Who Gets to Tell the Story of Ancient Egypt?

From the glint of Tutankhamun’s solid gold death mask, striped with bands of royal blue glass, to the famous pyramids and the weathered Great Sphinx of Giza, the magnetic lure of Egypt is eternal.

Images of this ancient culture have long been both ubiquitous and instantly recognizable. But 2022, a year marked by a series of monumental Egyptian anniversaries, ushered in a revival of Egyptomania not seen since British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun100 years ago.

A cradle of civilization, the lands surrounding the Nile River Delta witnessed some of the earliest developments in writing, art, religion and government. The ancient culture’s story spreads far beyond Egypt’s modern-day borders, spanning more than 3,000 years. (For context, the reign of Cleopatra, in the first century B.C.E., is closer to 2022 than the construction of the Great Pyramid around 2500 B.C.E.) It is humanity’s story, a shared narrative of societal progress.

Egypt’s riches have drawn colonizers and foreign treasure hunters since as early as 332 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great founded his namesake city on the delta. Wars with history’s biggest empires—the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottomans and finally the British—have filled the 22 centuries since; in 1798, Napoleon also led a comparatively short French invasion that led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which opened Western Europe’s eyes to Egypt and started an undammable flow of ancient heritage leaving the country.

As the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) prepares to open its doors in Giza in 2023, some archaeologists, Egyptologists and museumgoers are calling for Egyptian antiquities to be returned to their homeland. Arriving amid a growing push to decolonize American and European museums, these campaigns ask a crucial question: Who gets to claim these artifacts as their own?

“People were asleep for years, and now they’re awake,” says Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. “I’m sure [Westerners] have nightmares of what happened: taking the history and the heritage of Africa to their countries with no right. There is no right for them to have this heritage in their country at all.”

Egypt and Europe

Even before Alexander the Great, Egypt was known to the Greeks, receiving mentions in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The threads of European colonialism in Egypt have long been intertwined with the region’s cultural heritage: The Romans adopted and absorbed many aspects of ancient Egyptian customs following Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C.E., but after the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century C.E., European contact with Egypt became more sporadic.

Centuries later, when Egypt was under Ottoman control, enigmatic inscriptions on Egyptian obelisks reinstalled in Rome intrigued Renaissance scholars. Established in 1824 by Southern Europe’s royal Savoy family, the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin, Italy, got its start from the mistaken 16th-century belief that the city had Egyptian origins, after the unearthing of a Roman-era statue base with a Latin inscription, which said a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis stood on that spot. The Savoys, who started acquiring Egyptian antiquities to mark their connection to this deep-rooted history, founded the museum to showcase these holdings.

So impressive was the Museo Egizio’s collection that from its earliest days, it attracted pioneering European scholars such as Jean-François Champollion, the Frenchman who deciphered the Rosetta Stone in 1822, and Richard Lepsius, a Prussian archaeologist who standardized a numbering system for spells in the Book of the Dead that’s still in use today. Almost two centuries after it was founded, the Museo Egizio remains one of Italy’s most-visited museums.

Some of Europe’s best-known museums also got their start around this time, prompting a race among rivals to fill their galleries with the most impressive pieces. The British Museum, founded in London in the 1750s, had artifacts from ancient Egypt in its collection from the start and today houses the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside of Egypt. In the 1820s, Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia bought thousands of historic Egyptian objects now housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin. That same decade, following the translation of the Rosetta Stone, France’s Charles X ordered the creation of an Egyptian museum in the Louvre Palace in Paris, with Champollion as its first director.

Colonial acquisitions

In the 1850s, the Ottoman-Egyptian government invited Frenchman Auguste Mariette, fresh from an impressive find at the Saqqara necropolis, to become Egypt’s first director of antiquities. The French handed the role down for decades, even maintaining control of the Department of Antiquities following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. Egyptian Egyptologists were categorically excluded from the organization, though pioneers like Ahmed Kamal Pasha battled for a seat at the colonialist-dominated table.

