Bringing our cultural treasures home

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Bringing our cultural treasures home


The massive needle-shaped stone monuments known as the Egyptian obelisks are still a mystery, but it is widely believed that they are symbols of fertility. In most civilizations, the sky is often represented as male while the earth is female. In Greek mythology, Uranus was the god of the sky and Gaia was the goddess of the earth. But in ancient Egypt, Geb was the god of the Earth, and his wife Nut was the goddess of the sky. The obelisks are said to be phalluses constructed to point up at the sky for Nut.

Although the obelisks were built in Egypt, most obelisks are found not in Egypt but in Italy. There are 29 obelisks remaining around the world, and nine of them are in Egypt. Italy has 11. Roman emperors had admired the majestic beauty of the obelisks when they conquered Egypt and took them to Italy. That was over 2,000 years ago. Italians’ infatuation with obelisks returned in the 20th century. When Italy won the second Italo-Abyssinian War, Benito Mussolini looted the Obelisk of Axum.

Ethiopia tried to have the obelisk returned and launched a signature campaign. But Italy made excuses, citing logistics. As international pressure mounted, Italy returned the obelisk in 2005 after 67 years.

The obelisk’s return was made possible by a worldwide campaign urging the return of looted cultural properties sparked by a conflict over the Elgin Marbles. Considered an artistic masterpiece rivaling the “Mona Lisa,” the Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures on the Parthenon. The earl of Elgin, who was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had taken the sculptures to England, and they are now displayed in the British Museum.

The campaign to bring the Elgin Marbles back to Greece has attracted global attention thanks to Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri. Mercouri was an acclaimed actress, and in 1962 she saw the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum while shooting the film “Phaedra.” She pledged that she would bring the masterpiece back home. She pursued a political career, devoting her energy to its return.

On April 14, France returned the Oegyujanggak documents, and the Joseon Dynasty royal protocols are to be returned from Japan soon. That’s good, but there still are over 140,000 Korean cultural assets abroad. Just as with Ethiopia, we should remember that sincere and persistent effort is the best way to bring our treasures home.

*The writer is a senior international affairs reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nam Jeong-ho
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