Egypt and Germany Fight over Nefertiti: Beauty of the Nile Trapped on the Spree

By Andrew Curry

The diplomatic row between Germany and Egypt over the 3,400-year-old bust of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti is heating up. Berlin's refusal to allow her to travel is "unacceptable" says Cairo.

She may be a 3,400-year-old foreigner, but she is still one of Berlin’s best-known beauties. Her delicate features adorn posters all over town; there’s an entire calendar devoted to her entrancing image; and thousands flock to the city’s museum island each day just to catch a glimpse of her. Now, Egypt wants her back.

Queen Nefertiti’s bust has been the jewel of the Berlin museum system since it was first put on display in 1923 -- and the German capital is unwilling to part with the temptress. Last month, when Egyptian authorities asked to borrow the sculpture for three months, German authorities turned them down, saying the sculpture was too fragile to travel. The response was immediate -- and outraged.

“We will make the lives of these museums miserable,” Zahi Hawass, the flamboyant director of the Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, threatened in April. “It will be a scientific war.”

Hawass stepped up his campaign last week, asking five other museums in Germany, Great Britain, France and the US to loan iconic Egyptian artifacts -- including the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone and the Zodiac in the Louvre -- for the opening of Egypt’s National Museum in 2011.

Nothing special

Perhaps not coincidentally, the objects are all on a wish list of objects that Hawass would like to see permanently returned to Egypt -- an index he has made public on numerous occasions. Like the Nefertiti bust, which was discovered in late 1912 by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, most made their way out of Egypt in a time when antiquities laws were flexible at best. According to legend, the Ottoman authorities didn’t think Borchardt’s find was anything special at the time and let him ship her out of the country without a fuss.

But it’s no secret that Egypt has been regretting that decision for a century. And this isn’t the first time Egypt has expressed interest in her return. She was even dangled by Nazi honcho Hermann Göring as a reward for the Egyptian king’s allegiance in the 1930s, an offer that was personally retracted by Adolf Hitler himself -- the Führer had declared her a personal favorite.

Hawass has publicly suggested that Nefertiti was taken from Egypt under questionable circumstances. Because of her significance to Egyptian culture and history, he has encouraged the Egyptian government to press for her permanent return.

“The bust is Egyptian. She belongs to the Egyptian culture and people,” Egypt’s ambassador to Berlin, Mohamed Al-Orabi, told SPIEGEL ONLINE last week. “Nefertiti has spent 95 years here, and we expect some appreciation. It’s unacceptable to receive this denial.”

Unprecedented level of detail

Queen Nefertiti's beauty was widely renowned during her time as co-ruler of Egypt in the 14th century B.C. Indeed, her name means "the beautiful woman has come." While many suspect that she may have been the mother-in-law of her successor Tutahkhamun, little is known about the circumstances surrounding her death and burial. The bust was found in the ruins of court sculptor Thutmose's workshop.

German authorities insist their ownership of Nefertiti is irreproachable -- and that their concerns are for the artifact’s well-being. Last year, Dietrich Wildung, curator of the Altes Museum where Nefertiti is housed, conducted a number of tests on the bust. Using CAT scans, he was able to analyze the bust’s composition with an unprecedented level of detail.

Once thought to be painted limestone, Wildung now thinks the bust is a limestone core covered with a layer of plaster or gypsum that ranges from four centimeters thick in some places to a scant millimeter on the queen’s fine-featured face. “That way the model could be adjusted and altered,” Wildung told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Indeed, a new lighting arrangement reveals fine wrinkles and slight bags under the queen’s eyes and on her neck, a level of detail that the plaster made possible. “I think it makes her much more beautiful,” Wildung says. “She’s a ripe woman, not a cover girl from some TV magazine.”

Too precious to risk

But Wildung claims the thin plaster layer rules out foreign travel. “It’s much too delicate for a 3,000 kilometer journey,” he says. Wildung’s been backed up by Cultural Minister Bernd Neumann and the German parliament’s Culture Committee, which said last week that the bust was too precious to risk in any way.

But is Queen Nefertiti too fragile to move, or is something else behind Germany’s denial? “They fear we will be like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and we will take it and not give it back,” Hawass said last month.

From the Egyptian point of view, claims that the artifact is too fragile to move are undermined by an incident in 2003, when two Hungarian artists were allowed to use the sculpture to create a video installation intended for the Venice Biennale. (After complaints and sanctions from Egypt -- including a personal ban on Wildung’s work there -- the display was called off.)

“I don’t see it as a substantial argument,” says al-Orabi. “With all the technology and means of transportation now, the queen can travel anywhere in the world.”

Resolving the issue is critical. An Egyptian boycott on German museums would threaten future exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts, a steady crowd-pleaser for museums all over the world. Hawass has even threatened to organize a worldwide boycott on German museums if Nefertiti isn’t allowed home for a visit -- unlikely to materialize, but still bad for Germany’s image.

And with a million Germans visiting Egypt every year, Egypt has an interest in working out a deal as well. “We need each other. We need dialogue, not confrontation,” al-Orabi says. “After all, Egyptian heritage is human heritage.”

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