German excavators discovered the famous bust of Nefertiti in Egypt 100 years ago. As an anniversary exhibition kicks off in Berlin, new findings are altering old ideas about Germany's controversial acquisition of the bust and the story of the legendary beauty herself.
In wartime, the course of the world is often accelerated in odd ways. To the sounds of sword thrusts and the thunder of cannons, entire empires have been dispersed, and fates brought together and accumulated. As if in stop motion, heroes have been born and destroyed once again.
But there was a time when things were completely different. The revolution of the Pharaoh and sun guru Akhenaton, who devised a light theology with his wife Nefertiti and, in 1350 B.C., declared the solar disk "Aton" to be the only god, was followed by a period of sluggish peace, filled with flute music and endless caresses. The whole thing was so odd that Egyptologist Jan Assmann refers to it as the "entry of the improbable into history."
The peculiar rulers of what was then the richest nation on earth lived in the newly founded Nile capital Akhetaton ("Horizon of Aton"). Servants carried them on a throne made of electrum. Pharaoh Akhenaton liked to be portrayed as having a fat stomach, while Nefertiti wore transparent robes that hardly covered her pubic mound.
Then came damnation. Angry successors destroyed the images of the heretics, their names were obliterated and almost all traces were removed.
This is why it was such a surprise when excavator Ludwig Borchardt, equipped with a license to excavate owned by Berlin cloth manufacturer James Simon, discovered more than 20 likenesses from the clan of star worshippers. He had sailed upriver from Cairo to uncover the ruins of the mysterious solar city, known today as Amarna. Borchardt was Germany's relic hunter, reporting his finds directly to the chancellor of the German Reich.
At the ancient estate of court sculptor Thutmose, he was rewarded with the discovery of precious objects that can only be compared with those found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Magnificent statues and portraits were brought out, depicting faces full of exhilaration and life. Such individually shaped and accomplished sculptures had never been seen before in the Nile Valley.
They were all bald. Presumably, the courtiers of Akhetaton, population of 50,000, had shaved off their hair to make it easier to wear heavy wigs. It also protected them from vermin.
A Sensational Discovery
The most important find occurred on Dec. 6, 1912. Shortly after the lunch break, Borchardt received a note telling him to go to building P 47.2, room 19, where Ahmed al-Sanussi, a foreman, was in the process of uncovering a "flesh-colored neck with red bands painted onto it."
Because it was about to get dark, the sensational artifact was placed in a nearby tent, and Heidelberg professor Hermann Ranke was assigned to stand guard. He later told American students that he had slept next to the beautiful Nefertiti.
But what exactly happened on those balmy winter days on the banks of the Nile? How did the Germans manage to spirit away this terrific icon and take it to Berlin? There was soon talk of a "mistake," and then of deception and fraud. Even back then in the Weimar Republic there was bitter dispute about Nefertiti's ownership.
The questions were revived a few years ago by Egypt's then Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass, when he demanded the return of the Nefertiti bust. He charged that the bust had been covered "with mud" and then smuggled out of the country.
A document by an eyewitness provides an insight into how the haggling in the desert sand took place. Borchardt's behavior was savvy and almost devious in the tug-of-war for the pharaoh's wife. A legal reassessment of whether he broke the law may now even be necessary.
The owners of the bust, however, are tired of the debate. They prefer to celebrate. To mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery, a major exhibition is taking place at the Egyptian Museum, which is encompassed by the Neues Museum on Berlin's Museum Island. "In the Light of Amarna," which begins on Dec. 7, is devoted to the epoch when Egypt's conservative guiding principles were briefly upended and mankind invented monotheism.
The solar enigma of Amarna is exhibited in an 820-square-meter (8,826-square-foot) space, with artifacts on loan from Paris and New York. At the center of it all is the bust, 50 centimeters tall, whose "anxious charm" once delighted German author Thomas Mann. The queen is portrayed with almond eyes and a swan's neck. Her crown is blue, like the hair of Aton.
What an archetype of the erotic. Mona Lisa seems pasty by comparison.
The left eye is missing. Although the excavator had workers sift through the rubble and even promised a finder's fee of five pounds, the iris, made of black wax and rock crystal, was not found.
