Mystery on the Nile: Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life

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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.

Photo Gallery: The Enigma of Nefertiti Photos
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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.

False Assumptions

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.

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