Luxor's Avenue of Sphinxes parade sparks debate over return of obelisk from France

A gift from an Ottoman ruler about 200 years ago deprived Egyptians of part of their heritage

Social media users were quick to notice an obelisk missing from Luxor. It is in Paris. AFP

Luxor’s return to the archaeological spotlight with the reopening of the Avenue of Sphinxes last week rekindled a debate about Egyptian treasures in Europe.

As Egyptians watched the spectacle, where hundreds of performers dressed in period costume paraded along the 3,400-year-old road that links two of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions, some noticed an omission.

Conspicuous by its absence was a 24-metre obelisk – one of a pair dating to the reign of Ramses II that was erected at the entrance to the Luxor temple but now stands in Paris.

“Dear France, we will be grateful to you if you bring back our obelisk, as it’s much needed now for a perfect symmetry in Luxor. It's our heritage,” wrote one Egyptian on Facebook.

Replies flew as that post went viral.

“Bring it back from Paris,” another read. “Shame! Our looted obelisk adorns a public square in France,” a third said.

The Luxor obelisk in Paris. Reuters

But unlike many ancient treasures that made their way to Europe from across the ancient world, the obelisk was not stolen.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ottoman ruler of Egypt, gave both obelisks to France as a gift in the early 19th century.

The first of the two monuments, carved from pink granite and weighing 230 tonnes, was transported in a single piece to the French capital on a specially-designed barge that could sail the Nile, cross the Mediterranean and travel the Seine.

The voyage took more than two years, and the ship arrived in France on December 23, 1833. It was erected three years later, in the reign of King Louis-Phillipe, at the centre of Place de la Concorde, one of the five royal squares of the French capital.

The logistical challenge was accepted by Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, who first decoded ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and led an expedition to Egypt in the early 1800s.

The cost of moving the obelisk was estimated at 2.5 million Francs, about $19 million today. The expense is believed to be why the second obelisk never followed.

The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities said the obelisk and other ancient objects, including the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, were wrongfully removed from Egypt.

In most cases, these treasures were taken long before national or international laws safeguarding them came into being.

It was not until 1972 that the General Conference of Unesco adopted the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

In 1983, Egypt passed a law which made all antiquities the property of the state and outlawed their sale or removal from the country in an effort to safeguard its national heritage.

The Luxor Obelisk stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. AFP

Inas El Shafei, a former inspector at the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, said it was unlikely that anything that left the country before these rules came into force could be recovered.

Many of Egypt's greatest treasures now reside in institutions like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris.

“These countries won’t give up [the treasures] without a robust legal fight,” she said.

In 1981, however, French president Francois Mitterand renounced possession of the second obelisk, effectively giving it back to Egypt. As yet there has been no campaign to return it.

Ms El Shafei, who holds a PhD in Egyptian theology from Tanta University in Gharbia, said that superstition was one of the reasons why so much of ancient Egypt’s treasure was allowed to leave.

“There was so much ignorance and so many myths going around that these pharaonic artefacts like statues and obelisks are haram or forbidden,” she said.

Many Egyptians, she said, used to refer to ancient artefacts like the Luxor obelisks, as well as other pharaonic statues, as Nusub El Shaytan – statues of the devil.

“They were also scared by the myth of the pharaohs’ curse. This played well into the hands of foreign excavators and orientalists like Champollion, who was not known in history books for vandalism but demonstrated a great sense of Egyptomania,” she said, referring to the craze for ancient Egypt that swept Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

The Avenue of Sphinxes Parade - in pictures

Updated: November 30th 2021, 2:30 AM