Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Avenger of the Pharaohs

The dispute reached a new climax last month, when Hawass hosted the "Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage." Representatives of 25 nations traveled to Cairo to form a united front against the old exploiting countries across the Mediterranean.

At the end of the conference, the host presented a list of demands. It included six objects, all of them masterpieces.

Hawass wants the magnificent bust of the vizier Ankhaf from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The British Museum in London is being asked to hand over the Rosetta Stone, which was used to decipher hieroglyphs. The heaviest piece, an astrological relief with a depiction of the zodiac, is in the Louvre.

He has two demands for the Germans. In addition to the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin's New Museum, Hawass is claiming a 4,500-year-old limestone statue on display in Hildesheim near Hanover. It depicts Hemiunu, the architect of the tomb of Cheops.

The last item on his list, currently in Turin, Italy, is an image of Ramses II, carved by an unknown Nile Michelangelo.

Hawass reports that he spent "90 minutes" standing in silence, enchanted, in front of this work of art. This is probably an exaggeration, given his fidgety nature.

He is truly a sight to see, when he opens his eyes wide, dramatically rolls his r's and waves his hands in the air as if, like Moses, he could part the Red Sea. "God gave me the gift to speak in a way that appeals to audiences," he says.

But when it comes to the six masterworks, his magic tongue is not having the desired effect. On the contrary, the MFA in Boston is irritated, while the Louvre and Turin are refusing to give in.

Last December, Berlin's New Museum sent a representative to the Nile with old contract documents. They indicate that "everything was done legally" when the Nefertiti bust was found and sold in 1913. The Berlin museum has been silent on the issue since then.

In fact, the Egyptians' stunning indictment stands on weak ground. Egypt has no legal leverage. Some of the pieces Hawass is claiming arrived in Europe some 200 years ago, at a time when there was no such thing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Convention.

Cleopatra Fever in France and Britain

The Mamluks, a dynasty descended from Turkish slaves, controlled Egypt at the time, and the Sultan of Istanbul also had a hand in governing the country.

When the French arrived with their enormous army, they promptly humiliated their opponents with a victory directly on the field of pyramids at Giza. The occupiers found the Rosetta Stone near a fortress.

The British arrived soon afterwards and snatched away the 760-kilogram treasure from the French. A series of secret coach journeys and chases in bazaars ensued, the details of which are still not entirely clear today.

The locals were somewhat mystified by all the wrangling. Why, they asked themselves, are the foreigners scrambling for an old piece of junk from the days of the pharaohs. They had no interest in their country's glorious past.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, who became vice king of Egypt in 1805, preferred smoking his water pipe in his harem. Meanwhile, his subjects were using mummies as fuel in their ovens.

The British and the French, on the other hand, were already consumed with Cleopatra fever at the time.

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