I am among those fortunate enough to not only have visited the cream of the Middle East’s major historical sites — among them Persepolis, the Valley of the Kings, Palmyra and Baalbek — but also viewed antiquities taken from these places in European and American museums. Few people in Iran, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have the same opportunity.
Though the ancient palaces and structures may remain, much of what they held is no longer on site, or even in the country. Spirited away over the past 200 odd years, many of the region’s most famous artifacts are in the West, torn from their historical and spatial context through acts of Elginism. The term — defined as cultural vandalism — was coined after the Earl of Elgin, who removed the Parthenon Marbles from Athens in the early 18th century to decorate his house in Scotland.
At the Louvre in Paris recently, I was taken aback by a huge Phoenician sarcophagus discovered in Sidon, far more imposing than any on display in Lebanon. It would be one of the centerpieces of the National Museum in Beirut, but instead is tucked into an underground gallery in one of the largest museums in the world.
I became only more indignant entering a gallery devoted to Palmyra, which shamed those in Tadmur or in Damascus. And then there was the Achaemenid exhibit containing sculptures taken from Persepolis. Why should I travel to Paris, London and numerous museums in the United States to see what should rightfully be shown in Persepolis, Palmyra or Sidon?
While I appreciate that millions of people have been able to admire the wonders of the ancient Middle East at these museums and that artifacts have been kept in safe conditions, there is a strong argument for the repatriation of relics.
Near perfect copies can be made if museums want to maintain their permanent collections or borrow items, a widespread practice. The idea that the region cannot look after its heritage properly is without merit and reeks of paternalism.
After all, the Lebanese National Museum managed to protect its collection throughout the civil war, while Syria, Egypt and Iran have all overhauled their museums. Indeed, one of the worst cases of cultural barbarism in modern history was instigated by the US-led invasion of Iraq, when the occupation forces failed to prevent the looting of what was perhaps the most significant collection of antiquities in the world at National Museum of Baghdad. There is growing momentum for artifacts to be returned to their roots, though this has been hindered by a well-meaning 1970 UNESCO convention calling for the restitution of antiquities and works of arts, but only for objects taken to other countries before that date.
The convention is one obstacle stopping the Rosetta stone, held by the British Museum for more than 200 years, or the 3,400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin, from being returned to Egypt. While Lebanon has no official position on this matter, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt are calling for the return of their cultural artifacts. In April, Cairo hosted a conference of 25 “countries that have suffered from theft,” as the outspoken head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, put it.
“We will make life miserable for museums that refuse to repatriate,” said Hawass at the conference.
His threats have worked in the past. Last year Egypt broke off relations with the Louvre until steles stolen from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the 1980s were returned. Further arm-twisting came when Hawass threatened to ban French scholars from excavating in Egypt. The Louvre then capitulated.
But there are few precedents of Elginism being reversed — most pointedly exemplified by Greece’s as-yet unsuccessful 30 years spent lobbying Britain to return the “Elgin Marbles.” As Hawass suggested, cooperation between the aggrieved countries is needed to make threats effective, with countries putting together “wish lists” of what they want returned.
These wish lists deserve broad international support to allow the artifacts of human history to be seen in their proper context, rather than in foreign museums thousands of kilometers away.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East
correspondent for International News Services