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 artifacts 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.)
This past July, we dedicated our Louvre visit to some of those treasures in the Egyptian Antiquities section. Chief among them, the Zodiac Ceiling, the 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!!
Below are some more equally impressive pieces ranging from antiquity to the Coptic period. Should they go back? Not sure any more. I was just selfishly happy 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 list of (confiscated) Egyptian relics….Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin!
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