It happened today - July 15, 2016
Not that I’m trying to be snarky. But July 15 is the date a French soldier discovered the famous Rosetta stone in 1799 during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, after which it was captured by the British and whisked out of Egypt to be displayed near the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum far from home.
Mind you, if I were being snarky it wouldn’t be at the expense of the British nor even, in this respect at least, the French. Napoleon was up to no good in Egypt as generally. But if his army hadn’t been in Egypt, rebuilding the Ottoman fort renamed Fort Julien, this priceless key to unlocking ancient Egyptian inscriptions found by one of the dictator’s aides-de-camp Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard would probably never have been recovered but instead smashed into insignificant fragments.
The Ottomans, after all, had used it as a piece of rubble in a low, squat fortress constructed under Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa'it Bay, whose reputation as a patron of the arts didn’t prevent him from building another fortress on the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, destroying what was left of it forever. For that matter, if the British hadn’t grabbed it, preserved it and displayed it, who knows what might have become of it?
I feel much the same way about the Elgin Marbles. The Greeks keep demanding them back. But my answer is if you liked them so much, why didn’t you take better care of them? Admittedly they were in the hands of the Ottoman Turks whose idea of preserving other people’s classical heritage was “big gunpowder explosion due to carelessness in 1687 in priceless historical building turned into of all things a mosque then an ammunition dump”. But if it weren’t for the British, we wouldn’t have what is left of the Marbles at all; between 1800 and the present they would certainly have perished ignominiously.
The same is true of the Rosetta Stone. It is true that other such bilingual or even trilingual steles have been found since, including two fragmentary copies of the Rosetta Stone itself. But it was the first, and the key to deciphering those ancient hieroglyphs and inspiring much interest in preserving the monuments and artefacts on which they were inscribed or written.
So yap all you want about imperialism and demand your heritage back. But do find time to admit that without imperialism much of your heritage wouldn’t be sufficiently intact for you to demand it back including, in this case, a great deal of what we know about ancient Egypt.