Why I...... will not be attending the British Museum's Rosetta Stone exhibition

July 16, 1999

The simple answer is that I was not invited. Egyptians are unhappy that the Rosetta Stone - discovered in Egypt 200 years ago - is still in England, in the British Museum. The stone is a unique thing - its inscription, in three different scripts, of a decree passed on the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V, provided the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. A few major discoveries should be kept in Egypt. History decided differently.

There are many monuments here so we are not asking for everything abroad to be sent back. Select items should be returned: a few unique pieces would be better off in Egypt. For this, diplomatic talks are required.

I understand the British attitude. Nobody wants to give anything back. To want to return the Rosetta Stone is one thing; to give it back another. If I were British, maybe I would not want to return it either; it is part of your history. It depends whether history can be changed and a few wrongs righted.

We are not jealous of the breakthroughs achieved by European scholars such as Jean-Francois Champollion, the stone's eventual decipherer, or Thomas Young, his British predecessor who broke part of the Rosetta code. In science the fittest succeeds; here there is emulation, not jealousy.

Although the Rosetta Stone is not the most burning question facing Egypt today, all those with a knowledge of culture and Egyptology take an interest. Debate has been rekindled by a new French book, written by Le Monde journalist Robert Sole and Dominique Valbelle, professor of Egyptology at the University of Lille, entitled La Pierre de Rosette.

It is a detailed account of the correspondence between Young and Champollion and gives information about the date of the stone's discovery. The French officer Bouchard, who was in command of restoration work at Fort Julien in Rashid (ancient Rosetta), wrote to Napoleon Bonaparte, then at the head of a French expedition to Egypt, on July 18 1799, saying he expected an attack by British forces massing on the northern Egyptian coast. It was just after this date, during repairs to the fort, that the stone was discovered.

There are plans for another big museum in Giza, in addition to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's city centre. These will not come to fruition in the immediate future. But the Rosetta Stone would be the centrepiece in any large museum of Egyptian antiquities.

Fayza Haykal. Professor of egyptology at the American University in Cairo and president of the International Association of Egyptologists

See page 23. Interview by Peter Shaw-Smith, Cairo

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