March 6, 2013
The Neferti bust is one of the most high profile artefacts that Egypt is requesting the return of. Germany’s latest actions only draw attention to this case though, by organising a special exhibition to commemorate the fact that it is 100 years since they acquired the artefact.
The Bust of Nefertiti: Remembering Ancient Egypt’s Famous Queen
By Ishaan Tharoor
Dec. 06, 2012
On a sunny afternoon on Dec. 6, 1912, an Egyptian worker at a dig along the banks of the Nile came across what may be the most striking find in the history of Egyptology. Ludwig Borchardt, the German archaeologist in charge of the excavation, scribbled excitedly in his diary a century ago: “The tools were put aside, and the hands were now used … It took a considerable amount of time until the whole piece was completely freed from all the dirt and rubble.” What emerged was a 3,300-year-old limestone bust of an ancient queen, colored with a gypsum lacquer. A flat-topped crown perched above a finely defined brow. Her cheekbones were high, nose distinguished. A thin, elegant neck — some now describe it “swanlike” — rose from the bust’s base. “We held the most lively piece of Egyptian art in our hands,” wrote Borchardt.
The bust is of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt and wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned in the 14th century B.C. A hundred years after Nefertiti’s bust was lifted out of the ground at Amarna, some 480 km south of Cairo, it remains one of the most iconic figures of Egyptian antiquity, far smaller than the pyramids or the Sphinx, but no less globally resonant. The bust adorns souvenir schlock throughout Egypt and history schoolbooks worldwide. When it went on display at a museum in Berlin in the 1920s, it was almost immediately held up as a symbol of universal, timeless beauty. That’s not surprising. Nefertiti’s name means “the beautiful one has come.”
But she’s much more than a pretty face. The queen and the bust that made her famous in our time are both fascinating stories — with endings that are still shrouded in uncertainty. Little is known of Nefertiti’s origins save that she was born outside the royal family, the daughter of the pharaoh’s vizier. She married Amenhotep IV, who inherited a vast, rich empire from his father Amenhotep III that stretched from the Nubian wastes to the river lands of Syria. Theirs was a moment of relative stability, with trade, not conquest, filling Egypt’s coffers.
Yet Nefertiti and her husband were for centuries virtually wiped off the historical record; it’s only once archaeologists in the early 20th century started excavations of their capital complex at Amarna that they loomed out of the dark of the past. The reason, it seems, was a move taken by Nefertiti’s husband to abandon the cults of certain gods — and the bloated, powerful priesthoods that surrounded them — in favor of worship of just one abstracted figure: Aten, a god represented as a sun disk. Amenhotep IV assumed the name Akhenaten, or “one devoted to Aten,” and he and Nefertiti arguably became the world’s first monotheists. There are other moments in history when a royal takes such a daring ideological turn — Byzantine Emperor Julian forsook Christianity for Greek polytheism and philosophy; Mogul Emperor Akbar embraced the din-e-ilahi, a cosmological religion that melded Hinduism and Islam — but Akhenaten stands out for seeming so uncharacteristically modern in such an ancient moment. That modernity is reinforced by the outsize role played by Nefertiti. Friezes, steles and inscriptions all make clear that she was firmly at Akhenaten’s side, and sometimes even standing before him. In one image found on blocks at the site of Hermopolis, Nefertiti is cast in the classic role of a male conqueror, grabbing her enemies and captives by the hair while smiting them with a mace.
Historians and archaeologists now puzzle over whether she ruled on in the wake of her husband’s death. But evidence is spotty. Much of the artwork and symbolism of their rule was erased by reactionary successors who restored polytheistic worship to the court. Unlike many ancient Egyptian royals, archaeologists have yet to identify their mummies, though speculation has been rife in recent years.
Nefertiti’s bust, then, remains the most vivid artifact from their reign. It was found by Borchardt’s excavation in the studio of the court sculptor Thutmose and, it seems, whisked out of the country to Germany swiftly thereafter. That appropriation was in theory legal — the Europeans who dominated Egypt at the time as a colonial protectorate also ran the administration of its antiquities. When Egyptian authorities realized what sort of treasure had been taken from them, they petitioned Berlin for its return. Hitler’s Nazi government, which came to power in 1933, planned to return it to Egypt’s King Fuad until Hitler had a change of heart. “Do you know what I’m going to do one day? I’m going to build a new Egyptian museum in Berlin,” Hitler wrote in a letter to the Egyptians. “I dream of it. Inside I will build a chamber, crowned by a large dome. In the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti will be enthroned. I will never relinquish the head of the queen.”
