Thursday, December 24, 2009

Changing the Past

It has been the plot of more than one novel or motion picture that someone travels back in time in order to change the course of history. Getting back there is, of course, the trick but Egypt is attempting to circumvent such technicalities by demanding that certain masterpieces of ancient art be returned by the foreign museums which now house them. I am all for the return of stolen art but some of the artifacts have been out of Egypt for a very long time. They were taken because the Egyptian government was too weak or apathetic at the time to prevent their removal. Once, Egypt ruled the East, had an empire. The great warrior pharaohs exploited their conquered lands--gold from the territories to the south, slaves and other valuables from the east. Like every conquering nation, the ancient Egyptians operated on the philosophies of "might makes right" or "if you can't stop us you must serve us".

But the day came when the Egyptians became the conquered and, despite efforts to throw off the yoke of various stronger nations, fell into a lengthy state of decline. Egypt lost her own language and finally no one in the land could read a graphic system that had lasted for thousands of years. The Egyptian language became a liturgical one--like Latin--and even the majority of Egyptian Christians did not really comprehend it. Arabic had taken the place of Egyptian. The people of Egypt lived amid the ruins of their splendid past but did not study or treasure it--unless it really was their idea of treasure, in the form of gold. And so, in more modern times, impoverished Egypt became overrun by European imperialists, some among them having an interest in history and antiquities. The latter were removed or sold by the Egyptians, themselves, and there was nothing to prevent the process. By the time of the British occupation, it was difficult to control even the natives who looted the tombs of the ancients--much less the foreigners. Egypt had become powerless and backward, although it had once been considered the seat of wisdom and every science that existed. The Europeans who served wisdom made a point of studying what there was to be found in Egypt. They figured out how to decode the old writing and started a discipline they called "Egyptology". This was their domain for some decades and the Egyptians did not join it until they were able to form their own government again. For the most part, the Egyptians learned every modern science from other nations--even *in* other lands. At the start of the 20th Century, the universities of Egypt were staffed by foreigners.

Now the situation is different, of course. Egypt is, if not exactly mighty, at least autonomous. It is understandable that the defeated past with foreign masters would like to be forgotten--but the Egyptians seem to want to undo it. They are now pleading "might makes wrong" and demanding the former imperialists return what was taken or even purchased--and in some cases claiming they were removed illegally--having drawn up a list of what they consider masterworks or just works of fame or importance. The Egyptians hold the trump card. They know they can prevent foreign nationals from doing research in Egypt now. But who really wins at this game? Probably, the main loser will be the science of archaeology.

Somehow, art manages to become dispersed one way or another. It is coveted by those who appreciate it and the talent that enabled its creation--or simply the monetary worth that greatness sometimes acquires. It has always been bought, sold, plundered, taken away. Old things, if not destroyed, can eventually end up at the opposite side of the world from their place of creation. Everything cannot revert to its place of origin, no matter how unique or common. Should the Mona Lisa go back to the homeland of its artist? Should every Spanish coin found in every shipwreck be returned to Spain? Any time traveler can tell you that history cannot be altered. And any list of booty drawn up by the scribes of the pharaohs of Egypt can inform that Egypt is not just in the position of an innocent victim. Some of those lists have survived. They were meant to. They were carved in stone--so that people would know the facts forever. To the victor go the spoils. It is not necessarily ethical, but that's how it's always been. When people stop trying to dominate one another, things of beauty have a better chance of remaining where they were made. It happens, also, in the way of international relations, that a former enemy becomes an ally or at least someone who is willing to peacefully co-exist. Dominators lose their dominion and become harmlessly benevolent. To make enemies of them again over a lifeless object makes scant sense--unless it really was obtained by deception. One need not necessarily become a bully just because one can.

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