I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:
Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?
The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many. London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one. By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses. (Eight remain there).
Cultural imperialism at work. Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important. Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so. Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.
All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin? I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.
Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts. The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this. Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years. (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).
So for me Rome should keep her obelisks. If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better. Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.
And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion. The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article. Reproductions have a long history too.