I recently read an article about the Rosetta Stone by UK historian David Abulafia. I feel that the author could benefit from learning some facts that are clearly lacking in his article.
Abulafia says that the Rosetta Stone is the most-visited object in the British Museum in London and describes it as one of the most important and impressive objects in the museum. It is true that the Rosetta Stone is one of Egypt’s most-important artefacts. However, when he claims that it is the most-visited object in the British Museum, this statement is not entirely accurate.
It implies that the Rosetta Stone has always been valued and visited at the British Museum. Before I began my endeavour to have the Rosetta Stone returned to Egypt, the British Museum authorities displayed the Stone in a dark area of the museum where it could hardly be recognised.
The story began when I gave a lecture at the British Museum. After the lecture the director of the museum hosted a dinner in my honour in the Egyptian Gallery and invited Abel Al-Gazar, the then Egyptian ambassador to the UK, to it. After the dinner, the director made a speech, followed by a speech from me. I said jokingly that I was the only person who could talk to the pharaohs, adding that while I was having dinner Ramses II had come to me in person and said “Zahi, I have been in this country in the cold weather for more than 100 years, and I want to go back with you to Egypt.”
Next, I said that Thutmoses III (another famous king known to us today as the “Napoleon of antiquity”) had echoed what Ramses II had said. However, after a while the two kings came back to me and said that they had decided that I should take the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt with me instead, because it is an icon of Egyptian identity.
The next day, several news sources wrote that I had asked for the Rosetta Stone to be returned to Egypt. At that, the British Museum curators took the stone out of the dark hallway where it had been placed and put it in a much more prestigious location in the museum. They added a more detailed description of its historical value and placed it on display with new lighting. This story demonstrates that the Rosetta Stone was not always the most-visited object in the British Museum.
Abulafia says something else that is very strange about the Rosetta Stone in his article. “If installed in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, it would look as out of place as a dirty pair of trainers in the Athenaeum,” he said. This is a really strange statement. How could that possibly be the case? The stone is an icon of Egyptian identity, and without the stone there would be no such thing as Egyptology.
The Rosetta Stone would be one of the objects leading visitors into the Grand Egyptian Museum. It would be a guide for everyone as it has always been, because without the Rosetta Stone there is no real Egyptology. The stone led to the first breakthrough in decoding the ancient Egyptian language.
I really cannot understand Abulafia when he says “yet the history of this object is not simply an Egyptian history.” I am sorry to say that this statement is not entirely fair. The Rosetta Stone was found inside the country of Egypt and was dedicated by Ptolemy V, a Ptolemaic king who had been Egyptianised.
The Ptolemies lived in Egypt for a span of 300 years. They wrote their names in hieroglyphics, dressed like Egyptians, and their monuments were Egyptian. The inscription on the Stone is written in three scripts, Greek and two ancient Egyptian scripts, hieroglyphic, and demotic. The stone is named after the location in Egypt in which it was rediscovered, Rosetta, in the Nile Delta region. Without question, the Stone is fundamentally Egyptian.
Of course, the Rosetta Stone is also an important piece of the history of European scholarship on ancient Egypt. We cannot ignore the work and efforts of Jean-Francois Champollion and others to reveal the secrets of the ancient Egyptian language, but this does not negate the fact that the stone is an Egyptian object.
AN EGYPTIAN ARTEFACT: While I am saying that this object will always attract visitors, we are really talking about an important object for the history of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone should therefore be in Egypt.
I would like to tell Abulafia a story that relates to this discussion when Oxford University students held a debate a few years ago and ultimately decided that Egypt had the right for the Rosetta Stone to be returned to it.
I was invited to be part of this famous debate among the Oxford students. There was a group headed by Jim Cuno, president of the Getty Institute in the US, and other directors of European museums, and I was on the other side from this group defending Egypt’s antiquities.
The first group argued that returning objects to their countries of origin put them in danger of damage should there be political revolutions. The members of the group argued that monuments might get destroyed, that the home country museums did not have adequate restorative techniques, and that the museums themselves were of poor quality.
I stood up to give a speech that can still be watched on YouTube. I said I was not requesting the return of every Egyptian artefact to Egypt. I was only after unique artefacts that should be in Egypt, for example the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. How can one justify a bust like this being shown abroad after it was taken from Egypt illegally? The story of the bust should make the Berlin Museum ashamed of how the bust left Egypt.
Ludwig Borchardt, a German archaeologist, discovered the bust of Nefertiti in 1912. At that time, there was a law that said that anyone who discovered a royal statue made of stone would have to leave it in Egypt. However, if the statue was made of gypsum it could be taken out of Egypt.
Borchardt wrote in his private dig diary that he had found a “limestone bust of queen Nefertiti”, but in the public register book that everyone would read he said it was a “royal statue made of gypsum”. Additionally, he put the bust in a box when the director of the then Egyptian Antiquities Department came to divide the objects that had been found. The director only read the description on the box, which said there was nothing important in it. Because of that, he permitted Borchardt to take it out of Egypt.
Borchardt knew he had committed a crime, however, and as a result he hid the bust in his home for 10 years after it left Egypt. A project was started by the Americans during World War II to help Egypt have the bust returned, but this was refused by German dictator Adolf Hitler.
