Egypt Vows "Scientific War" If Germany Doesn't Loan Nefertiti
Dan Morrison in Cairo
for National Geographic News
|April 18, 2007|
She may not be Helen of Troy, but the face of another ancient beauty has nearly launched a "scientific war" between Germany and Egypt.
In an escalating conflict over a famous 3,400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, the head of Egypt's antiquities authority has threatened to ban exhibitions and tours of Egyptian artifacts from Germany.
Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, had requested the sculpture for a temporary exhibition. But German officials say the iconic artwork is too fragile to travel.
Upping the ante, Hawass on Sunday told his country's parliament that he "will never again organize antiquities exhibitions in Germany if it refuses a request, to be issued next week, to allow the bust of Nefertiti to be displayed in Egypt for three months."
(Hawass is also an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)
The painted limestone likeness of Egypt's most famous queen has been in Germany since 1913, a year after it was discovered by a German archaeological team at an ancient sculpture workshop at Tell el 'Amârna, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Cairo.
From her perch in Berlin, Nefertiti became one of the most admired, and most copied, images from ancient Egypt. The bust plays a prominent role in the marketing of the German capital's formidable array of museums.
Nefertiti was the wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who was later known as Akhenaten. Akhenaten roiled ancient Egyptian society in the 13th century B.C. by casting aside the pharaonic pantheon of gods in favor of a single sun deity. The old religion was restored after his death.
Raiders of the Lost Art?
While Egypt has periodically sought the return of the bust, "this vehemence is a new stage," said Dietrich Schulenburg, a spokesperson for Bernd Neumann, Germany's Minister of State for Culture.
German antiquities experts have determined the statue is too fragile to make the 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) trip to Cairo, Neumann said in a statement released April 13.
"To lend the Nefertiti bust would be irresponsible," the German culture minister said.
Despite the dispute, Schulenburg said today that there is a tradition of strong cooperation between German and Egyptian archaeologists and researchers.
"There are experts working together on many sites," he said. But when it comes to Nefertiti, a truly unique artifact, Egypt's Hawass said fear was likely the driving force behind Germany's refusal.
"They fear we will be like Raiders of the Lost Ark and we will take it and not give it back," said Hawass, who is a frequent and vocal advocate for the permanent return of Egyptian artifacts to their homeland. (See "Egypt's Antiquities Chief Combines Passion, Clout to Protect Artifacts" [October 24, 2006].)
Schulenburg, though, said Germany's sole concern was preserving the artifact.
"The ownership of Nefertiti by Germany is not in question," he said.
The Nefertiti issue last flared in 2003, after the Egyptian Museum in Berlin let two artists place the bust atop a nearly nude female bronze for a video installation to be shown at the Venice Biennale modern art festival.
The decision outraged Egyptian cultural officials, who banned Dieterich Wildung, the director of the Berlin museum, and his wife from further exploration in Egypt.
"I thought it was disgusting," Hawass said.
The museum eventually cancelled the Venice-bound exhibit.
Hawass said today that he would send a letter to Germany tomorrow formally requesting a loan of the bust for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo.
"I will begin a negotiation," Hawass said.
If it fails, Hawass said, he will organize a worldwide boycott of loans to German museums.
"We will make the lives of these museums miserable," he said. "It will be a scientific war."
Worldwide there are scores of international disputes over artifacts each year, said Erik Ledbetter, senior manager for international programs at the American Association of Museums.
"Certainly, source countries of antiquities are becoming more vocal in pressing claims of all kinds, including claims against dealers, auction houses, and private collectors as well as museums," Ledbetter said.
"There is enormous variation in the types of cases and in the legal and ethical theories undergirding them."
Hawass said Egypt didn't consider the Nefertiti bust to be a looted antiquity. Still, it is one of a handful of truly singular Egyptian antiquities still in foreign hands.
"I really want it back," he said.
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