Nefertiti is reigning supreme in Berlin, where an exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of her bust and explains why Egypt won’t get her back.
The Neues Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island, the queen’s palatial home since it was rebuilt from rubble and reopened in 2009, is hosting “In the Light of Amarna.” The show puts Nefertiti -- one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, thanks to her bust -- in the context of her era.
The German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt knew it was his “lucky day” when his team dug up the painted limestone in December 1912.
“Colors look freshly painted,” he wrote shortly after the discovery. “Really wonderful work. No use describing it, you have to see it.”
He could not have known then that the queen, with her graceful neck, chiseled cheekbones, long aristocratic nose, missing left iris and perfect bow-shaped mouth would become a symbol for both Berlin and Egypt. Nor that the two would wrangle over who owns her for a century afterwards.
A small section in the basement of the Neues Museum addresses the excavation and Egyptian accusations that Borchardt tricked the French chief of the Egyptian archaeology authority into letting the bust return to Berlin.
The German position is clear.
“The bust is without doubt rightfully in the ownership of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation,” Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said at a press conference to open the exhibition. “There can be no talk of deception.”
He conceded that many transactions agreed 100 years ago “would be decided differently today.” Yet it’s impossible to renege on them, he said.
“Who does Nefertiti belong to?” he asked. “All of us. She is a part of world heritage.”
In 1912, Egypt was under British administration. The antiquities authority was run by the French. Agreements with the excavation teams working in the country foresaw the 50-50 division of spoils. Gustave Lefebvre, the head inspector, allowed the “painted queen” to leave for Berlin along with a list of other items, according to the Neues Museum.
When she was first exhibited in Berlin in 1924, Nefertiti shot to stardom, and the demands for her return followed soon after from the French. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, also negotiated her return with Egypt’s King Fuad I after the Nazis took power in 1933. Yet Hitler intervened to keep Nefertiti in Berlin.
The most recent demands for her return to Egypt came in 2011 from Zahi Hawass, who was at the time secretary general of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Berlin is not inclined to hand her back. Neumann compared Nefertiti’s association with the Neues Museum to the Mona Lisa’s link to the Louvre and Botticelli’s Venus to the Uffizi. A symbol of timeless beauty, she has -- in common with her Parisian and Florentine counterparts -- been depicted on ashtrays, keyrings, t-shirts, tea-towels and more.
She is even portrayed in Lego and as a relative of Donald Duck at the Berlin show.
Yet the queen herself is almost as mysterious as the Mona Lisa. The ancient city of Akhetaten (Amarna) was only populated for a short time. Built by Nefertiti’s husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, as a center for worship of one sole god -- Aten, the light -- it was populated around 1346 B.C. The religion didn’t survive under Akhenaten’s successor Tutankhamun, and Akhetaten was abandoned in about 1331 B.C.
Nefertiti’s name means “The Beautiful One Has Arrived.” She was probably the daughter of wealthy Egyptian bourgeoisie, and her marriage to Akhenaten was her second. She is portrayed as almost her husband’s equal in religious and state art. A limestone statue of the queen shows her later in life than the famous bust: She has lines around the eyes and mouth.
Some speculate that she ruled alone after her husband’s death, though there is no proof of that. Recent excavations have unearthed texts revealing that Nefertiti was still queen in year 16 of Akhenaten’s rule, where previously it was thought she may have died or vanished earlier.
Beautiful blue-painted ceramic vases, faience jewelry and intricate glass decor testify to the fine aesthetic senses of Amarna’s inhabitants. A patch of palace floor shows birds in flight over blue and green rushes and flowers.
The show leaves the impression that Nefertiti -- whoever she was -- lived in enlightened surroundings during a flourishing, peaceful era, even if Amarna was not to last.
“In the Light of Amarna. 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery” is on show at Berlin’s Neues Museum through April 13, 2013. Information: http://www.imlichtvonamarna.de
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on theater, Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.