Another controversial object is the Zodiac Ceiling from Dendera. A French man went to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in the early 19th century and cut the Zodiac Ceiling out of the temple. There is now a replica within the temple rather than the original itself. What should people say when they see a replica in the temple and then hear that the original is in the Louvre in Paris? The story of the Rosetta Stone is even sadder because the French gave something that they did not own to another country, in this case Britain.
The French officer Pierre-François Bouchard found the stone in 1799 when the French army was building military constructions around the Qait Bey Citadel (Fort Julien) in Rashid (Rosetta). The stone stands about one metre high and is 73 cm wide, and after it was found it was sent to a French scientific institution.
It bears a text written three times in different scripts. The text is written in Greek and two scripts of the ancient Egyptian language, the hieroglyphic, and the demotic. There are four other stones that are similar to the Rosetta Stone, and these are also important. But the Rosetta Stone is more important because of its role in solving the secrets of the ancient Egyptian language.
Dreyer, a German archaeologist who re-excavated the tombs of the kings of the ancient Egyptian First Dynasty, discovered that writing was used in ancient Egypt before its creation in Mesopotamia in 3250 BCE. The demotic script came into use around 644 BCE in Upper Egypt and then spread all over the country. The last demotic text was carved in Philae in Upper Egypt in 452 CE.
LEAVING EGYPT: The Rosetta Stone arrived in Portsmouth in England after it was taken out of Egypt by the French, who then gave it to the British.
Napoleon created an academy in Egypt in August 1798 that was similar to the one in France. French general Jacques-François Menou was the officer responsible for the stone originally, and he later converted to Islam and married a woman named Zubeida who was the daughter of Mohamed Al-Bawab from Rosetta. It was Menou who transferred the stone to the academy in Cairo accompanied by Bouchard.
A newspaper then published an article saying that the discovery of the Rosetta Stone provided hope for solving the secret of hieroglyphics. Menou, the leader of the French military in Egypt after Napoleon left, was then forced to give the stone to the British. The academy’s members were not happy about giving it to the English, but the Alexandria Treaty between France and England left them with few options. However, the French first copied the stone before turning it over to the British.
The first time that Champollion saw a copy of the Rosetta Stone was in 1807, but the first person who studied the stone itself was the Englishman Thomas Young in 1814. Champollion visited Egypt in the late 1820s and visited the Temple of Dendera, the Valley of the Kings, and Philae. He became the first professor of Egyptology in France in 1831, just a year before his death.
Of course, there is no doubt about Champollion’s great achievement in pioneering the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language for the field of Egyptology. When he began to study the stone, he saw it through his understanding of the Egyptian Coptic language. He was able to compare the letters of Cleopatra’s name with the name of Ptolemy in the inscription on the Stone, noticing that the two names were similar in five sounds and the symbol of a lion.
A lion in Coptic is lapu. He also noticed the absence of the symbol of the hawk and in the place of the letter ‘A’ the eagle or the vulture, which in Coptic in akhou. The picture of the mouth in hieroglyphics is ro in Coptic and the letter R in the name Cleopatra. It is strange to consider the fact that Champollion never saw the original Rosetta Stone. He conducted all his work from a copy.
Champollion’s visit to Egypt lasted 18 months, where he discovered some new sites and published his findings in six volumes. To quote Champollion, “finally the great god Amen has permitted me to say goodbye to his sacred land. I will leave Egypt on 2 or 3 December, after ancient and modern Egypt has given me kindness and hospitality.”
He wrote to his brother that “all of me is for Egypt. It is everything to me.” He died in March 1832 at the early age of 42. He is considered to be the founder of Egyptology because of his great achievement in deciphering hieroglyphics in 1822. Some people say that when he knew the secret of the language, he went to his brother crying, “I have got it” and then fainted on the hot June day.
I agree with Abulafia that the history of the Rosetta Stone is not local but rather global history. However, I still believe that it would be fair to return the stone to Egypt. The British Museum has thousands of artefacts on display and in its reserves. We are not requesting any other artefact, but we need the Rosetta Stone because it is a symbol of Egypt and as such should be in Egypt.
French President Emmanuel Macron has recently called for the return to Africa of African art. Many of the objects in museums in Europe today were taken by force during the period of European imperialism. Even in today’s climate, museums still practice imperialism by buying, trading, and displaying stolen artefacts. I hope they will stop encouraging thieves to steal objects from tombs and archaeological storage sites by ceasing to purchase stolen artefacts. If museums stopped purchasing such objects, there would be no market for robbers to sell their stolen goods.
A petition for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt can be found online at https://www.change.org/p/petition-for-the-return-of-the-rosetta-stone-and-the-dendera-zodiac-to-egypt.
The petition has reached almost 150,000 signatures. We are waiting to reach one million signatures and then we will ask for the return of the stone by popular request. We know that there are many official steps to be taken for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, but I feel that once it happens those who have helped to return it will have their names written in gold in history.
Even so, I still cannot believe that Abulafia believes that the history of this object is not Egyptian.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly