Dust up over Nefertiti

May 8, 2007 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Nefertiti imageBeing a closet Egyptologist and a die-hard fan of Zahi Hawass, I had to weigh into this fracas. Zahi Hawass is head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt – you might have seen him on the History Channel talking passionately about Egypt’s history. He’s quite a character and brings Ancient Egypt back to life. Nefertiti of course was the glamorous Queen of Egypt in the 14th Century BC and was said to be the most beautiful woman of her time. Her name means “a beautiful woman has arrived”.

The elegant Queen’s bust was unearthed in an artist’s studio in 1912 in Amarna by German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt and, according to the terms of a 1913 agreement, Nefertiti was spirited off to Germany and today can be viewed in Berlin’s Altes Museum and she is considered “German property”. Don’t know about you but somehow I just don’t equate Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt with Berlin! But the museum apparently considers that Nefertiti has become an integral part of the cultural identity of Germany and Hitler described the bust as a true treasure (mmm….last time I checked there were no Egyptian pharaohs in German history).

In fact, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper has defended Germany’s stance by saying: “The bust has been above ground and visible in Berlin for much longer than it ever was in Egypt…She has become the epitome of slimly modern beauty, the ideal of self-confident modern womanhood“. This is utter stupidity if you ask me. Nefertiti is a symbol of another time, another culture, half a world away from Germany.

The Germans claim legal ownership but Zahi Hawass and the Egyptians want her back. No doubt there would be issues about fragility of the bust of Nefertiti but many Egyptian artefacts have been sent on world tours. I remember seeing King Tut in Australia many years ago in all his golden glory. So I’m not convinced that Nefertiti is too fragile to make the trip back to Egypt. With appropriate temperature control and some savvy curators and archaeologists on the case, surely there’s a safe way to accompany her home?

Although museums do great work, they have also been implicated in illegally obtaining artefacts. Have a read of Roger Atwood’s great book, Stealing History, to learn just how far-reaching and entrenched the illicit trade in antiquities really is. No-one is saying that the Altes Museum has been dabbling in spurious claims or dark activities, but I for one cannot understand why Nefertiti cannot return home to Egypt where she is such an important part of the Egyptian psyche. And this question of legal ownership: surely the Egyptians have the legal claim to ownership despite Borchardt’s discovery? But since Nefertiti attracts tourist dollars, legal ownership is probably not the real issue.

This is shaping up to be a heated cat fight, with Zahi Hawass declaring that Egypt will never again organise antiquities exhibitions in Germany (can’t say I blame him). I was quite horrified to discover that in 2003, the Berlin museum allowed artists to temporarily attach Nefertiti’s bust to a bronze statue of a naked woman. This is disrespect to Egypt and its history I would have thought. Naturally, a row broke out between Egypt and Germany as a result.

I’m currently reading a book (which I’ll do a future post on) about the British Empire and what people on the eastern fringes of the Empire collected (in Egypt and India). The curiosities collected often formed sizable and valuable collections, which vanished or were scattered following the death of the collector. This is similar to what has happened to Egypt’s antiquities with private collectors and museums around the world laying claim. Zahi Hawass has made it his mission to bring together Egypt’s treasures and you gotta love him for that.

Egyptian antiquities on loan include The Zodiac ceiling from the Dendera Temple, currently located at the Louvre in Paris; the statue of Hemiunu, an architect of the Great Pyramid, housed in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Germany; and the statue of Ankhaf, under whose rule the Chepren Pyramid was constructed, housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Hawass quite naturally believes all these artefacts should be returned permanently to Egypt.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for Berlin’s art treasures, has ruled out Nefertiti’s return to Egypt saying that the “3,000 year lady is travel weary“. Sounds like a pathetic excuse to me and really it must be Egypt that is weary of trying to have its cultural heritage returned to it. However, there is a campaign brewing that should help Hawass – Nefertiti Travels – which is calling for a public debate on the fracas. If you ask me about Nefertiti, my response is – Germany: Return to Sender.

Entry filed under: Archaeology, History, Rant.

America’s godfathers Historical narratives

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marc (Astrology Reviews)  |  May 14, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    That is a very interesting piece. Do you think the Egyptians constructed the pyramids for Astological purposes? Their beliefs seem to be in line with this. Great post.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  May 15, 2007 at 3:47 am

    Hi Marc
    Thx for leaving your comment. Like lots of people, I’ve pondered the astrological meanings etc. I think the building of the pyramids was informed by a very profound belief in astrological and spiritual knowledge, largely lost to us.


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