Will Nefertiti ever come home to Egypt? – Al-Tahrir News Network


More than one hundred years since it was first found in Amarna in Upper Egypt, there is still controversy over the ownership of the bust of Nefertiti.

This unique bust has become a cultural symbol of Germany, as well as of ancient Egypt. It has also been the subject of an intense argument between Egypt and Germany over Egyptian demands for its return.

The incomparable artwork, discovered by German archaeologists in 1912, is the foremost piece in Berlin’s Neues museum, where she attracts many visitors a year.

“She’s a Berliner!” BZ a Berlin tabloid says, “The Egyptians just won’t drop it. But Germany will remain hard – and the beautiful queen will remain in Berlin.”

The sculpture in question is a 3,300-year-old painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten and is believed to have been crafted in 1345 BC by the sculptor Thumose.

It is 47 centimetres tall and weighs about 20 kilograms. The face is completely symmetrical and almost intact, but the left eye lacks the inlay present in the right.  The pupil of the right eye is of inserted quartz with black paint and is fixed with beeswax. The background of the eye-socket is unadorned limestone.

Nefertiti wears her characteristic blue crown with a golden diadem band, that is looped around like horizontal ribbons and joined at the back, and an Uraeus (cobra) over her brow – which is now broken. She also wears a broad collar with a floral pattern on it. The ears have suffered some damage.

The exact function of the bust is unknown, though it is thought that the bust may be a sculptor’s model to be used as a basis for her official portraits, kept in the artist’s workshop.

The German team in Amarna in 1912

The bust was found in December 1912 at Amarna by the German Oriental Company (Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft – DOG), led by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt.It was found in what had been the sculptor Thutmose’s workshop, along with other unfinished busts of Nefertiti.

The bust when it was found in 1912

Borchardt’s diary provides the main written account of the find. He remarks, “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it”.

A 1924 document found in the archives of DOG recalls the 1913 meeting between Ludwig Borchardt and a senior Egyptian official to discuss the division of the archaeological finds of 1912 between Germany and Egypt.

According to the secretary of DOG who was present at the meeting, Borchardt “wanted to save the bust for us”. Borchardt is suspected of having concealed the bust’s real value, although he denied doing so.

Borchardt showed the Egyptian official a photograph of the bust “that didn’t show Nefertiti in her best light”.

The bust was wrapped up in a box when Egypt’s antiques inspector, Gustave Lefebvre came to carry out an inspection.

The document reveals that Borchardt claimed the bust was made of gypsum to mislead the inspector.

DOG blames the negligence of the inspector and points out that the bust was at the top of the exchange list and says the deal was done fairly.

Egypt has argued that the diary of the archaeologist who discovered the bust shows he misled authorities when it was transferred abroad. They maintain that Ludwig Borchardt knew that the limestone bust was of Nefertiti but instead listed it as a ‘painted plaster bust of a princess’.

When it was first found it seems it was whisked out of Egypt to Germany quickly but when Egyptian authorities realised what sort of treasure had been taken from them, they petitioned Berlin for its return.

When the bust of Nefertiti was first exhibited in Berlin in 1923 and it rapidly became one of the favourite attractions of the museum, the Egyptian government officially asked Germany to return the bust of Nefertiti – Germany declined.

A photograph taken in the 1920s

In 1925 Egypt refused to grant permission for any excavations to Germany unless they returned the bust of Nefertiti, or at least agreed to arbitration on the return of this piece – Germany declined.

In 1929 Egypt offered valuable antiquities in exchange for the return of Nefertiti – Germany declined in 1930.

In 1933 German diplomats and politicians wanted to return the bust, but Hitler refused.

In the 1950s Egypt tried to see whether Germany would be inclined to talk about the return of the bust of Nefertiti. These efforts were unsuccessful.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities has campaigned for the object’s return to Egypt and was repeatedly turned down 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 24 January 2011. “I am doing something that I believe in and that should have been done a hundred years ago,” Hawass told reporters. The next day Egypt’s revolution began, and the momentum for Nefertiti’s return has faded in the wake of Egypt’s other, more immediate upheavals.

In the early days of archaeology before rules on the protection of national treasures were introduced, permission to excavate and keep the finds were governed by the principle of ‘first come, first served’. In these early times of the ‘rape of Egypt’ excavation teams took all the finds and brought them to Europe or America.

It seems likely that Borchardt, anxious to preserve the bust of Nefertiti for Germany, either did not reveal the find to the Egyptian antiquities authority at all or hid the bust underneath some unimportant antiquities or the Egyptian officials did not recognize the importance of the bust.

Egypt has argued that the diary of the archaeologist who discovered the bust shows he misled authorities when it was transferred abroad. They maintain that Ludwig Borchardt knew that the limestone bust was of Nefertiti but instead listed it as a ‘painted plaster bust of a princess’.

Whatever might have happened in Egypt in 1913, it seems to be undisputed that the Egyptian antiquities authority did not know of the bust of Nefertiti until it was exhibited in Berlin in 1923, and that they never deliberately agreed that this piece should belong to the legitimate share of the German half of the finds of Tell el-Amarna.

It has been a principle since the early days of cultural property law that every export of national cultural treasures has to be clearly permitted by the country of origin.

Permission was not given for the export of the bust of Nefertiti by the Egyptian antiquities authority.

If pieces of any national heritage have been illegally exported, the state to which the pieces have been imported should return these pieces to the state of origin.

Egypt has never given up any claim but insisted on the return of Nefertiti.

Chancellor Merkel visits Nefertiti

Egypt is asking for the return of a cultural object which was removed to Germany at a time when Egypt was still under control of foreign powers and local authorities, dominated by foreign personnel under dubious circumstances, gave permission for the export of important Egyptian cultural treasures.

The United Nations and UNESCO have constantly encouraged and supported every effort to return cultural objects to the country of origin, formerly governed by colonial powers. The bust of Nefertiti should be returned to Egypt and is supported by the rule of international law that cultural treasures lost in times of occupation or dependence have to be returned to the countries of origin.
Media commentators, politicians and business and cultural leaders in the city insist that Nefertiti has become a Berlin icon and must never be given up.

“The German government’s position on Nefertiti is well known and hasn’t changed,” said Andreas Peschke, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Berlin.

German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann has said that his country’s procurement of the bust was lawful and that Egypt had no grounds to demand its return. Germany has even refused to lend the statue in 2007, citing its fragility.

 Christian Boros, an art collector said giving the bust back “would be like tearing the heart out of Berlin’s chest.”

Monika Grütters, chairwoman of the culture committee in the German parliament, said: “She will remain here. Egypt has no legal claim.”

Germany regards the exquisite painted bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti as one of its national treasures, and Egypt’s dreams that she will return home one day – even on loan – are unlikely to come true.

Source: The Return of the Bust of Nefertiti from Berlin to Cairo by Professor Kurt G. Siehr

Photographs:  Neus museum, Berlin