Mariette had a monopoly on excavation sites and any artifacts found, which were sent to a museum he started in Cairo. His late 19th-century successors, however, had to allow European archaeological teams into Egypt to keep the peace with the colonial British government. The department began issuing concessions, or renewable annual permits, for archaeologists to dig at sites across Egypt. Foreign excavators could take home half of their finds, but the other half had to remain in Egypt.

“[The] legal outflow of antiquities from colonized Egypt contrasted with Italy, where few foreigners were allowed even to dig, and Greece, where foreign excavators had to renounce any claim to their finds,” writes Donald Malcolm Reid in Contesting Antiquity in Egypt.

The iconic bust of Nefertiti on display in Berlin is the product of one such 50-50 split. Unearthed at the Tell el-Amarna site in 1912, the limestone, stucco-covered bust was erroneously labeled a “plaster bust of a princess of the royal family.” Because the Antiquities Service had agreed to send plaster objects discovered during the excavation to Germany, the Nefertiti bust ended up abroad. Whether the Germans deliberately misled the French-run agency about the significance of the statue, perhaps by presenting a badly lit or cropped photo of the find, is disputed.

In 1922, just weeks before Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, Pierre Lacau, head of the Department of Antiquities at the time, abruptly reversed the rules, likely in response to Britain’s nominal recognition of Egyptian independence that February. The organization would once again claim ownership of all excavated artifacts, only gifting foreign teams objects at its discretion. Without this change, Tutankhamun’s treasures, like so many other Egyptian artifacts, might have been scattered around the globe. Instead, they’ll be the crown jewels of the GEM’s collection.

The long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum

In the works for more than two decades but slowed by the Arab Spring and the coronavirus pandemic, the GEM is set to be one of 2023’s biggest cultural openings. The largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization, it will feature all 5,000 objects recovered from Tut’s tomb, including restored jewelry, the pharaoh’s famous golden mask and even his underwear. These artifacts make up just a fraction of the museum’s 100,000-strong collection; tens of thousands of objects will be on display to the public for the first time.

When it opens, the GEM will become one of three major government-run museums in the greater Cairo area to cover similar time periods. Many artifacts slated to go on display at the GEM come from the Egyptian Museum, a salmon-pink building in Tahrir Square that’s the oldest archaeological museum in the Middle East, dating to 1902. What the Egyptian Museum will turn into when the GEM opens remains unclear. But the venue has already lost some of its star attractions: In April 2021, an extravagant parade transported 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum to the newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC), where they’re on view in modern glass displays on a selectively lit lower floor.

Petitioning for repatriation

One of the most famous—and famously outspoken—Egyptologists is Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities. For decades, he has worked to return a number of high-profile Egyptian artifacts to his country, including the Rosetta Stone (housed at the British Museum), the Dendera Zodiac (in the Louvre) and the bust of Nefertiti (in the Neues Museum). With the opening of the GEM imminent, Hawass in October launched an online petition asking these European museums to send the Egyptian treasures back home. So far, the petition has garnered more than 130,000 signatures.

“These are our monuments,” Hawass says. “The Rosetta Stone is the icon of our Egyptian identity. Without the Rosetta Stone, there is no archaeology of Egypt. It’s really sad to see in the [Dendera] temple a replica of the zodiac, and the original is in France.”

In September, a group of Egyptian archaeologists launched a separate petition similarly seeking to return the Rosetta Stone. Called Repatriate Rashid, the campaign demands that Egypt’s prime minister submit an official request to the British Museum. Complicating both repatriation pushes is the fact that the London institution is governed by an act of British Parliament expressly prohibiting the return of artifacts unless they are “duplicates” or “unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum.” Even in other instances when the museum wanted to return objects, court rulings and strict policies have prevented it from doing so.

While some key ancient artifacts remain abroad, Egyptian officials have had considerable luck in securing others’return.

“Egypt is one of the countries that’s had the most consistent, driven repatriation effort,” says Alice Procter, a historian of material culture and the author of The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It. “The Egyptian government has been largely pretty successful in getting objects returned, and that’s partially due to the fact that so many pieces have been taken illegally in a very easily documented way.”

