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



Part 2: In Safe Hands

But 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.


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