Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 June 2006
Issue No. 797
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The most beautiful of all

After more than eight decades in Germany, will Nefertiti make the trip back to her homeland, Nevine El-Aref asks

Click to view caption
The serenely elegant bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin's Egyptian Museum, where visitors crowd in front of her showcase

When I first saw the serenely elegant bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin's Egyptian Museum, where a stream of visitors crowds in front of her gleaming showcase, I wondered if this fragile beauty, painted so vividly as if it had been completed only yesterday, would ever return to its homeland? This question is being debated by Egyptologists since it was raised recently in a speech by Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) before presidents Hosni Mubarak and Horst Khöler during the official inauguration of the "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" exhibition in Berlin. Hawass asked the German government to offer the famous bust to Egypt on a three-month loan so that it could go on show at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to coincide with the centenary celebrations of the German Archeological Institute in Egypt in November 2006.

In return, Hawass pledged that the SCA would offer another statue on loan to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin for the three months while Nefertiti was in Egypt.

Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that the SCA was willing to provide the Germans with all the guarantees required to assure the return of the bust after the completion of the exhibition. "However that would not affect or contravene Egypt's request to repossess this key item of the country's cultural heritage which it had been deprived of for almost a century," Hawass insisted.

Last year, in his speech at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin held at UNESCO in Paris, Hawass requested the return of five such key items of Egypt's cultural heritage, which he described as the country's "national icons". The objects in question are the Rosetta Stone, which left Egypt in the early 1800s and is now in the British Museum in London, the bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the statue of the Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, the Dendara Temple Zodiac now in the Louvre in Paris, and the bust of Kephren Pyramid builder Ankhaf which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In response to Hawass's statement, the Berlin Museum director told reporters at a specially-convened press conference that Queen Nefertiti did not wish to leave Germany, and all legitimate international agreements admitted Germany's legal possession of the bust.

According to the UNESCO convention, all antiquities taken legally out of Egypt before 1972, cannot be returned to their country of origin.

The bust of Nefertiti was unearthed in 1912 by the German excavator Ludwig Borchardt, and is considered to be the most famous work of art from Ancient Egypt. Hawass says that Borchardt, anxious to preserve the bust for Germany, took advantage of the practice at the time of splitting the spoils of any new discovery between the Egyptian Antiquities Authority and the foreign mission concerned. In those days the law required discoveries to be brought to what was then the Antiquities Service, where a special committee supervised the distribution. Borchardt, who discovered the head at Tel Al-Amarna, did not declare the bust and hid it under less important objects. The Egyptian authorities failed to recognise its beauty and importance. According to Borchardt himself, he did not clean the bust but left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division of spoils. The service, on that occasion, took the limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and gave the head of Queen Nefertiti to the expedition because it was made of gypsum -- or so they thought.

There were those who said that Borchardt had disguised the head, covering it with a layer of gypsum to ensure that the committee would not see its beauty or realise that it was actually made of beautifully painted limestone. Whatever happened, the antiquities authorities did not learn about the bust until it was put on show in Berlin's Egyptian Museum in 1923, and had certainly never expressly agreed that this piece should be included in the German share of the Tel Al-Amarna finds.

Ever since the earliest days of cultural property legislation, the principle has been that the country of origin must expressly permit the export of every single national cultural treasure. With respect to the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian authorities did not give that permission. The Egyptian government later made an attempt to have the bust returned, but Hitler, who had fallen in love with it, refused. He announced that Nefertiti was his beloved possession and would remain in Germany forever.

The exquisite limestone bust has been on display in solitary, stunningly dramatic surroundings at the museum ever since. Three years ago, however, in a highly curious curatorial decision, two Hungarian artists were allowed to fuse the ancient bust onto a contemporary bronze-cast body for a few hours in an attempt to visualise how Nefertiti's body might have looked.

