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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Imperialism's heritage

One of the most distressing things to come out of the unrest in Egypt is the news that rioters had broken into the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and looted some of its priceless artifacts. It makes one wonder whether impassioned pleas to return artifacts and works of art taken during the colonial era should be ignored in the case of potentially unstable countries like Egypt.
The break-in at Cairo's Egyptian Museum could have been a disaster of historic proportions, a repeat of the rape of Baghdad's multi-millennial heritage after Iraq's equivalent museum was looted in 2003. It wasn't. But only thanks to sheer dumb luck.
On Friday, Egypt's government declared a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. The much detested riot police, who had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters all day, suddenly withdrew from the streets at around the start of the curfew, including from their positions guarding Cairo's famed antiquities museum in the heart of the capital, on Tahrir Square, which is the epicenter of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Immediately, Egypt became a police state without police.

The museum had been closed all day because of the street demonstrations, but after virtually all police abandoned their posts, "people began to enter the museum," says Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities department. They climbed over walls, forced open doors and entered the museum's vast souvenir shop. "I'm glad that those people were idiots," Hawass told TIME. "They looted the museum shop. Thank God they thought that the museum shop was the museum."


While many of the intruders were dazzled by the souvenir shop, a few others knew there was more to the museum. Nine of them apparently realized that the real treasures were elsewhere. They entered a room containing artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. The intruders broke into some 13 glass panel display cases as well as one case in the Tutankahmun exhibition. Hawass did not give TIME permission to view the destruction in the museum, which has been shut for the duration of the crisis. But video footage from several Arabic satellite networks, including al-Arabiya, showed shards of glass littering the floor and several artifacts carelessly tossed around, some resting on splinters, others hanging out of display cases. "They were looking for gold," Hawass told TIME, just like the grave robbers of old.

The military, which has taken over security duties throughout Cairo and in many other cities, did not arrive on the scene until 10 p.m. In the meantime, ordinary Cairenes, aware of the security vacuum, flocked to protect the museum. "That was wonderful," says Hawass. "The Cairo museum is like the place for our identity. If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe."

The citizens, as well as three police officers who refused to leave their posts, apprehended the nine alleged culprits as they tried to flee the museum with their loot, including two mummy skulls and a statue of Isis. Hawass says that nothing is missing from the museum although about 100 items were damaged — though not irreparably. "They're easy to restore," he says.

The incident recalls a more serious event that happened in Baghdad in 2003 when mobs looted the Baghdad Museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein, carrying away priceless artifacts by the wheelbarrow-load and destroying countless others.

Hussein made an official request to Germany for the return of Babylon's Ishtar Gate to Iraq in 2002, a year before the Baghdad Museum was looted. Fortunately, the gate remains safe and sound in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.

Returning artifacts to their country of origin has been somewhat of an obsession lately. Just a week before the unrest in Cairo broke out, Egypt's top archeologist had issued a formal request to the German government for the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti, which is housed in Berlin's Neues Museum.

Egypt's top archaeologist has formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades, the latest move in his eight-year-old campaign to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times.

The bust dates back to the time of the 14th century B.C. queen and tops Egypt's wish list of artifacts that Zahi Hawass wants to see back home. The bust is currently at Berlin's Neues Museum.


Germany has declined past Egyptian requests for the bust's return, saying it was in Germany legally and is too fragile to move. But Egypt contends it was taken out with fraudulent documents in 1913.
What would have happened to this bust if it had been returned to Cairo and looters had managed to find it? It's only sheer luck that Egyptian artifacts like Tutankhamun's gold death mask weren't found and destroyed by the mob that trashed the museum last week.

Yale University recently agreed to return priceless Inca artifacts from Machu Picchu that have been in its possession since 1915. Peru is a politically unstable country that has been fighting a war against leftist insurgents since the 1980s that is far from resolved. What would happen to this irreplaceable collection if the capital was overrun by Shining Path guerrillas doesn't take much imagination.

