Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- With all its history and glory, Egypt owes [a great deal to] the black basalt slab called the Rosetta Stone that unravelled the mysteries of Pharoanic scripture engraved on temples, graves, obelisks and the pyramids. Before the stone was discovered, these writings were merely signs and symbols.
The story of the puzzling stone began when part of the French [military] expedition to Egypt arrived in the Mediterranean city of Rosetta, where the water of the River Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea. The soldiers admired the city and its fresh air, and were fascinated by its residents, their handicrafts, their small fishing boats and the beautiful houses. Engineers then made changes to the Citadel of Qaitbay in Rosetta before they surrounded it with red brick walls to act as a fort and protect the city’s entrance against a potential English invasion.
In July 1799, a soldier under the command of Captain Pierre Francois Bouchard found a black basalt slab whilst digging the citadel wall’s foundations. The stone was inscribed with hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek script. The scholars on the expedition realized the importance of the stone and called it the ‘Rosetta Stone.’ It was included in the list of antiquities collected by the French [military] expedition until the French fleet was defeated by the English. Then the 1801 Treaty was signed, and the French left Egypt. One of the articles within the treaty stipulated that ownership of the Rosetta Stone would be transferred to the English army. Unaware of the stone’s historical value, the French approved of the transfer of ownership as they had made several wax models of it and sent them to France to be studied. The [real] Rosetta Stone eventually arrived at the British Museum and was placed in a dark corner in the sculpture wing on the ground floor.
Though England owned the stone, the French were the ones to decipher its archaic scripture through the distinguished scholar Jean François Champollion. It is thanks to Champollion that the ancient Egyptian language was deciphered and that the drawings of human beings, animals, plants and other depictions engraved on Pharaonic temples and graves can finally articulate the secrets of the Pharaohs, and demonstrate their creativity in all aspects of knowledge and civilization. The hieroglyphics can now be understood by all readers who are interested in Egyptian stories that represent one of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations.
Therefore we have come to recognize the importance of the Rosetta Stone – a piece that has been stolen and passed on from one occupier to another – whilst the occupied country remains helpless. In fact, Egypt’s most significant document was taken from its soil in a manner that anybody with a conscience would not accept. Ever since I was appointed head of Egypt’s antiquities, I have embarked upon trying to regain the Rosetta Stone as well as other antiquities that I consider key to understanding the Egyptian civilization and ones that can best convey its superiority and uniqueness. I began to probe the British Museum about returning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt and though it was long neglected by the museum there, the British began to pay attention to it and placed it at the centre of a well-lit hall as part of a dazzling display as soon as we began discussing returning the stone to its motherland, Egypt. I requested that the British lend us the stone so that it could be exhibited during the inauguration of the Grand Egyptian Museum scheduled to be completed in a few years because of the piece’s significance to Egyptian civilization.
And what did the British say?
They said that, first of all, they need to be sure of the protection and safety measures applied in the Grand Egyptian Museum. They said that even though they know very well that this museum is a giant project in all regards and will be unparalleled in terms of size and the number of exhibits, and that the protection and safety mechanisms have been provided by international specialized companies. Most English people are in support of returning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. We wouldn’t be exaggerating if we said that English people wonder why the Museum’s administration is clinging on to this stone. We will not be silent until we return to Egypt, even if takes a thousand years!