Computer tomography images reveal the level of skill employed by the sculptor more than 3,300 years ago. First, he carved the face of Nefertiti from a piece of limestone. Then he covered it with plaster, smoothed out the nose, removed small creases and narrowed the cheeks.
A Fascinating Era
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke called the result "enchanting." The French Egyptologist Christian Jacq praised the "radiant grandeur" of the bust, whose "smile is animated with an inner light."
But of what use are such hymns of praise? Who was the historic figure behind the regent, who lived shortly after the Stone Age, and her husband -- the epitome of ugliness -- who impregnated his own daughters?
Critics say that the enchantress from the faraway pyramid nation has been viewed from an overly "modern" perspective until now. Doesn't her face also seem cold and dismissive? A cobra, prepared to strike, was originally mounted on the front of the crown. The appropriate reaction to the sculpture, writes US art historian Camille Paglia, is fear.
Egyptologist Christian Bayer recently discovered a fragment that perfectly matches the original in a Cairo museum. It's a copy. Bayer suspects that the bust was used for purposes of mass production, an official propaganda image of sorts -- not unlike the images of Josef Stalin.
Even more confusing is the fact that archeologists are now familiar with more than 100 images of Nefertiti. She is portrayed as a sphinx, with thick lips, trampling down her enemies, as an older woman with stretch marks -- and even with male facial features.
So who exactly was Nefertiti? The answer is made more difficult by the fact that Amarna is like a vortex in which all traditions and habitual ways of thinking were destroyed. Even gender boundaries were broken down. Not surprisingly, the study of this strange era is particularly interesting.
Experts have deciphered scratched-out inscriptions and reconstructed destroyed funerary reliefs chiseled away by angry counterrevolutionaries. In Amarna, British archeologist Barry Kemp is exposing the buildings and food remnants of the Aton sect. He has found piles of pig feces, suggesting that Nefertiti may have been fond of eating pork.
The genetic analysis of mummies of the 18th dynasty performed in 2010 led to a quantum leap in new knowledge, and helped to explain the blood bonds of the Nefertiti clan.
The many details are gradually coalescing into an overall picture of the graceful queen. It is a biography filled with lust for power, intrigues and surprising twists and turns.
For example, it was believed until now that the queen had died after the 13th year of her husband's reign. The plague was raging in the Nile Valley at the time. According to a Babylonian clay tablet, an Amarna queen was one of the victims of the Black Death.
But a black ink inscription was recently uncovered in a quarry near the Nile. The writing is from the 16th year of Akhenaton's reign and mentions Nefertiti, suggesting that she lived longer than was previously believed.
In fact, there are indications that she actually outlived her husband and then ascended to the throne under the tongue twister of a name "Anchetcheprure-Neferneferuaton" -- something no woman had ever dared to do.
In a new book, German cultural scientist Franz Maciejewski attempts to provide a broad picture of the regent's life and death. According to Maciejewski, the woman stopped at nothing. The cliché of the "apolitical first lady," the author writes, is completely false.
In Safe HandsBut there is little evidence of the current debate over the beautiful queen in the Berlin exhibition. Visitors walk past panels with such scintillating labels as "Akhetaton, from its founding until today," passing through an obstacle course of broken jars and crumbly pieces of palace stucco.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is worth a visit. Ludwig Borchardt had roughly 5,500 objects brought to Berlin. The remains offer only a hint of how flamboyantly furnished the private chambers of the sun guru once were.
But craftsmen are still working in the exhibition rooms. They're behind schedule, because museum officials in Berlin, frightened by the poltergeist Hawass, were planning to let the anniversary pass with little fanfare. Only after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was looted during the unrest of the Arab spring could the Germans convincingly say: Look, the bust is in safe hands here.
But now time is not on their side. Much of the show feels too dry. The description of the find, presented on the lower level, also has its shortcomings. The most exciting aspects are not mentioned. In reality, the day on which the artifacts were divided up in Amarna resembled a poker game. Gustave Lefebvre, the Inspector for Middle Egypt for the Egyptian Antiquities Service, had travelled to the site on Jan. 20, 1913, to divide the excavated objects "à moitié exacte" (exactly in half).
