When ancient artifacts become political pawns


POSTED: Saturday, October 24, 2009

BERLIN—As thousands lined up to catch a glimpse of Nefertiti at the newly reopened Neues Museum here, another skirmish erupted in the culture wars. Egypt's chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced that his country wanted its queen handed back forthwith, unless Germany could prove that the 3,500-year-old bust of Akhenaten's wife wasn't spirited illegally out of Egypt nearly a century ago.

“;We're not treasure hunters,”; Hawass told Spiegel Online. “;If it's proven clearly that the work was not stolen,”; he said, “;there shouldn't be any problem.”;

Then he said he was sure the work had been stolen.

Globalization, it turns out, has only intensified, not diminished, cultural differences among nations. The forces of nationalism love to exploit culture because it's symbolic, economically potent and couches identity politics in a legal context that tends to pit David against Goliath.

Hawass also recently fired a shot at France, demanding the Louvre return five fresco fragments it purchased in 2000 and 2003 from a gallery and at auction. They belonged to a 3,200-year-old tomb near Luxor and had been in storage at the museum. Egypt had made the demand before, but this time suspended the Louvre's long-term excavation at Saqqara, near Cairo, and said it would stop collaborating on Louvre exhibitions.

France got the message. It promised to send the fragments back tout de suite.

It didn't go unnoticed in Paris, Berlin or Cairo that Hawass pressed his case about Nefertiti and suspended the excavations by the Louvre just after his country's culture minister, Farouk Hosny, lost a bitter contest to become director general of the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO. The post went late last month to a Bulgarian diplomat instead. Hosny would have been the first Arab to land the job, and Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, had banked a not insignificant amount of his own prestige on the minister's getting it.

But Jewish groups and prominent French and German intellectuals (not the Israeli government, though) campaigned against Hosny. When asked in Egypt's parliament last year about the presence of Israeli books in Alexandria's library, Hosny said: “;Let's burn these books. If there are any, I will burn them myself before you.”; That prompted Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann and Bernard-Henri Levy in Le Monde to urge that he not be selected, also quoting Hosny as saying in 2001, “;Israeli culture is an inhuman culture”; based on theft.

After that Hosny told the same French newspaper that he was sorry for those remarks and “;nothing is more distant to me than racism, the negation of others or the desire to hurt Jewish culture or any other culture.”;

Then he failed to get the job and blamed the failure on a Jewish conspiracy.

“;The conspiracy was bigger than you can imagine,”; he told an Egyptian weekly.

In fact, what may have ultimately done Hosny in, aside from his closeness to an old, tired, dictatorial regime, was his suspected role, as an Egyptian diplomat in 1985, in protecting the perpetrators of a terrorist attack on a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, during which a Jewish American tourist in a wheelchair was shot and pushed into the sea.

In any case, days after the UNESCO decision, Hawass went after France and Germany. When questioned about the timing, he insisted there was no connection, saying he had asked the French to return the artifacts two months earlier. But that was when Hosny's campaign had already started to fall apart. Likewise, Hawass had also said that his sudden announcement, in late August, of restoration work on an Egyptian synagogue had nothing to do with Hosny's bid. It was just as clear back then that this was an attempt to assuage growing Jewish opposition to the minister.

Over the years Egypt has occasionally made a bid for Nefertiti, when the political climate is ripe. Germans point out that Ludwig Borchardt, who discovered Nefertiti at Tel el Amarna in 1912, had Egyptian approval to take it to Berlin. Just the other day, Iraq repeated its demand that Germany return the Gate of Ishtar from the ancient city of Babylon, excavated and shipped to Berlin before World War I.

In Iraq's case, the government seems to be wagering that German ambivalence about the current war may help swing popular opinion here about giving back the gate, just as Saddam Hussein's regime played the repatriation card in 2002 as a tactic in negotiating with the United Nations over letting weapons inspectors into the country.

For the Egyptian public, Hosny's defeat was another condemnation of the country's stagnant leadership. “;Defeat and failure and regression will keep following this regime, whose members' policy is to stay in office forever,”; wrote Muhsin Radi, a Muslim Brotherhood Member of parliament, in the daily Al-Dustour.

The country's only potent weapon left may be antiquities. It plays to popular sentiment and national pride. While the art world likes to ponder the merits or misfortunes of seeing art from one place in another place or the inequities that have resulted from centuries of imperialist collecting, the real issue behind the Egyptian claims, as with so many others, is nationalism.

Laws are laws, of course, and looting can't be tolerated, although when decades or centuries have passed, laws have changed, populations shifted, empires come and gone, legal arguments can be dubious. But the larger truth is that all patrimony arguments ultimately live or die in the morally murky realm of global relations, meaning that modern governments like Egypt's and Iraq's may win sympathy today by counting on Western guilt about colonialism when asking for the return of art from ancient sites within their current borders. At the same time there's no international clamor for Russia to return storerooms of treasures it stole from Germany at the end of the war, or, for that matter, for Sweden to fork over the spoils of a war 350 years ago with Denmark. It's about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy.

The vagaries of realpolitik, and a shifting sense of justice, determine these things. That's not meant to sound cynical. Plenty of good arguments, legal, moral, intellectual, economic and artistic, support returning objects that came from Egypt back to Egypt, or from Greece back to Greece, or from Italy back to Italy. And plenty support the opposite: dispersing these artifacts around the world, where they can act as diplomats, benefiting not least the people who occupy the territories from which the art came.

Michael Slackman in The New York Times reported that while Mubarak's government took Hosny's loss as a rebuke, Hosny, like the government, is despised by many of Egypt's cultural elite, for, among other reasons, having long enforced government censorship. In the looking-glass world of Middle East relations, he only worsened his situation. His remarks about burning books were seen at home as the least he could have said to defend himself from a public that considered him too soft on Israel. Then he lost face for subsequently apologizing to Jews. Then he struggled to salvage his reputation after his defeat by blaming a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy.

That argument was “;amplified by a government eager to limit its embarrassment after having staked its credibility”; on him, as Slackman wrote.

Getting back Nefertiti would help on that score. So might flexing some archaeological muscle, even with no realistic expectation the bust will be returned. Either way, art becomes a political football.

That's what restitution often comes down to these days.

Nationalism by other means.

Politics by proxy.