Many of these recently returned, illegally trafficked artifacts were looted in the chaos of the 2011 Arab Spring and sold to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Following international investigations, the Met has sent dozens of pieces back to Egypt, including the golden coffin of a high-ranking priest, which is now on display at the NMEC. In May, French prosecutors charged the former president of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, with complicity in fraud and money laundering linked to Egyptian antiquities purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The court’s decision is expected in February.

“Egypt has put in every possible effort to try to repatriate its objects,” says Ahmed Issa, Egypt’s newly appointed tourism minister. “But we’re also 100 percent committed to all the laws. Every piece that has left Egypt lawfully is owned by the person who owns it. But every piece that has left Egypt unlawfully, we’re going to exert every possible effort to return that piece to Egypt.”

Finding Egypt outside of Egypt

September 2022 marked 200 years since Champollion cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, revealing the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that had been unreadable for more than a millennium. Taken by the French and then surrendered to the British, the famous black granite slab has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

The London museum is currently staging an exhibition titled “Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt.” Unsurprisingly, the star artifact is the Rosetta Stone, which has been moved from the free galleries for the first time in decades and temporarily replaced with a replica. A section of the exhibition explains how the Rosetta Stone isn’t unique: Decrees with nearly identical wording were carved into dozens of stones throughout the reigns of several Ptolemaic pharaohs.

“Sometimes the king would reissue the decree in his own reign and would change the date and some phraseology, but in essence, the text is always the same,” says Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum. “Most of these stones are still in Egypt. We are still discovering copies of the decree on the Rosetta Stone—the last one was discovered in 2011.”

When Sara Sallam, an Egyptian artist and educator based in the Netherlands, felt homesick after emigrating to Europe, she started looking for reminders of home—and they weren’t hard to find. Her artwork represents a reflection on this experience, breathing life into Egyptian monuments, mummies and other artifacts by altering the viewer’s perspective and imagining what the objects would feel and say about being away from home for so long.

“My longing for home became the thing that I project onto the artifacts [that] also have left Egypt and are now living abroad—sometimes gifted, sometimes not, almost all of the time unwillingly,” Sallam says.

A selection of the artist’s work is currently on show in exhibitions at the Museo Egizio and the Sainsbury Center in Norwich, England. I Prayed for the Resin Not to Melt (2022) takes an alternative view of Tutankhamun’s first encounter with Carter after sitting in silence for more than 3,000 years. The audio intersperses peaceful incantations of spells for the dead with hints of the violence that was wrought on the king’s body. Dried embalming resins had fused the mummy to the coffin, which Carter left out in the desert sun to melt. When that didn’t work, he chiseled out the body and used a hot knife to cut off the burial mask, decapitating Tutankhamun in the process.

Who gets to tell Egypt’s story?

As museumgoers demand more transparency from institutions about the ethics of their acquisitions, many are asking: How did this object get here? Why is it here? Should it be here? But the discussion isn’t as new as it seems.

“Countries that have had objects taken from them have been pretty consistent on pushing for repatriation. I think really what’s shifted is the willingness to hear it,” Procter says. “In Europe, in the States and elsewhere, suddenly the conversations which have always been there are taking up more space in the media.”

The colonial one-upmanship of invasions and excavations may be over, but the brutal legacy remains, and the spoils from these chapters of history are revered far outside their places of origin. Some Egyptian officials argue that artifacts housed in foreign museums are helpful advertisements for enticing people to visit the country. Others say that after events like the Arab Spring, which saw looters target the Egyptian Museum and cultural heritage sites, the pieces are safer in foreign institutions.

Questions around provenance, however, still await answers. Are objects acquired legally but under morally dubious circumstances by occupying colonial governments lawful acquisitions? Is it ethical for Egyptians to have to settle for replicas of artifacts while the originals are held elsewhere?

“I’m not after every artifact,” says Hawass. “Museums have thousands and thousands of artifacts. I’m only after the three unique [objects] that should come back to be shown” in the soon-to-open GEM.