The secretary of the German Oriental Society, Bruno Güterbock, who was present at the event, wrote a report that SPIEGEL has now obtained. According to the document, the guest was first taken an office, where he looked at photos of all the finds. He was shown an image of Nefertiti that was "not exactly the most advantageous photograph."
Borchardt later mentioned that he had cunningly chosen the image detail "so that one cannot recognize the full beauty of the bust, although it is sufficient to refute, if necessary, any later talk among third parties about concealment."
Then he handed the visitor the preliminary list dividing up the finds. The Nefertiti bust was at the top of the right column, followed by about 25 plaster statues.
Ten stone artifacts were listed in the left column, beginning with a colorful "folding altar." It too was a very unusual work. The stele depicted Akhenaton and Nefertiti with their children. At the time, there was only one comparable specimen worldwide, and it was in Berlin.
A Guilty Conscience?
The bargaining began. Lefebvre accepted the "approximate equivalency" of the two halves. He also accepted the proposal to give the plaster pieces to the Germans and keep the seemingly more valuable stone busts in Egypt.
But the list of finds obscured an important point. Although Borchardt knew that the Nefertiti bust had a stone core, he described the material as consisting entirely of "plaster." Güterbock, the secretary, had already expressed his "concerns" earlier, describing what he called an "obfuscation of the material."
But Borchardt ignored Güterbock's objections, arguing that if a different conclusion were reached later on, he would simply say that he had "been mistaken at first."
Then the chief negotiators walked into the warehouse, where the finds were displayed in open crates but, as Güterbock writes, "not exactly in the best light." Lefebvre could have lifted the Nefertiti bust out of its crate, but he didn't. After a "superficial examination of the originals," he gave his blessing to the entire arrangement.
But were the German's deceptive tactics truly objectionable? It was the eve of World War I, and the major powers were not exactly feeling generous. Haggling was a widespread practice.
Borchardt must have been plagued by a guilty conscience, though. Otherwise he wouldn't have refused to publicly exhibit the bust. After being shipped to Germany, it was initially placed under lock and key. Only Kaiser Wilhelm II, as the supreme patron of the Oriental Society, received a copy as a Christmas gift.
It wasn't until 1924 that the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Heinrich Schäfer, held an exhibition -- against Borchardt's will.
The show was met with admiration abroad, but it also triggered resentment. The director of the Department of Antiquities in Cairo, Pierre Lacau, demanded the immediate return of the artifacts. "I believe we are defenseless, legally speaking," he wrote, but he also cited "moral" reasons, and he imposed sanctions. In 1925, he barred Germans from excavating in Egypt. It was a tough blow.
In the end, Schäfer agreed to make an exchange. But the press got wind of the imminent deal in 1930, setting off a storm of outrage. The plan was stopped.
Nevertheless, the issue continued to simmer, even under the Nazis. On Oct. 4, 1933, the Prussian Prime Minister, Hermann Göring, decided to give the bust to Egyptian King Fuad I as a gift. Hitler, furious over his pudgy fellow Nazi's effort to go over his head, had his aides give him a detailed account of the matter five days later, and then cancelled everything.
It is also on record that during a lunch in March 1934, Joseph Goebbels tried to convince Hitler of the propaganda value of turning over the bust to Egypt. But he was unsuccessful. Hitler had other plans for the Nefertiti bust. "I will build her a museum in Berlin," he said.
It is not without a certain irony that one of the worst criminals of all time preserved the "most beautiful woman" for Germany, though it has no bearing on the legal validity of the agreement that was used to divide up the Borchardt find.
Did Borchardt Forge Artifacts?
However, a seemingly farfetched accusation remains to be cleared up. The renowned Egyptologist Rolf Krauss, a curator at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin for more than 20 years and the custodian of the Nefertiti bust, claims that the folding altar used as compensation for the bust was fake.
Krauss theorizes that Borchardt, consumed with ambition, had the magnificent panel, with which he enticed Lefebvre, made by skilled stonemasons in Cairo.
But could the excavator have been capable of such contemptuous fraud? Some, who believe Borchardt was a hatchet man, say he could.
It is true that the scholar had been working at the German consulate general in Cairo since 1899. His official title was "academic attaché." But in reality Borchardt's job -- in the struggle against the other imperialistic powers, England, France and the United States -- was to fill Germany's museums with treasures from the days of the pharaohs.
