that your trip goes off without incident Claudine. As far as I know Cairo is the most volatile, but only the Corniche and Tahrir square area, and tourists, I heard, are generally safe. The rest of the country should be perfectly fine. Have no doubt you will have a great time. Look forward to reading all about it 🙂

  11. Beautiful artifacts are scattered all over the world. And the Egyptian treasures are special. I don’t know where they belong, Madhu, I’m just glad you have captured and shared them with us.

  12. This is, of course, a painful subject. But in fact, most of the artifacts of history are lost and forgotten. And when dealing with the issue in the present time, how can we justify colonialism or the robbery of another country’s treasures, even if that country doesn’t know how to take care of them. That would be like putting another person in a jail or forced hospitalization because we know what’s best for him better than he knows himself. I think we just have to accept the basic rights of other people and nations… even if they destroy their national treasures.

    1. I agree with you that it would be presumptuous for any country to consider themselves the guardians of someone else’s property, and without their consent at that. And most of it was plain robbery in the fist place, and never taken with the intent of safekeeping. Yet I remember watching the Egypt uprising and the crowds in front of the museum, with my heart in my mouth! I can imagine how terrified Egyptians themselves must have been. Quite a few livelihoods depend on those antiquities being safe! Always a pleasure to read your thoughtful comments Shimon. Thank you.

  13. I agree so much about returning plundered antiques to their countries of origin. But not right now to Egypt, or to hardly any country in the region. Since democracy is fighting very hard battles with fundamentalism, and we all know how these kind of extremists look upon art and freedom. The situation is very sad, and dangerous.

    1. In Egypt it isn’t so much fundamentalism as an autocratic leadership Bente. They wouldn’t deliberately damage their treasures, for their economy must depend heavily on tourism. Rather a tough call one way or another 🙂

  14. This is a tough one Madhu… I will be selfish on this one. If they stay in Paris, I’ll get a chance to visit the next time I am around. Thank you for another valuable lesson, and yes – for great photos too 🙂

  15. Yes thought provoking post for sure. How terrible a loss of the manuscripts. Thanks for sharing your photographs and thoughts. Important issue. All things Egyptian are fascinating to me…when I was in the 6th grade we put on a play The Curse of Ra and it has always stayed with me as the first introduction to the antiquities of Egypt.

    1. I probably contracted my fascination in primary school myself Ruth! I think it s one of the most fascinating early civilizations ever!

  16. I believe that antiques and artifacts should remain where they are and not neccessarily returned to the country of origin. Taken to the extremes – this can only throw up unneccessary tensions between countries and peoples – usually stoked by politicians for personal gain.

    Lovely pictures and yes, that fire in Egypt is sad – fortunately, we have digitised records but it’s not quite the same, is it.


    1. Not too sure about that Eric. I still feel they should be returned, but perhaps a world body like UNESCO could ensure their safety somehow! An Utopian solution perhaps! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  17. I honestly don’t know what to think Madhu . . . . human rights in such places are on such fragile grounds that it is hardy surprising that valuable arts and antiquities will not be valued. I so hope the situation improves soon.

    1. I hope so too Patti. Art and antiquity aside, the Egyptian people are inherently gracious and decent. A majority live off tourism, and continued instability cannot be good for any of them.

  18. It’s such tragic loss when irreplaceable antiquities are destroyed. You have shown some really stunning statues and other artifacts, Madhu. I really enjoyed them. 🙂

    1. If really is Luann. And the rest of the ceiling at Dendera too. Do check out my Dendera post when you have the time 🙂

  19. Madhu, that header image is breathtaking. I have never been to Louvre inside … but I love their metro station .. *smile. I haven’t been to many museum at all .. wonder why ??? Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was one of them and I enjoyed every minute of it. So why haven’t I been to others … I have enjoyed art museums – expect Guggenheim in Bilbao. One day I maybe will go back to Paris and I will visit Louvre. You’re just magical with your posts … the information and the passion.

    1. Oh I am a museum freak Viveka! And hubby is constantly peering over my shoulder and striking out the minor ones from our itineraries 🙂 That said I can not handle more than two to three hours at a stretch in any museum. This was my second visit to the Louvre and I have barely begun to scratch the surface. Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      1. When it’s about all cultures … I think we will always be scratch on the surface – and the more we scratch the more there is to find and share.
        You’re so fantastic with sharing your impressions.

  20. Incredible history and photos in your post, Madhu. Wonderfully written. The seated scribe is so life-like. And the dates just take my breath away…2600 BC, 2350 BC…..BC!!!!! Incredible!

    1. It is the dates that make all this so amazing Angeline. Most people tend to forget that places like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat are just about 700 – 1000 years old!!

  21. In all modern conflicts, I am appalled by the destruction of buildings, temples, our culture wiped away. You’d think we were more civilized, but I suppose we raze and plunder with the same disregard… Sad. I enjoyed this post tremendously. The wooden boat of Princess Anukhet and the seated scribe are incredible.

  22. It is sad indeed… Our own antiques are spread across the world, and God alone knows when, or if, we will ever get them back. What happened in Egypt does not justify though, the antiques remain in others’ hands. It could so easily have been the other way around. Just imagine how we would feel if our plundered art were destroyed in a foreign country… Twice the heartache…

  23. What a fantastic article. Thought-provoking and insightful. Your blog rocks, by the way!

  24. A very thoughtful and cogent discussion of a rather thorny issue. I have always wanted to visit Egypt and it’s currently third from the top of my list of places to travel to next. (Greece is first, New Zealand is second.)

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