In hot pursuit of Egypt's lost mummies

A recovery campaign has sparked debate over objects that museums acquired before a 1970 tightening of the antiquities trade.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Zahi Hawass is one part celebrity, one part investigator. Egypt's lead sleuth in the country's hunt to reclaim ancient antiquities has gained a reputation for often strong-arming curators and bullying museum directors. But while he's attracted critics in his hunt for Egypt's mummies and pharaonic masks, his hard-nosed techniques are indeed paying off.

Mr. Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has recovered some 3,500 objects, including the Ramses I mummy from Atlanta's Michael C. Carlos Museum and an ancient sarcophagus from the chairperson of Chicago's electric utility, Exelon.

At home, his quest has broken up smuggling rings and will possibly increase punishments for illegal trading. Abroad, he's demanding that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts return the bust of Ankhaf, the Khafre pyramid builder, and the St. Louis Art Museum hand over a pharaonic mask.

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In November, he warned France that if it didn't cooperate in the investigation of a Frenchman allegedly trying to sell hair from the Ramses II mummy, it would threaten bilateral relations with Egypt.

"If people are coming to Egypt, cutting inscriptions, and damaging our monuments, I have to fight them," Hawass says.

While there's certainly applause for Hawass's efforts, his campaign has sparked debate since many of the objects he seeks have been in museums long before a 1970 international convention tightened the ancient antiquities trade.

"These monuments are doing a real service to Egypt by being on display abroad. They encourage tourism, bring money to the country. They are a cultural ambassador and bringing them back, just to get them back, is not necessarily the best idea," says Egyptologist Kent Weeks.

What many experts don't agree on is whether Hawass can legitimately claim artifacts like the five iconic treasures from leading museums: the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding ancient hieroglyphics, from London's British Museum; the legendary Bust of Nefertiti from Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Denderah Temple Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris; Boston's Museum of Fine Arts bust of Ankhaf; and, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, Germany.

Experts argue that these pieces were acquired decades ago when laws didn't prevent foreign visitors from taking artifacts home, that museums preserved these pieces and promoted Egyptian culture. "Egypt can't claim objects after 150 years. It's absolutely ridiculous," says Dietrich Wildung, director of Berlin's Egyptian Museum.

But others can understand Hawass's wish to have these culturally emblematic objects. "An ethical and cultural argument could be made for the return of the most significant pieces, like the Rosetta Stone," says Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage law expert.

Although Hawass, who has a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a healthy presence in the western media, has been accused of being too pro-American at home, his calls to return national treasures to Egypt play well here. "He's working to restore stolen objects ... so we support him," says Ahmed Etman, a Greek and Latin studies professor at Cairo University.

Meanwhile, the British Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts both say they've received no official request from Hawass to return their pieces. Mr. Wildung at Berlin's Egyptian Museum says the museum and Egyptian authorities agree that the Bust of Nefertiti should remain in Germany.

Some experts question Hawass's sometimes aggressive tactics. In his dispute with the St. Louis museum over a 3,000-year-old pharaonic mask, Hawass threatened to make the museum director's life unbearable.

"There is much to be lost by engaging in a public attack on a museum," says Robert Goldman, a cultural property expert. "Museum professionals have an obligation to their public, their donors, and future generations to see that objects that are legitimately within their possession are protected and passed onto succeeding generations."

There's also concern over whether Egypt can properly care for and display returned artifacts. Some experts say that Egypt's facilities, cataloguing, and personnel aren't up to the task. Others argue that today Egypt is building new museums of the highest international standards.

Regardless, the answer to disputes like Egypt's ultimately may be compromise. Museums, for example, return prized objects in exchange for loans of equally significant artifacts, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's agreement last year to return to Italy the Euphronios krater, a sixth-century B.C. Greek pottery vase, and other pieces in exchange for loans of Italian artwork. With fewer ancient objects available for acquisition, experts say, the world is entering a new era when exchange will be the norm.

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