EN · FR · DE

Queen of Egypt's heart

Will the supreme artefact of the Pharaonic era, the magnificent bust of Queen Nefertiti, ever be allowed to visit Egypt? Jill Kamil looks at the prospects of a homecoming.

The serenely beautiful likeness of Queen Nefertiti -- whose name literally means "a beautiful woman has arrived" -- has been the most celebrated exhibit in Berlin's Altes Museum. Half a million visitors a year marvel at her delicate features, long graceful neck, and the vibrant colours of her necklace and tall, flat-top crown, which contrast with the sepia tone of her smooth skin. Her face is sculpted to perfection, the eyelids and brows outlined in black.

She is beautiful, striking, stunning. No adjectives are suffice to describe Nefertiti's sublime countenance. And what is more the bust, which dates to the 14th century BC, is in pristine condition -- apart, that is, from two flaws. A piece of her left ear is broken, and the inlay in her left eye is missing.

Sometimes known as the Berlin Bust, this magnificently carved and painted statue was found at Tel Al-Amarna in the workshop of Tuthmose, the famed sculptor of the court of Akhenaten (1375-1350 BC). This was the Pharaoh who introduced a brief era of sun-worship to the exclusion of all other gods, choosing for his capital the site of Akhet-Aten, "The Horizon of Aten", on the east bank of the Nile opposite the modern village of Deir Mawas. Here, in a large crescent- shaped plain more than four kilometres long and about 800 metres broad, a German mission was excavating in 1913 under the direction of Ludwig Borchardt.

Inside the abandoned studio of Tuthmose, the artist who bore the title Master of Works, they found the painted bust of Nefertiti along with other objects including a polychrome bust of her (now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), and a number of plaster casts that have been identified as representing various members of the royal family and their entourage. Among them were Akhenaten's other wife, Kiya, his late father Amenhotep III, and his successor Ay.

Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, consort of her country's ruler, was a high-profile personage who, as later research has revealed, appeared nearly twice as often in reliefs as her husband during the first five years of Akhenaten's reign. She continued to appear in reliefs even when, in the latter years of his reign, she disappeared from the scene. She took up residence in Akhet-Aten in the 14th year of Akhenaten's rein, and fragments of slabs in relief found in several homes in the city show the figures of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children making offerings to the Aten.

According to the excavation regulations of the Antiquities Service, which was under French control until the 1952 Revolution, objects sans pareil (i.e. without equal, or unique) would be retained in Egypt as part of the national collection, and the excavator was entitled to half of whatever remained provided that the result of his work was published within two years. The excavation was well documented by Borchardt but no mention was made of the painted bust of Nefertiti, which was taken out of the country in unclear circumstances. Since first put on display in 1923, eleven years after its discovery, efforts have been made to have the masterpiece returned to Egypt. Her features have appeared on postcards, in newspaper and magazine articles, and each year thousands of visitors have flocked to Berlin to admire the bust of the queen renowned as one of history's great beauties, while efforts to have her returned to Egypt have been in vain.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, claims that the piece was taken out of the country illegally and should be returned, but so far he has failed to make headway with his argument. Germany claims that the bust of Nefertiti has become an integral part of their cultural identity and they are not prepared to part with it. Hawass disagrees. "She is our Egyptian Queen, a part of our cultural heritage, and belongs here in Egypt," he insists. He wants it to be put on display at the new Museum of National Heritage at Giza when the museum is completed and ready for its official opening.

When Swiss national Henri Stierlin -- who has reputedly studied the piece for 25 years -- claimed that the bust was a fake, Hawass retorted that Stierlin was no art historian. "I strongly refute a number of details cited in his argument over the age of the bust, its design and original condition," he says. The Berlin museum, firmly resisting all attempts at repatriation, also strongly rejects the suggestion that it might be a fake and argues that radiological tests prove the bust is more than 3,000 years old.

Nefertiti's bust has recently made headlines, in newspapers, magazines, and by bloggers on the Internet. BBC News, under the title "German guile won Queen Nefertiti..." described how "newly- published documents show how a German archaeologist used trickery to smuggle home a fabulous sculpture of the Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti." Agence France-Press confidently reported that the famed bust was a 20th-century copy. And Dawn Martinez-Byrne, in a blog, posed several questions that caught my attention because I had heard many of them before -- voiced by Egyptian post- revolutionary intellectuals.

Martinez-Byrne pointed out that the art history world is no stranger to controversy and forgery, and posed the question of how this one piece of sculpture survived unscathed. "If it were on a shelf, the fall from the shelf should have damaged it more than the somewhat superficial damage we see," she wrote. "And why," she asked, "out of all the pieces retrieved from the shop, is this one so elaborately painted and finished? Didn't anyone else merit such a bust? Even allowing for all of Akhenaten's works of art to be smashed, why wasn't this one smashed as well?"

Way back in the 1950s when I first came to Egypt, questions such as these were posed by several Egyptians, including my husband Nabih Kamil, who then worked at the Ministry of Information, Egyptologist Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr; and several journalists who observed that when a sculptured head toppled it tended to damage the projecting parts of the face, particularly the nose and ears. In the case of Nefertiti, however, her nose is intact, and one ear only is damaged, and that only slightly. They commented, too, on the non-existent eye, and since no one had seen the bust other than in photographs, they queried whether it was a quartz-inlay or a painted eye that was missing, and that, in either case the eye socket looked distinctly "artificial". More recently it has been suggested that the bust was never intended for display, but as a model used by Tuthmose, and that the left eye was never fashioned because it would not be necessary for profiles.

Martinez-Byrne also commented on the collar on the bust. She wrote that the top row of collar elements was horizontal, not vertical, and added, "I can't think of any other place in Egyptian archaeology where the rows of collars are ever anything but vertical. If anyone can point me to some actual jewelry that is, or a good painting, please do so!"

Personally, I do not doubt the authenticity of the Nefertiti bust and sincerely hope that it will at least be loaned to Egypt for temporary display at the opening of the National Museum at the Pyramids. For one thing I would welcome a closer look at the one-eyed queen. But it is unlikely to happen. The German government, who earlier refused to give it back to Egypt claiming it was "German property", now says it is too delicate to be moved.

"It is an enormous risk to let her travel," says Dietrich Wildung, the Altes Museum's curator. And the German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, supporting the stand of museum officials, says: "We could never be certain that she would arrive in good health. The bust, which is made of limestone and thick layers of plaster, is very sensitive to vibration, shock, and any change of temperature, and is too fragile to travel.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserve

back to top