CAIRO, Egypt — Move over Indiana Jones. Not since the (OK, fictional) treasure hunter in the distinctive leather hat set out on his "Last Crusade" has a man attempted such an improbable mission.
Zahi Hawass, the charismatic head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has long been at war with the world’s leading museums over the return of ancient Egyptian artifacts that he says were stolen from his country.
And his campaign just got a major jolt in the arm: Last week, the Louvre agreed to return a set of ancient frescoes stolen from Egypt in the 1980s.
Hawass had demanded the frescoes’ return for years, but the Louvre had long refused. Then, in a moment of sublime — and now typical — showmanship, Hawass severed ties with the world’s most famous museum. The move sent reverberations throughout the art world, and the Louvre backed down, announcing that the pieces would be sent back to their native Egypt.
“Any museum that bought stolen artifacts, we have to cut ties with them,” Hawass told GlobalPost, indicating a more aggressive posture on his part.
While Hawass is famous in Egypt for his frequent archaeological finds and his extroverted personality, many have criticized him for his obsession with the spotlight. Members of the antiquities Council cower at the thought of breaking news that “Dr. Zahi,” himself, might want to. Archaeologists who may or may not have a lot more to do with Hawass' discoveries than Hawass himself have found themselves held in the shadows thanks to his media savvy.
The Louvre victory has emboldened Hawass even further, though he appears to be using the renewed attention for the forces of good by refocusing the spotlight on Egypt's right to reclaim artifacts that were taken during British colonial rule.
Hawass has a list of six artifacts in particular — known around the Council as “Dr. Zahi’s wish list” — that he is lobbying hard to have returned, among them the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London, a bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, and the bust of pyramid builder Ankhaf at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“You can’t have the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin,” Hawass said matter-of-factly. “The bust of Nefertiti has been taken out of Egypt illegally, and I have put together a case to prove this!”
Hawass sent letters to these museums years ago, but buzzed from his latest win, he said he planned to renew his efforts by convening representatives from a number of former colonies in the coming months to discuss methods of reclaiming lost artifacts. He’s keeping mum on the details, though.
Hawass, the man, has also been the source of some confusion. He has, at points, demanded that the six artifacts be returned to Egypt for good. Other times, he has stressed his hope that the items can be sent on loan to Egypt for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum scheduled for 2013.
On top of that, the list seems likely to fluctuate based on the whims of Egypt's chief archaeologist. When asked about the six items on the list, several aides were sent scurrying. As it turns out, Hawass had forgotten to inform his staff about the recent addition of a statue of Ramses VI in Turin to the list.
Hawass told GlobalPost that any items sent on loan to Egypt would be returned.
“We are not pirates of the Caribbean,” he pointed out.
At least some on the museums on Hawass’ hit list appear to be focusing strictly on the loan request, ignoring broader demands for permanent returns. And even with regard to the loan, they seem eager to kick the ball down the field.
“A loan request regarding the Rosetta Stone was received and acknowledged by the Trustees. The request currently stands as a matter for further consideration in due course,” the British Museum said in a statement to GlobalPost.
The debate over the six artifacts, however, reveals Egypt as a country still grappling with its colonial past and struggling to find its footing in the modern world.
Unlike the frescoes at the Louvre, which were secretly smuggled out of Egypt just over two decades ago, artifacts like the Rosetta Stone and the Nefertiti bust were taken under the complicated framework of colonialism.
"We do not see the return of objects that were acquired honestly 100 years ago as constructive,” said Michael Conforti, President of the Association of Art Museum Directors and Director of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, “especially as there are established and accessible institutions that are open to the public that houses them.”
“As in most things,” he added, “one can't readdress the circumstances of history in objects acquired before 1970."
To Conforti, museums don’t just house history, they are a part of it. The collections they house tell a story about the history of the museum and its host country.
Within a decade or two, Conforti hopes, the legacy of colonialism will further recede and make way for greater cooperation between former colonies and their old masters.
“I hope that museums of the 21st century and countries in the 21st century will be able and open to sharing objects for short or long periods of time,” he said. “In this vision there would be a clear acceptance of governmental or institutional ownership, but there would be an ever lessening emphasis on objects representing only the identity of specific people or nations.”
While many continue to push for what Conforti calls "the notion of the universal museum in the 21st century,” Hawass’ battle to reclaim Egypt’s history rages on.
It’s too soon to tell how much hardball Hawass will play with the museums on his shortlist. This is a lifelong campaign for him, and he seems to be fighting one battle at a time. Only this time, the man in the Indiana Jones hat is approaching the fight with whip in hand.