Egypt Asking Foreign Museums to Loan Back Ancient Artifacts

Egypt said Sunday it would ask museums abroad to temporarily send back some its most precious artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, to be put on display here.

The country's chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, said the Foreign Ministry would send letters this week to France, Germany, the United States and Great Britain requesting that the ancient artifacts be loaned temporarily to Egypt.

Hawass has previously demanded that many of the artifacts be returned permanently to Egypt, claiming some of them were taken illegally.

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This time, the country is requesting museums loan the artifacts so they can be temporarily exhibited either at the 2011 opening of the Egyptian Museum, near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, or the Atum museum, which is set to open in the Nile Delta city of Meniya in 2010, the Supreme Council of Antiquities said in a statement.

Egypt said it would request the loans from the British Museum, Paris' Louvre, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and two German museums.

The Rosetta Stone, a 1,680 pound slab of black basalt with a triple inscription, was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799 in the Nile Delta town of Rashid — known as Rosetta to the English — but handed to the English two years later after the French surrendered in Egypt. It has been in the British Museum since 1802.

The British Museum has been willing to loan artifacts if the country asking for the loan recognizes the museum's legal ownership of the items. But in 2003, the museum said in a statement "to loan such pieces would result in our disappointing the 5 million or so visitors who come to the museum every year."

British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton said Sunday that the museum had "never received a written request to loan the Rosetta Stone."

"If one was put in, we would consider it," she said.

Germany has been balking at requests to loan the 3,000-year-old bust of Nefertiti from Berlin's Egyptian Museum.

Earlier this month, Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister for culture, said the Nefertiti would not be made available for loan, due to its very fragile state.

The other artifacts Hawass would like to see put on display in Egypt are the Zodiac ceiling painting from the Dendera Temple, now housed in the Louvre; the statute of Hemiunu — the nephew and vizier of Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great pyramid — in Germany's Roemer-Pelizaeu museum; and the bust of Anchhaf, builder of the Chephren Pyramid, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.