September 12, 2007

Nefertiti loan request rejection by Germany

Posted at 1:50 pm in Similar cases

Arguments between Egypt & Germany over the bust of Nefertiti continue, as Germany rejects Egypts requests for a loan of the sculpture. Zahi Hawass’s handling of the situation is predictable.

Bloomberg News

Queen Nefertiti Boils Cairo Blood as Germans Reject Bust Loan
By Abeer Allam
Sept. 11 (Bloomberg)

In 1912, Ludwig Borchardt discovered a 3,400-year-old statue of Nefertiti, a queen of ancient Egypt, among ruins on the eastern bank of the Nile.

The German archaeologist shipped it home to Berlin, where it became the centerpiece of the antiquities collection at the Altes Museum. Now the blue, gold and terracotta bust is the focus of an international tug of war. After Germany refused to lend the statue to Egypt for a three-month exhibition, Egyptian officials said they may demand the statue be returned permanently.

“They were taken out by imperialism,” says Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. “Well, the days of imperialism are over.”

Egypt’s complaint echoes those of Italy and Greece, which are seeking to recover antiquities they say were illegally taken by foreign archaeologists. For Egyptians, the dispute is about more than just artifacts. People in Cairo say the German attitude underscores a lack of respect for Egyptian culture.

Nefertiti has become a cause celebre among Egypt’s 75 million people, with talk-shows and newspaper columns dedicated to regaining the bust.

“Those people make my blood boil,” says Ahmed Nabil, a 29- year-old hotel clerk. “I already have hypertension and they made it worse. Do they think we’re a bunch of thieves? They stole her, not us.”

Egypt first requested Nefertiti’s return in 1925. Germany agreed to hand it over in 1935 before Adolf Hitler decided it should stay put. It has remained in Germany ever since.

Fit to Travel?

The Egyptian government wants to borrow Nefertiti for three months so it can be displayed at the opening of the $550 million Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramids.

In April, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said there were “serious conservational and restorative concerns” about transporting the bust of Nefertiti. He stressed that his country’s procurement of the work was lawful and said Egypt had no grounds to demand its return.

That position hasn’t changed after months of lobbying by the Egyptians. “It’s up to the owner of a work of art to decide whether it is fit to travel or not,” says Mechtild Kronenberg, director of the German Museums Association.

Hawass, who has recovered about 4,000 artifacts from countries including Spain, France and Mexico since 2002, is also asking the British Museum to lend the Rosetta Stone to Egypt.

Royal `Gift’

The stone, which provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, was discovered in Egypt in 1799. It is on display in London as a “Gift of George III,” according to the museum’s Web site, referring to the British king at the time.

The British Museum’s Board of Trustees is reviewing the request, says spokeswoman Hannah Boulton.

Egypt asked to borrow the works as part of a project to fill 19 new museums, of which the Grand Egyptian Museum will be the largest. The museum is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2012.

The country may need that long to bring Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone back to Cairo, even temporarily.

It took two years of lobbying by Italy before the Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned 40 relics the Egyptian government said were looted.

Greece has been trying to retrieve the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum for 21 years. The large marble sculptures were removed from the Parthenon two centuries ago by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Greece at the time.

Prepared to Fight

In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, adopted a convention that binds member nations to help restore stolen or illegally exported artifacts when another member requests it.

The convention backs Egypt’s claim, says Hawass, who alleges the bust was smuggled out of the country.

“If they won’t loan them, we would recover them permanently,” he says.

Hawass also threatened to impose a “cultural embargo” on museums that rebuff his requests. For example, Egypt could bar archaeologists associated with those museums from working in the country or stop lending artifacts to them.

Some experts question Egypt’s right to antiquities discovered before 1983, when the government passed a law stipulating that all artifacts belong to the state.

“Certainly there is no legal claim for the Rosetta Stone because it was taken out centuries ago,” says Salima Ikram, a professor of archaeology at the American University in Cairo. “For Nefertiti, maybe.”


El Beet Betak, a popular talk-show, has dedicated at least a dozen episodes to the issue.

“How dare they even dispute this?” Mona El-Sharqawi, host of the nationally televised program, said of the Germans during one recent show. “We are Nefertiti’s descendants. She should be with us.”

Letters and columns in newspapers such as Al-Gomhuria have compared the plundering of Egyptian artifacts to the U.S.-led military occupation of Iraq, a fellow Muslim country.

Abeer Ali, 40, a nutritionist in Cairo, says the dispute over Nefertiti reinforces her view that the U.S. and Europe don’t respect Arabs.

“The West wants to deprive us of anything we are proud of,” Ali says at a restaurant, while watching an interview with Hawass. “They plunder the Iraqi oil and now they plunder our heritage.”

Last Updated: September 10, 2007 20:13 EDT

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