His approach was often crude. In 1908, British Egyptologist Alan Gardiner accused him of "tactless and brusque behavior." Gardiner also claimed that the German had established a network of academic spies in the Nile Valley.
When confronted at home, the accused admitted that he had illegitimately acquired "a large number of photographs, drawings, private letters and foreign documents, and so on." In a letter to the foreign ministry, a colleague complained that a man who had "compromised German academia in such a way cannot remain in his position."
But the Indiana Jones of the German Empire survived the scandal. He was simply too good at what did. Borchardt often roamed through the souks of Cairo, where bearded merchants offered stolen antiquities for sale, as well as fakes made to look old with etching acid. Borchardt himself described the dealers' tricks. For example, it was common that "the men scratch off old paint, crush it and apply it with a binding agent."
There is even evidence that Borchardt made forgeries himself when he was a student. He imitated a cuneiform tablet and wrote logarithms onto it. A scholar fell for the practical joke.
Its interest peaked by the rumors, the restoration laboratory (set up by Italians) in Cairo examined the folding altar some time ago. When it was placed under ultraviolet light, it turned out that the supposed weathering was only a "darker base color" that had been painted onto the limestone.
"I think this is absolute proof of forgery," says Egyptologist Christian Loeben. His colleague Dietrich Wildung, however, calls the whole thing "rubbish."
Because the laboratory analysis remains unpublished to this day, the accusation cannot be thoroughly evaluated. It remains unclear how honestly Borchardt behaved 100 years ago when, using picks and shovels, he exposed the astonishing monuments from an era when the world held its breath and Akhenaton brought down the gods.
'Mistress of Joy'
It is becoming increasingly clear that Nefertiti played a central role in this revolt. In the Aton cult, she played the part of the giver of life: erotic, fertile and scantily clad.
It is unclear when the young couple met. The girl was probably from a family in the provincial city of Akhmim that was closely related to the royal family. Nefertiti's aunt appears to have been nothing less than the "Great Royal Consort" of the ruling Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Akhenaton's father.
Her own father had a successful career, rising to the rank of general of the chariot force. The daughter was also characterized by a love of horses. Reliefs show her driving a two-wheeled horse and buggy, while others depict her standing upright in a magnificent carriage.
The realm along the Nile was in its prime at the time, its colonial territories extending from Sudan to the Euphrates. Akhenaton's father fancied himself a builder, who created "greatness without limits," as well as temples with "walls of gold, tiles of silver and flagpoles that stretched up to the stars."
Then his son ascended the throne. He was a dreamer. He had studied in Heliopolis, where the Benben stone, the strange, ancient sacred stone of the solar cult, stood. Akhenaton wrote poetry. An analysis of his skeleton showed that he was 1.6 meters (5'3") tall and had crooked teeth. It is unlikely that the young man immediately instigated an intellectual coup. In fact, it was more likely his mother, the royal widow Tiye, who was pulling the strings in the background. Images show her looking sullen and frowning -- a woman to be feared. Tiye may have selected her son's wife, choosing her own niece.
No one knows exactly when the girl from Akhmim arrived by ship on the Nile in the capital Thebes, where she was carried into the harem on a litter. A statue depicts the couple as teenagers. She is wearing a collar of precious stones. Her face, still pudgy, is that of a 14-year-old girl.
But Akhenaton was in love. "Mistress of joy," he called her, "lovely to contemplate; one rejoices to hear her voice." She became pregnant soon afterwards.
Outside, on the streets of Thebes, massive changes were underway. The young king had workers hurriedly build a giant temple for Aton. It was more than 600 meters long.
In another temple, images of Nefertiti hung resplendent on colorful murals, which depicted her alone, giving offerings of thanks as the "mistress of Aton."
It was unheard of, a violation of taboos. One of the principles of the kingdom of the pharaohs was that women could not become priests. They were excluded from salvation.
An Unhappy QueenBut that changed, and women also began to exert growing influence on the affairs of state. In fact, politics at the court of Amarna had almost feminist features. Around the fifth year of his rule, the spineless Akhenaton elevated his wife to the position of co-regent. The old establishment in Thebes was furious.