Britain, so far, has resisted increasing pressure from Greece to return the Elgin Marbles - the sculptures taken from the Parthenon in 1816 and now housed in the British Museum. Considering the turmoil that has wracked Greece in the succeeding two hundred years and the recent rioting in Athens in response to the government's austerity measures, it's not a stretch to suggest that the statues might have been better off in London all along.

The art and artifacts taken by imperialist collectors that are housed in various museums around the world represent the collective heritage of world civilization. We all have an interest in their preservation. Sometimes the best thing is to keep them where they are, preserved and studied by curators with resources and expertise, in politically stable countries with the means and the will to protect them. Countries whose own people would loot and destroy their heritage don't deserve to have these works returned.


PJ Hundley said...

Please update yourself about Peru. none of your statements are correct. Peru is one of the more stable countries in South America and the Shining Path barely exists anymore and is no threat.

Eric said...

The US Council on Foreign Relations has this to say about the Shining Path:

"Recent information suggests that Shining Path has staged a moderate resurgence in the mountainous regions of Peru. The group has turned to narcotrafficking (CNN) to fund its operations, which includes its campaign to overthrow the Peruvian government. The U.S Department of State continues to classify Shining Path as a terrorist organization in its most recent Country Reports on Terrorism."This makes Sendero Luminoso a multi-edged weapon aimed at not only Peruvian national security, but that of Latin America and the United States as well," writes Frank Hyland, CEO of S&F Enterprises and a man who has been involved with counterterrorism for over twenty-five years. "Without even pulling a trigger, Sendero Luminoso continues to contribute to the multi-billion dollar annual drain on the U.S. economy," he writes.

The reformed Shining Path has managed to inflict minor damage on Peru's military and police force. In December 2006, Shining Path killed five Peruvian police officers and two workers from the National Coca Company. Shining Path has easily gained ground in the country due to indifference or outright apathy on the part of the peasantry, writes Hyland. In August 2008, the Peruvian military launched a operation against Shining Path, which resulted in several counterattacks, including an October 2008 ambush that killed at least a dozen soldiers. Analysts such as Alex Sanchez from the Center for International Policy note that Shining Path is too weak to launch a major offensive to take over the country, but Peruvians are afraid the group will gain supporters among rural residents who feel neglected by the government.

Currently the head of the rebel group, known as Comrade Artemio, is the only high-profile Shining Path leader who has not been caught or killed. On March 25, 2008, Shining Path members working with drug traffickers killed a police officer and wounded eleven on an anti-drug patrol. The unit is said to have been led by Comrade Artemio. Artemio has stated that even though the Shining Path hasn't been very active since the 1992 capture of Guzmán, who received a life sentence in October 2006, they are rising again and intend to grow and work in secrecy."


Erichthonius said...

I fail to see how Greece fits in with the rest of your article where you, in a pseudoscientific manner name "countries whose own people would loot and destroy their heritage". From where I stand it is most clear, Vodaphone, Starbucks and Citibank are not the Parthenon.

Eric said...

"Vodaphone, Starbucks and Citibank"? How about the Greek Parliament building, foreign embassies, hotels, government buildings, department stores and police stations (see here). Rioting mobs don't respect property, even culturally significant property. What makes you think that rioting Greeks in Athens would respect their antiquities any more than rioting Egyptians did in Cairo?

Erichthonius said...

From all the "targets" you mentioned the oldest and most historically significant landmark would be the Greek Parliament building. With its building completed in 1843 of course it can by no way be compared with the Parthenon (built 2500 years ago). Moreover the parliament building was constructed to house the Greek monarchy and the Hellenic citizens have since decided to abolish the monarchy and welcome the ex-kings, queens and princes of Greece only as tourists. As a landmark it mostly connotates the darker side of civilization, or at least a civilization version which Hellenes despise.

I still fail to see how ugly notions like monarchy and corruption embodied in the Greek parliament building itself can even remotely be compared with Metron, Episteme, Isonomy - notions hard-coded in the Parthenon itself.