HomeWeekly lookEurope and its cultural looting of the third world, (II)

Europe and its cultural looting of the third world, (II)

The looting of Egypt.

The starting point of this archaeological exploration and this cultural looting carried out by Europe is the looting of Egypt. In the Middle Ages, Egypt, much mentioned in the Bible, was not forgotten by Europe, and medieval Christians believed that the Nile was one of the 4 rivers of Paradise and that the pyramids had been the granaries of Joseph, the son of Jacob. . Medieval and Renaissance European contact with Egypt was late, eventual, and almost nil. Europe was still weak. Few Europeans had access to that distant and mysterious land, which was also Islamic. It is Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 that changes all that; and it is from there that the already modern and ambitious Europe discovers Egypt and that European colonialists begin to visit it, admire it and plunder it.

The Bonapartist expedition is a great military, colonial and anti-English plan aimed at cutting off England's communication with India, which is combined with a civilizing and investigative project: discovering Egypt. For this Napoleon brings scientists, scholars and artists such as Berthollet, Monge, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Vivant Denon. He defeats the Mamluks, rulers of Egypt, in the Battle of the Pyramids and conquers Cairo. But the English, under the command of Nelson, break the French fleet in the battle of Aboukir. Napoleon returns to France. French scientific exploration continues, collecting information, stealing documents and archaeological pieces. And they also discover the exceptional Rosetta stone. But the loot benefits the English, who prevail over France, keep the Rosetta stone and send it to the British Museum.

In the following decades the French publish the product of their research. It is the gigantic and extraordinary Description of the Egyptian, published between 1808 and 1829. The result, in addition to being cultural, is to initiate French and European interest in Egypt and its monuments and antiquities, with the consequent damage and systematic looting of the country.

The immediate protagonists of this looting are French and English, and then also Italian and German. The main beneficiaries are the Louvre and the British Museum. And also the thieves antique dealers who serve as intermediaries. All of them take advantage of European power, Turkish weakness, Egypt's relative autonomy, the corruption of complacent officials, and the ignorance of the poor and peasants, who collaborate by working for the looters. It is a huge business in which there are interests and cultural achievements from which archeology and history benefit with discoveries, explorations and new knowledge. That is undeniable and it is what the official histories of archeology show and highlight, but the other truth, which is not usually said or if it is mentioned only in passing, is the enormous colonial cost in destruction, looting and theft of pieces, in racism and in the destruction of identity suffered by Egypt. That is what I will show here.

Systematic looting starts with a trio: 2 consuls and an adventurer. The consuls are Bernardino Drovetti and Henry Salt, who buy, steal and accumulate antiquities, the first for France and the second for England, and who pressure the Egyptian government to allow them to loot them. The third is a high-flying, skilled and intelligent adventurer: Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who risks, explores, steals and discovers antiquities for himself, but also works for Salt, the Englishman.

Salt and Drovetti face each other like mobsters who divide the territory to be exploited, but who often invade each other. They divide Egypt lengthwise into 2 halves: east of the Nile all for the French, west all for the English. But the findings often force them to violate their agreements and many times things are decided by blows or shots. For the rest, Drovetti often steals in person, while Salt, on the other hand, does it through Belzoni.

Drovetti, a Piedmontese, former Bonapartist officer, was French consul in Egypt and became a friend of Mehemet Ali, the ruler, which made things easier for him by allowing him, thanks to exploration permits, to travel throughout the country and rob and accumulate will Egyptian antiquities, with no other problem than his rivalry with Salt (and with Belzoni). Drovetti and his employees not only bought antiquities at low prices, but also stole, and blew up temples with explosives to tear out reliefs or decapitate statues.

With his thefts, Drovetti accumulated a first collection of more than a thousand pieces with colossal statues of pharaohs. On sale in 1824, the collection, which the French King Louis XVIII considered too expensive and did not buy, was bought by the King of Piedmont, Charles of Savoy, for the Turin museum. The second, for sale in 1827, was bought by the King of France Charles X for the Louvre, under pressure from Champollion. A third batch, under pressure from the German archaeologist Lepsius, was bought by King Frederick William IV of Prussia and passed to the Berlin museum in 1836. Drovetti left Egypt in 1829 and went to live off his thefts in Turin, where he died in 1852. .

Salt, a painter, portraitist and diplomat, had been the English consul in Egypt since 1816. To confront Drovetti's power and advantages, he allied himself with Belzoni and made him his agent. With Belzoni's help, Salt assembles a first collection of stolen antiquities, including the famous bust of Memnon (the young Ramses II), which he sells to the British Museum. A second, richer and more expensive collection of more than 4.000 pieces was offered to the British Museum in 1826, which rejected it due to its high price. And then Champollion convinces the French King Charles X to buy it for the Louvre. Salt died in 1827 and a third collection of his was auctioned by his widow in 1835 and purchased by the British Museum.

The most interesting of the 3 characters is Belzoni, an extraordinary adventurer whose life is a true adventure novel, some of which he tells himself. There are several biographies of his. One is the recent one by Marco Zatteri, The giant of the Nile. Belzoni was truly a 2 meter giant. He was born in Padua in 1778, he fled due to problems to London, where he married and lived for a time as a Patagonian giant in a circus or carrying 12 men at the same time. He arrived in Egypt in 1815 pretending to be a builder of hydraulic machines, but his did not convince Mehemet Ali. He then devoted himself to exploring the country on his own and finding and stealing antiquities working for the English consul Salt.

In reality, Belzoni was independent, exploring and stealing on his own, negotiating his thefts and doing lucrative deals with Salt, who worked for the British Museum. Over time he became an admirer of Egypt and tried to combine his theft with that admiration. Belzoni accomplished the feat of entering Khafre's pyramid and exploring it. He also stole and transported for sale the great head of Ramesses II, dug up many statues of pharaohs and gods and goddesses, explored and plundered the Valley of the Kings; then, in southern Egypt, he transported huge obelisks up the Nile to take them out via Europe, rescuing with his own effort one that sank in the river. He explored the temples of Edfu, Elephantine and Philoé, 3 of the most beautiful temples in the country. He reached Abu Simbel, being (after Burckhardt and Drovetti) the third European to see his huge statues and visit his temples. He returned to London in 1819 and published a successful book recounting his life and his Egyptian adventures, which made him famous. He returned to Africa in 1823, soon passing to Nigeria, but there he fell ill and died of dysentery in Benin, in December of the same year.

But by then, the archaeological and cultural looting of Egypt was just beginning.

Europe and the cultural looting of the third world (I)

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