Cairo has been demanding the return of the exquisite artwork since the 1920s, but the calls have died down in the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
Nefertiti exhibition at Berlin's Neues Museum stirs a 100-year storm
BERLIN // In a snub to Egypt, Germany is marking the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the world-famous bust of Egypt's Queen Nefertiti with a major new exhibition of the hundreds of artefacts found with it.
The 3,350-year old bust found by German archaeologists in Amarna, on the Nile halfway between Cairo and Luxor, is the most popular exhibit, attacting more than one million visitors last year at the Neues Museum in Berlin.
Cairo has been demanding the return of the exquisite artwork since the 1920s, but the calls have died down in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. In addition, Zahi Hawass, a firebrand campaigner for the restitution of cultural treasures who had been stepping up the pressure on Germany, was fired from his post as head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities last year.
Museum officials in Berlin won't admit it, but there is little doubt here that Germany wouldn't have dared to celebrate Nefertiti with such a lavish exhibition had Mr Hawass still been Cairo's chief Egyptologist in a politically stable Egypt.
The looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the unrest last year has also strengthened Germany's claim, with officials here pointing out that Nefertiti, insured for US$390 million (Dh1.43 billion) and placed behind bullet-proof glass, is safe in German hands.
Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin's state-run museums, scoffed at the suggestion that the show was a provocation.
"That is nonsense and is neither our intention nor the way this exhibition is devised," he said. "We're reaching out to the Egyptian side and inviting it to take part in researching the discoveries from Amarna."
However, speculation persists that the Germans cheated their Egyptian counterparts to get hold of Nefertiti, the prize of the dig.
The archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, who headed the excavation, tried to divert attention from the significance of Nefertiti's bust during a meeting in January 1913 to divide up the spoils of the exhibition between Egypt and Germany on a 50-50 basis. That, at least, is what the secretary of the German Oriental Society (DOG), Bruno Guterbock, claimed.
In a recently unearthed document, Guterbock, who was at the meeting, wrote that Borchardt had presented Gustave Lefebvre, Egypt's French inspector of antiquities, with an unflattering photo of the bust and had lied about the material it was made of. He claimed it was made from gypsum, whereas he knew that Nefertiti's core was made of stone. Guterbock mentioned his misgivings about "cheating on the material" to Borchardt, who dismissed the criticism, saying he could always claim later that he had been mistaken.
Spiegel magazine reported this week that Borchardt had later admitted showing Lefebvre a photo taken from an angle "so that one can't see the full beauty of the bust, but it will suffice to refute later talk by third parties that anything was kept secret".
In the decades before the First World War, Germany was racing to catch up with France and Britain not only in military hardware and colonial expansion, but also in the high-prestige field of archaeology. Borchardt, latterly dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Reich", was known for his determination in this respect.
But Germany insists to this day that it is the rightful owner of the bust. After all, Lefebvre could have picked it up and taken a proper look at it. He chose not to and instead selected other artefacts for the Egyptians, including a stone shrine showing Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaton with their children. Borchardt didn't appear to mind. Berlin already had one like it.
"From our point of view nothing's disputable," said Mr Parzinger. "The division of the find was standard at the time. Every party had their eye on certain items and one had to come to an agreement. The stories that keep coming up are completely unfounded."
"Guterbock wrote all this more than 10 years later and his relationship with Borchardt wasn't untroubled," Mr Parzinger said. "What's important is that the documents about the division give a completely different account. There was no deceit."
The exhibition, which opened on Thursday, shows 400 objects found together with Nefertiti's bust in the ruins of the ancient city of Akhetaton. They include amphorae and vases, jewellery and a restored bust of Akhenaton.
A bronze replica of Nefertiti's bust has been placed alongside the real thing. "We want visitors to be able to experience the beauty of the bust with their hands as well," said Noel McCauley, the architect of the show.
The exhibition also shows the diary of the dig and the official protocol of the allocation of the items, in an apparent attempt to quash speculation about her ownership. But Egypt's calls for a return are unlikely to have remained silent for ever. Restitution is not simply a legal issue, but a moral one too.
"The Egyptians, like all donor countries that enriched the museums of the western world with their cultural heritage in the 19th and early 20th century, were shamelessly exploited," said Benedicte Savoy, an art historian at Berlin's Technical University.
The uncertainty surrounding Nefertiti's rightful place is nothing compared with the mystery posed by the queen herself. Her bust, of a serene, hypnotic beauty, has an enigmatic smile rivalling that of the Mona Lisa.
New research suggests she wasn't just the beautiful woman at Akhenaton's side, but a powerful and ambitious figure in her own right. Her husband abandoned the worship of multiple gods and introduced monotheism centred on the worship of the Sun god Aten.
Nefertiti "appears to have been a driving force in this cultural revolution. Many sources and text discoveries prove this," said Hermann Schlogl, a prominent German Egyptologist. "No woman before her or afterwards had such power."