‘Hey, Berlin! Could we have our bust back?’
She may be 3400 years old — but Queen Nefertiti remains one of Berlin’s best-known beauties. So is Egypt right to want her returned?
‘I am doing something that I believe in and that should have been done a 100 years ago,’ said Zahi Hawass, the Head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
What is he doing? Mr Hawass wants the return of all Egyptian antiquities to Egypt, and this week demanded the homecoming of Queen Nefertiti from the Neues Museum in Berlin.
This 3400 year old work of art was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912, and is by far the biggest attraction in the Berlin museum, which had 1.2 million visitors last year. Some say she is to Berlin what the ‘Mona Lisa’ is to Paris.
Hawass claims that a German archaeologist acquired Nefertiti by cheating Egyptian officials, but this is denied by the German government. Bernd Neumann, the Culture Minister says, ‘Documents clearly prove that the Prussian state obtained the bust of Nefertiti legally and that Egypt has no claim on it.’
Hawass has had more success with his campaign elsewhere. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has returned several objects found in Tutenkhamen’s burial chamber.
‘These objects were never meant to have left Egypt and therefore rightfully belong to the government of Egypt,’ said Thomas P. Campbell, the Director of the museum.
In the same spirit, The Louvre in Paris has returned some Egyptian frescoes, but the British Museum has so far resisted Egyptian requests.
The famous London museum, which hosts 6 million visitors a year, houses the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo. This includes the Rosetta Stone, which is high on the ‘wanted list’ of Mr Hawass’.
The stone dates from 196BC and carries inscriptions in Greek and Egyptian that enabled ancient hieroglyphs to be deciphered. It has been in the British Museum since 1802.
If it ain’t bust
In life, Nefertiti was the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton in the 14th century BC; her bust was found in Amarna, 300km south of Cairo. So why do her delicate features now adorn posters all over Berlin?
The Berlin tabloid BZ is in no doubt. ‘She’s a Berliner!’ it says in a large front page headline. ‘The Egyptians just won’t drop it,’ they continue. ‘But Germany will remain hard — and the beautiful queen will remain in Berlin.’
But Mr Hawass is not giving up. ‘They don’t like me for making these requests,’ he says, ‘but I don’t care; I am doing this for Egypt.’
Nefertiti means ‘the beautiful one has come.’ But the Egyptians still dream of that homecoming.
- ‘This is just robbery dressed up as high culture’. Do you agree?
- ‘Museums kill everything they display. Like animals in a zoo, I want to see them in their natural setting.’ Discuss.
- Take a look at the original bust — see link in ‘Become an Expert’ — and then design, sculpt or draw your own Queen Nefertiti.
- You are the director of a museum in the UK. Mr Hawass is asking for the return of one of your most treasured and popular exhibits. How will you reply? Make your decision, and then write to Mr Hawass explaining your decision.
Some People Say...
What do you think?
Q & A
- So this is a long-running campaign by Egypt?
- Yes, they want to retrieve all ancient treasures taken from Egypt by the colonial powers in the 19th century — now on display in museums in Britain, France, Germany and the US.
- And weren’t the archeologists all competing with each other?
- Oh yes. The German Oriental Society was set up in 1898 as a rival to the British and French archaeologists, and it was their expedition that found the bust of Nefertiti.
- And what happened then?
- There was a meeting between Egypt and Germany to divide the spoils on a 50–50 basis, as was standard practice at the time. But the Egyptians claim the Germans withheld information.
- Egypt’s been robbed, surely?
- Yes, though Herman Parzinger views it differently. ‘The bust is and remains Egypt’s best ambassador in Berlin!’