Sunday, May 09, 2010

Whose heritage?

Egypt Today (Michael Kaput)

Forget bailouts. Part of the possible solution to Greece’s economic woes is 2,500 years old and sits in the British Museum.

It makes sense to Daniel Korski, who wrote a March 4 article, “Why we should give the Elgin Marbles back to Greece,” in the British magazine The Spectator. Korski was referring to the sculptures and friezes originally mounted on the Parthenon, which were removed from Ottoman-administered Greece by Lord Thomas Elgin from 1801 to 1812. Currently in the British Museum, the marbles have been a long-standing slight to Greek national pride. Finally returning them, suggests Korski, could give Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou the political capital he needs to sustain unpopular economic reforms in his bankrupt country.

The suggestion is not as crazy as you might think. Antiquities are an effective weapon in any country’s political arsenal. But the furor generated over who owns which antiquities is swiftly superseding the appreciation of their cultural and historical value.

No one knows the political power of antiquities better than Dr. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). Egypt, by some accounts, is the repository of a full third of the world’s surviving antiquities. Add to that its long history of occupation and looting by colonial powers, and it is no wonder today’s battle to repatriate ancient artifacts is being led by Hawass, who for years has been challenging the status quo and stoking controversy in the world antiquities community with his demands for the return of high-profile artifacts from abroad.

On April 7 and 8, the SCA hosted the Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage in Cairo, bringing together 25 countries — among them Greece, Peru and Italy — to discuss how to work cohesively to repatriate pilfered artifacts, with Hawass suggesting that countries draw up wish-lists of artifacts to recover from foreign museums. At the end of the conference, Hawass told international media, “Some of us will make the life of those museums that have our artifacts miserable.”

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