Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 July 2003
Issue No. 646
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Dig Days

Tampering with Nefertiti

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi HawassIn the last few weeks I have received many e-mails from art historians in the United States expressing outrage at the Berlin Museum's astonishing insolence in briefly fusing the beautiful painted bust of Nefertiti to a modern bronze nude body. One scholar, highly respected in his field, wrote passionately about this "disgusting, ugly and unscientific" synthesis, an affront to one of our most treasured masterpieces.

Writing to the director of UNESCO, the German ambassador to Egypt, and to Mohamed El-Orabi, the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin, I listed our objections to the treatment of Nefertiti, pointing out not only the aesthetic offence but the very real peril. Attaching a limestone bust to a bronze body may have caused it irreparable damage and risked its destruction, had it somehow fallen from the body. To subject a rare masterpiece to such degradation combined with the possibility of harm, is inexcusable.

The Egyptian artist, Thuthmose, who created this work of art in his studio in Tel Al-Amerada, sculpted the bust of the beautiful queen as a trial piece. He did not intend it to have a torso, let alone a nude body sculpted 3,300 years later in a completely different medium. This bust was created in the likeness of the queen in order that her fine features could be reproduced in later works. The sculptor must be turning over in his grave at the thought of the abuse done to his art.

The intricately painted bust of Nefertiti was unearthed in 1912 by a German mission directed by Ludwig Borchardt, discovered inside the studio of the long-deceased artist. The archaeologist brought it, along with other remarkably well-preserved artefacts found during his excavation to the Egyptian Museum.

The beauty of the statue, and its excellent state of preservation, was hidden -- according to some, intentionally -- by a layer of grime, so that its priceless value was not recognised. Pierre Lacau, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service at the time, was deceived. With Lacau's permission, the bust left Egypt for Germany, though it was not exhibited in Berlin for 10 years.

On 26 May, Nefertiti was removed from its display area in Berlin Museum and joined with a nude bronze body made by Hungarian artists, apparently in a bid to draw publicity to the museum. Thus, one of the most wonderful examples of ancient art, and an irreplaceable Egyptian national treasure, was treated with wanton disrespect and subjected to physical danger.

International law permits Egypt to ask for the return of objects taken abroad, and the outroar over the Berlin Museum's fusion prompted Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, to hold a press conference at the Cairo Opera House, announcing Egypt's intent to formally request that the German government return the bust of Nefertiti.

Let me add that we have nothing against the German Egyptologists who are currently active in the field; their work is of the highest quality and care, and we consider them friends who are always welcome to continue their activities in Egypt. But when we see in foreign museums the base of a sarcophagus that everyone recognises as the rightful property of the Egyptian Museum, or notice Pharaonic statues illicitly excavated from Fayoum, tension is introduced into the amicable relationship between Egyptologists and Egypt.

The Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) recently convened, deciding to sever relations with any foreign institution or museum that bought, sold or exhibited artefacts stolen from Egypt. Additionally, German archaeologist Dieter Wildung and his wife are to be denied permission to excavate in Egypt in the future, and moreover, no Egyptian official should cooperate with them in any capacity.

We are sending a letter to remind museums around the world that it is unbending SCA policy that the acquisition of Egyptian artefacts without prior consultation with SCA is unacceptable. It is official policy that Egypt will sever relations with any person, regardless of their affiliation, who is found buying, selling or smuggling Egyptian artefacts.

As for Queen Nefertiti, the humiliation done to her will never be forgotten. How the authorities at the Berlin Museum could acquiesce to the idea of thus degrading the icon of Egyptian identity is inconceivable. Queen Nefertiti's bust should be returned to her home -- Egypt!

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