Luxor’s return to the archaeological scene with the reopening of Avenue of the Sphinxes last week has reignited a debate over Egyptian treasures in Europe.
As the Egyptians watched the show, where hundreds of performers dressed in period costumes paraded along the 3,400-year-old road that connects two of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions, some noticed an omission.
Notable for its absence was a 24-meter obelisk – one of a pair dating from the reign of Ramses II which was erected at the entrance to the Luxor Temple but is now in Paris.
“Dear France, we will be grateful if you bring our obelisk back, as it is much needed now for perfect symmetry in Luxor. This is our heritage, ”wrote an Egyptian on Facebook.
Responses flew as this post went viral.
“Bring him back from Paris,” read another. “Shame! Our looted obelisk adorns a public square in France,” said a third.
But unlike many ancient treasures that made their way to Europe through the ancient world, the obelisk was not stolen.
Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ottoman ruler of Egypt, offered the two obelisks to France at the beginning of the 19th century.
The first of two monuments, carved out of pink granite and weighing 230 tons, was transported in one piece to the French capital on a specially designed barge that could sail the Nile, cross the Mediterranean and travel the Seine.
The voyage lasted more than two years and the ship arrived in France on December 23, 1833. It was erected three years later, under the reign of King Louis-Philippe, in the center of the Place de la Concorde, one of the five squares. of the French capital.
The logistical challenge was accepted by Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, who first decoded ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and led an expedition to Egypt in the early 1800s.
The cost of moving the obelisk has been estimated at 2.5 million francs, around $ 19 million today. The expense is believed to be the reason the Second Obelisk never followed.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said the obelisk and other ancient artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone and bust of Nefertiti, had been illegally removed from Egypt.
In most cases, these treasures were taken long before the entry into force of national or international laws protecting them.
It was not until 1972 that the General Conference of Unesco adopted the Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage.
In 1983, Egypt passed a law that made all antiquities the property of the state and prohibited their sale or removal from the country in order to safeguard its national heritage.
Inas El Shafei, a former inspector with the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, said it was unlikely that anything that left the country before the rules came into effect could be recovered.
Many of Egypt’s greatest treasures can now be found in institutions like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris.
“These countries will not give up [the treasures] without a solid legal fight, ”she said.
In 1981, however, French President Francois Mitterrand relinquished possession of the second obelisk, effectively returning it to Egypt. There hasn’t been a campaign to return it yet.
Ms El Shafei, who holds a doctorate in Egyptian theology from Tanta University in Gharbia, said superstition was one of the reasons so many ancient Egyptian treasures were allowed to leave.
“There was so much ignorance and so much myth going around that these pharaonic artifacts like statues and obelisks are haram or banned,” she said.
Many Egyptians, she said, referred to ancient artefacts like the Luxor obelisks, as well as other Pharaonic statues, like Nusub El Shaytan – statues of the devil.
“They were also frightened by the myth of the curse of the pharaohs. This played well with foreign excavators and orientalists like Champollion, who was not known in the history books for vandalism but showed a great sense of Egyptomania, ”she said. stated, referring to the craze for ancient Egypt that swept across Europe in the first half of the 19th century.
The Avenue des Sphinx Parade – in pictures
Update: November 30, 2021, 2:30 a.m.