Page last updated at 05:47 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The quest to regain Egypt's antiquities

The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone dates back to 196 BC

Later this month Egyptian archaeologists will travel to the Louvre Museum in Paris to collect five ancient fresco fragments stolen from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s, but there are many other "stolen" antiquities which they also want back, reports the BBC's Yolande Knell in Cairo.

One of the first artefacts that visitors see on entering the pink neoclassical facade of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a fake.

"This is a replica of the Rosetta Stone. It is the only object in the museum that is not real," announces a tour guide, his voice echoing through the high-domed hall.

Queen Nefertiti bust at Berlin's Neues Museum
I'm not asking for all the artefacts of the British Museum to come to Egypt
Zahi Hawass, Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities

"The original is kept in the British Museum." Before leading his group on to the lines of old-fashioned cabinets filled with ancient treasures, he explains the significance of the basalt slab, which dates back to 196BC and was key to the modern decipherment of hieroglyphics.

The actual stone, discovered by French soldiers in 1799 and given to the English under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria two years later, is one of the most high-profile items that Egypt's chief archaeologist would like returned.

"I'm not asking for all the artefacts of the British Museum to come to Egypt," says Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"I'm only asking for the unique cultural objects," he added, referring to items of great archaeological value, such as the Rosetta Stone.

'Further consideration'

Also on his wish list is the 3,500-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, on show at the newly re-opened Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Other items include a statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza - also in Germany; the bust of Anchhaf, builder of the Chepren Pyramid - at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and a painted Zodiac from the Dendera temple, which is kept at the Louvre.

Pharonic mask of Senu
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo draws people from around the world

If they cannot be returned permanently, Mr Hawass would at least like them back on loan for the opening of Egypt's Grand Museum at Giza, due by 2013. So far there have been mostly cautious responses.

"A loan request regarding the Rosetta Stone was received and acknowledged," says a spokeswoman for the British Museum. "The request currently stands as a matter for further consideration in due course."

Since he became head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2002, Mr Hawass claims to have returned 5,000 artefacts to Egypt which he says were stolen. His approach is sometimes aggressive.

His recent dispute with the Louvre over Pharaonic steles thought to have been chipped from the walls of the 3,200-year-old tomb of the cleric, Tetaki, resulted in ties being severed with the museum.

The Louvre agreed to hand over the steles within days. An Egyptian delegation is due to collect them on 20 November.

"I'm really happy that story became very big because this will warn every museum all over the world not to buy stolen artefacts," says Mr Hawass. "That will preserve the heritage not only of Egypt, but of whole world."

'Great deed'

Thousands of artefacts were spirited out of Egypt during the period of colonial rule and afterwards by archaeologists, adventurers and thieves.

According to a 1970 United Nations agreement, artefacts are the property of their country of origin and pieces smuggled out must be returned.

I always say the Egyptian people also have the right to see these unique objects
Wafaa al-Saddiq
Director, Egyptian Museum

Egypt also pursues items taken before that time if it has evidence of illegal practices. However, the process of determining whether an item has ever been stolen can be laborious and complicated.

A red granite fragment returned last month was an exceptional case.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the piece from an antiques collector in New York so that it could be returned to a shrine in the Ptah temple at Karnak, near Luxor.

Egyptian officials called it "a great deed" and expressed hope that other institutions would follow its example.

"I have very mixed and difficult feelings when I go to a museum overseas and see all these wonderful items taken from Egypt," says the director of the Egyptian Museum, Wafaa al-Saddiq.

"The objects are giving a good example of Egyptian civilisation to people in different countries so that they then come here to see the Pyramids and tombs."

"At the same time, I always say the Egyptian people also have the right to see these unique objects, some of which were taken when Egypt was under occupation, so my first wish is that they come back," she adds.

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