This was probably one of the reasons the pharaoh came up with the plan to leave the capital. Downstream, along a remote Nile inlet, his engineers marked off a 16-by-13-kilometer site, where a new and magnificent city was to be built.
Nefertiti apparently didn't like the idea. Thebes offered parties with dancing dwarves, musical orchestras and trained monkeys. Angered by her complaints, her husband said: "And the queen shall not say to me: Look, there is a more beautiful place for Akhetaton in a different spot."
Against her will, the couple moved to the new city. In a carriage made of electrum, the couple made their way to the desert valley. The new palace was directly adjacent to the main road, which was 30 meters wide.
The queen attended religious services in the morning, when the sun rose above the cliffs of Amarna. There were hundreds of altars in the large temple to Aton. Large numbers of animals were sacrificed there at dawn.
"Your beams are on the inside of the sea," the great Aton chant, written by the pharaoh himself, begins. "You are lifetime itself. We live through you. The eyes are directed at your beauty, until you set."
The ceremonies contained not a word about the destructive aspect of the sun, about its searing heat, which triggers droughts and famines.
Instead, cuddling was the order of the day. Reliefs show the royal couple kissing and caressing each other. Sometimes they are nibbling on skewers. Then they are sitting at home with the children. Intimacy became part of the political program. Or did the prophets of light simply lose all shame?
In the year 12, a great banquet was held at Amarna. Tribute bearers from Cyprus and Crete, and from Syria and Mycenae, came to Amarna to pay homage to the beautiful queen. Nevertheless, the great queen was not happy. She had given birth to six children -- all girls.
A Mysterious Female Pharaoh
This was probably why Akhenaten often strayed in his older years. He was desperate to father a noble-blooded male heir to the throne. There are indications that he initially impregnated his mother and then married three of his daughters. But it was only his own sister who gave him a male heir. The name of the infant was Tutankhamen.
The heretic died soon afterwards, leaving behind a state that was coming apart at the seams. Foreign armies had invaded the country in the north. The old elites -- the priests and the generals -- were in the mood to stage a coup.
Ironically, it was in this situation that Nefertiti apparently ventured to go it alone. It is clear that after Akhenaton's death, a mysterious, female pharaoh took control of the land of the pyramids for 14 months. A case can be made that it was Nefertiti.
She apparently hazarded another political coup that could hardly have been more audacious. To keep her enemies at home in check, she enlisted the help of the king of the Hittites, Suppiluliuma, who lived about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away in Hattusa, in what is now modern Turkey.
The clay tablet state archive discovered in Hattusa contained a letter from a certain "Dahamunzu." The word is derived from "Ta hemet nesw" (Egyptian for "the wife of the king"). Could Nefertiti have written the letter?
"My husband has died, and I have no son," the woman wrote to the king of the Hittites, "but it is said that your sons are numerous." Then she boldly states her request: She wants to marry one of the princes.
A New Story Takes Shape
What an offer it was. The Hittites immediately sent their chancellor to the Nile. After months of inquiries, he returned home with another message from the pharaoh, in which she proposed a pact of sorts. After the wedding, her letter reads, "the two great countries will be only one country."
It was high treason.
"The idea that a woman in ancient Egypt would conduct such correspondence is so crazy as to be almost unbelievable," says Egyptologist Bayer.
Finally, the chosen "Prince Zannanza" set out for Egypt. He crossed the mountains of Anatolia and rode down along the coast. But he had hardly reached "Kemet," the "Black Land," as the Egyptians called their country, when he was murdered by assassins.
It was the end. All messages fell silent after that. There are indications that Nefertiti was violently deposed in the turmoil of the counter-revolution. Her mummy disappeared.
A fascinating historical scenario is rising from the waters of the Nile. It appears that the legendary queen has finished serving her time as the world's first cover girl and a well-behaved darling. A new story is taking shape, one in which the beauty was more likely a beast.
Anyone who wants to look her directly in the eye should pay a visit to the Neues Museum in Berlin soon. There, the ostracized queen sits under glass, surrounded by specimens from the lost city of the sun that have never been shown before.
Whether the precious bust will stay at the museum, eternal and unshakeable, remains to be seen. If it were returned to Cairo, Germany would lose a world-class treasure of antiquity. The statue's insurance value alone is $390 million.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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