DUBAI: In the latest development in the uproar over Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra,” Egyptian lawyers this week filed legal action, demanding that the documentary be banned over the streaming giant’s depiction of Cleopatra as a woman of sub-Saharan origin.
Arab News met Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud Al-Semary, one of the litigators in the lawsuit against Netflix, who accused the platform of “deliberately falsifying history.”
With tensions flaring among archaeologists and legal professionals alike, we take a look at seven other cases where historical artifacts have been hotly contested.
Once described as the most beautiful woman in Berlin, this delicate bust of the Egyptian queen, standing 47 cm high, arrived in the German capital in 1913. It was found in 1912 by a foreign excavation team conducted by German egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt in Tell El-Amarna, an archaeological site in Minya, Egypt. Currently housed in the Neues Museum, the statue was unveiled to the Berlin public in 1924, impressing everyone that saw it. In his diary, Borchardt wrote of the 3,300-year-old limestone bust: “Description is useless, must be seen.” Some reports claim that the bust was illegally shipped out of Egypt. Despite continuous attempts for restitution by Egyptian officials, there are no official plans for its return home.
Originally built in Babylon (modern Iraq), the iconic blue-brick Ishtar Gate is embellished with reliefs of lions and bulls and was named after Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility. It was an integral piece of architecture, representing the eighth gate to enter Babylon. Over the centuries, it has disintegrated and its remaining precious bricks were picked up by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey, who started excavating in 1902. One hundred years later, in 2002, the Iraqi government officially requested its return, but to no avail. Displayed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the Germans reconstructed a part of the gate using the excavated bricks. Other original bricks are scattered around the world in institutions such as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In late 2022, leading Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass made waves in the international press, urging heads of European museums to sign petitions to repatriate important Egyptian artifacts. Among the objects is the 2,200-year-old Rosetta Stone, housed in London’s British Museum since 1802. It is a broken piece of stone slab that has a decree engraved into it — carved in three different scripts. The most notable one is symbol-heavy hieroglyphs, which were famously deciphered by French orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion in the 1820s. The stone came into British possession, following Napoleon’s defeat by Britain in 1815. “The story of the Rosetta Stone is even sadder,” Hawass wrote in an article for Ahram Online, “because the French gave something that they did not own to another country.”
This sculptural object, from 50 BCE, has been extracted from the ceiling of the Hathor temple in Dendera, Egypt, reportedly by using explosives. As its name indicates, it depicts a circular map of the horoscope and certain zodiac installations. In 1799, as part of Napoleon’s consequential expedition to Egypt, French artist Vivant Denon made a sketch of the celestial map. It was later released in a French publication, stunning French scholars with its existence. It was taken out of the country in 1822, bought by King Louis XVIII, and has lived in the Louvre in Paris since 1922. It is one of the ultimate trifecta of ancient Egyptian objects (the others are the Rosetta Stone and Nefertiti Bust) that must be returned to Egypt, according to Hawass.
As a result of colonialism, India is one of the several noted countries that has lost a significant amount of its cultural heritage. Among its displaced objects is an intriguing late-18th century automaton that is based in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It shows a tiger attacking a Western soldier, accompanied with an inbuilt organ; once its keys are touched, suspenseful sounds are heard. It was created for Tipu Sultan, an Indian ruler who used the imagery of powerful tigers as his emblem and was fighting against the British for most of his life. To the Indians, Tipu’s Tiger is a sign of resistance, whereas in the eyes of the British it is a propaganda tool of hatred.
Statue of Hemiunu
Exhibited in the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, this life-size seated man is ancient Egyptian vizier and engineer Hemiunu. He is considered to be the architect of the Great Pyramid of Giza, where the tomb of Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu lies. In 1912, the statue was found in Hemiunu’s tomb, known as “mastaba,” by German archaeologist Hermann Junker. It is something of an irony that for decades the Egyptian public could not view the builder responsible for the country’s most famous monument.
Gilgamesh Dream Tablet
In 2021, Iraqi officials celebrated a momentuous occasion when this small 3,600-year-old tablet was repatriated to its homeland as a result of diplomacy efforts between Iraq and the US. It was reportedly smuggled out of a museum in Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. It eventually found its way to the collection of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The clay tablet, studded with ancient cuneiform writing, has a Sumerian poem from the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered by experts as one of the oldest surviving literary works. Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, said of this achievement: “The authorities here in the United States and in Iraq are allowing the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history.”