This particular architectural fancy of Hitler didn’t come to pass, and Nefertiti’s bust found itself hidden in a salt mine for much of World War II. It’s now on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. But for years, it hasn’t rest easy. Like the Elgin Marbles, the bust has become one of the totemic objects of a global conversation on culture and who owns it. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s outspoken, controversial antiquarian in chief, campaigned in recent years for the object’s return to Egypt and was repeatedly turned aside by the Germans, who insist that the bust is both legally in their possession and in too fragile a state to be moved. His last demand was issued on Jan. 24, 2011: “I am doing something that I believe in and that should have been done a hundred years ago,” Hawass told reporters. A day later, Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution kicked off, and Hawass’s boss, President Hosni Mubarak, was soon toppled. Hawass himself has since lost his government perch, and the momentum for Nefertiti’s return has faded in the wake of Egypt’s other, far more immediate upheavals.
Nefertiti’s bust sits alone in Berlin, the centerpiece of an exhibition now commemorating its discovery. Defenders of global museums insist that no one nation has an exclusive right over the legacy of the past. “There are artworks that belong to our collective consciousness — Nefertiti is such a work,” said German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, at the exhibit’s opening. Looking at Nefertiti’s serene face — Borchardt claimed it was “the epitome of tranquility and harmony” — one wonders what she would have thought.
The Local (Germany)
Row continues: Nefertiti 100 yrs in German hands
Published: 6 Dec 12 06:56 CET
Berlin opens a major new exhibition on Thursday celebrating the centenary of the discovery of the 3,400-year-old fabled bust of Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti, while a feud with Cairo over who owns it rages on.
The show at the city’s New Museum showcases its most famous treasure – often said to be the most priceless depiction of the female visage after the Mona Lisa – and other booty carted home by German archaeologists after the December 6, 1912 find.
These include never-before-seen jewels of the Amarna period unearthed at the time by Ludwig Borchardt, and loans from institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris and London’s British Museum.
“There are artworks that belong to our collective consciousness – Nefertiti is such a work,” German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann told reporters at a preview of the show entitled “In the Light of Amarna”.
Nefertiti, renowned as one of history’s great beauties, was the powerful wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton, remembered for having converted his kingdom to monotheism with the worship of one sun god, Aton.
The sculpture, so fragile and valuable it is barred from being lent out, is the biggest draw at the museum, which was reopened in 2009 after a major restoration by British star architect David Chipperfield and now draws about a million visitors a year.
The limestone and plaster bust, dramatically displayed at the end of a long corridor under a dim spotlight, is stunning for its almond-shaped eyes – the right of which is missing the iris, aquiline nose, high cheekbones, sensuous lips and lofty blue crown with a band of red, grey and gold.
Its chipped ears are, remarkably, the only significant sign of damage exacted over the centuries.
The sculpture is at the top of a “wish list” of five major artifacts exhibited abroad that Egypt wants returned.
The campaign to get it back, which was spearheaded by former antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, has waned since the Arab Spring as Egypt grapples with more existential issues.
But officials in Berlin suggested that the dispute was rumbling on behind the scenes, despite what it said were documents proving the bust was bought legally by the former Prussian state.
“To head off any questions, let me say there is no doubt that Nefertiti rightfully belongs to the Berlin state cultural heritage foundation,” Neumann said.
He said endlessly competing ownership claims would only lead to “chaos” and insisted that Berlin took seriously its responsibility to preserve the bust for eternity.
“The real question of to whom Nefertiti belongs is easily answered – to us all,” he said.
The director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, housed in the New Museum, Friederike Seyfried, said the Arab Spring’s upheaval had prevented scholarly cooperation with Egypt on the show and said she wished this could resume soon.
“I hope the political situation stabilises there and doesn’t go in a direction we would regret,” she said.
Amarna refers to the ruins of an ancient city founded by Akhenaton, where Borchardt and his team excavated more than 7,000 archaeological objects, about 5,500 of which made their way to Berlin.
The Berlin show will run until April 13 and features more than 1,000 of these objects including jewellery, ceramics and floor tiles from the royal palace featuring elaborate floral garlands.
A bust of Akhenaton which was restored especially for the exhibition is another keenly awaited highlight.
The show covers the art of the era, including discoveries from the sculpture workshop of Thutmose who is believed to have crafted Nefertiti, as well as the daily life of Amarna’s citizens.
And it sheds new light on the work of James Simon, Borchardt’s Jewish benefactor, whose contributions were largely eliminated from the historical record under the Nazis.
- Berlin’s Egyptian Museum celebrates centenary of Nefertiti bust discovery : September 12, 2012
- Egypt to make formal request for return of Nefertiti bust : January 1, 2010
- Egypt to hold talks over Nefertiti bust : December 13, 2009
- Egypt’s request for the Nefertiti Bust return rebuffed : February 25, 2011
- Egypt repeats request for return of Nefertiti bust from Germany : February 18, 2011
- Egypt makes new efforts to secure return of Nefertiti Bust : December 22, 2009
- Did the Germans cheat to get hold of the Nefertiti bust? : February 13, 2009
- Will Nefertiti bust stay in Berlin? : January 5, 2010