Hawass told the Weekly that if the SCA officially demanded the return of the bust and the Berlin Museum refused to hand it back to Egypt, "all scientific ties between the SCA and the museum will be cut off and Egypt will prohibit the establishment of any future exhibitions to be held in Berlin Museum." In addition he urged other countries affected by similar issues to prepare a list of stolen artefacts considered unique and invaluable to their cultural identity that should be handed over for good or on loan. He asked these countries to prepare their lists in order that they might be submitted in an upcoming meeting to be held in Egypt in August.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni describes Nefertiti's bust as the best-known work of art from Ancient Egypt and one of the greatest art masterpieces in the world. It was carved by the famous ancient Egyptian sculptor Thutmose to be a model which artisans could copy when creating other statues of the Egyptian queen for installation in temples and shrines. The bust depicts Nefertiti with full lips enhanced in a bold red. Although the crystal inlay is missing from her left eye, both eyelids and brows are outlined in black. Her graceful elongated neck balances the tall, flat-top crown which adorns her sleek head. The vibrant colours of her necklace and crown contrast with the yellow-brown of her smooth skin.

Hosni relates that during a meeting in the Italian capital, Rome, he asked for the return of the Nefertiti bust to be exhibited as a unique piece in the planned Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau. He told the Weekly that the Berlin Museum's director, who was among those attending, quickly responded with: "you want to take Nefertiti's bust... so what can we do? Shall we close the [Berlin Egyptian] museum? Visitors come from all over the world to the museum to see the most beautiful woman in the world. They stand for hours and hours before Nefertiti's bust, admiring every single piece of its features. The bust is the most distinguished and unique artefact in the museum."

Some people feel that Egypt's museums are already overstuffed with objects which stand as an obstacle to providing a proper atmosphere to display treasures such as this unique bust. Nevertheless, Hawass insists: "We are the best keeper of these objects because they are part of our cultural heritage. We now have the best museum equipped with the latest technology to guarantee the best preservation of such objects."

This week the director of the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in the United States refused to hand over to Egypt a 3,000-year-old cartonnage mask of a 19th-Dynasty woman called Ka-Nefer Nefer that was stolen and smuggled out of Egypt sometime during the late 1950s. He supported his refusal by stating that Egypt had not sent any documents to prove her ownership of the mask. The decision came in spite of the fact that the SCA had provided the SLAM's director with documentary evidence to the effect that their provenance, which began with the faulty assumption that the mask was given to its excavator as part of a (non-existent) division of finds, was wrong. The evidence shows clearly that the mask was duly registered as the property of the Egyptian government in the 1950s, and was stolen sometime during or after 1959. In response, Egypt has taken legal procedures to recover the mask. Through the prosecutor-general Egypt has filed a lawsuit against the SLAM in a St Louis court. It has also contacted InterPol asking for help in recovering the mask. Hawass has also called on all university students and school pupils in St Louis to boycott the SLAM on the grounds it houses stolen artefacts.

The SLAM's action stands in stark contrast to the decision of the University of Tèbingen in Germany. Under the leadership of Christian Leitz, the university has voluntarily agreed to return to Egypt next month five relief fragments of the royal tomb of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I. The fragments are part of the beautiful frieze that once decorated the walls of Seti I tomb's, which was subject to several thefts during the last century when early travellers to Egypt hacked pieces out of the walls. These pieces are now scattered in collections around the world.

Hosni regards this achievement as embodying the deep and strong diplomatic and cultural ties between Egypt and Germany and between the SCA and the Tèbingen University. A similar gesture was made three years ago by the Michaeol C Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which also returned a royal mummy believed to be that of Ramses I, father of Seti I. The tomb of Seti I, once the most- visited tomb in the Valley of the Kings, is currently closed to the public to protect it from the hazards of unchecked tourism. As part of a conservation and restoration project, the SCA is attempting to collect as many of the scattered relief fragments from the tomb as possible so that they can be restored to their original position.

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