The iconic bust shows Nefertiti with her distinct long neck, calm wide eyes, and perfect clear features that immediately shows why her name means "the beautiful one has come."
The Nefertiti bust has been on permanent display at the Neues Museum (New Museum) in Berlin, Germany ever since. It remains one of the most famous and prized Egyptian archaeological discoveries of the early 20th century.
Egypt has repeatedly requested its return, arguing that the bust was illegally taken out of the country. Germany has refused the request, saying that it was legally acquired at the time. The ownership of the Nefertiti bust remains a point of cultural and diplomatic contention between Egypt and Germany to this day.
Much about Nefertiti's origin and life remains shrouded in mystery, even as she turns 3,400 this year. Where did she come from? What was her journey through life like?
Nefertiti lived in the ancient city of Akhetaton (now Tel El-Amarna in the modern day Minya governorate) with her husband King Akhenaten. Akhenaten established Akhetaton as a new capital city during the mid-14th century BC. Nefertiti played an important role as his royal consort and may have ruled as pharaoh after his death.
Her stunning bust discovered in 1912 provides some clues about her life, but many details still remain unknown.
How did Nefertiti's bust leave Egypt?
The story of Nefertiti's bust begins in 1912 when it was discovered and smuggled out of Egypt by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt with the assistance of French and British colonial authorities, Egyptologist Dr. Hassan Saber said to Ahram Online.
Hassan stressed that he does not want to see the return of all Egyptian artefacts in Neues Museum, but he hopes to bring Nefertiti back. “There are some European countries that have apologized for this colonialism and this necessitates other measures to restore the damage that occurred.”
German official documents raise controversy
In 2009, the German magazine SPIEGEL published a story based on formal documents that clearly show how Nefertiti's head was smuggled from Egypt to Germany through deception.
Borchardt concealed the box containing the bust in a poorly lit area, in order to hide it from an Egyptian inspector. Adding to the deception, he claimed that the bust was made of gypsum rather than the actual limestone core with stucco cover, according to SPIEGEL.
Dr. Monica Hanna, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, is leading an initiative to bring Nefertiti’s bust and other looted antiquities back to Egypt.
Speaking to Ahram Online, she said that she is working on detailed academic research supported by evidence from the national archives, government documents and correspondence, on how Nefertiti's head left Egypt.
Hanna, who is originally from the city of Mallawi in Minya, feels a strong personal connection to Nefertiti. She explained that the Egyptian antiquities protection law in force in 1912 clearly stipulated the sharing of artefacts between Egypt and the German mission as an alternative to paying for the cost of the archaeological work. However, the law carved out an exception for pieces that are exceptionally unique, she added.
Dr. Hassan Saber suggests a compromise may solve the issue. If the bust is returned to Egypt, it could be replaced in the Neues Museum by a modern replica accompanied by text saying “we voluntarily returned Nefertiti to the place that she belongs to originally, we apologized for that, and we were so proud that this head was part of our museum.”
He stressed that the move will bring the Neues Museum the respect of visitors and people around the world and provide the museum with a very good story to tell from a marketing perspective.
“It is [the most] moral action towards Nefertiti if they really admire her,” he added.
Symbolic hall for Nefertiti in the Grand Egyptian Museum?
Academics and archaeological activists have called on Egypt to create an empty hall for the statue of Nefertiti in the GEM in protest to send a symbolic message about Nefertiti's presence in Berlin.
Egyptologist Wassim El-Sisi explained in a telephone interview with Ahram Online that he believes that such a move would send a strong message to Western countries, which will increase the likelihood of recovering these pieces.
Even if Egypt is unable to recover the statue and other artefacts, the display could still send an important symbolic message that these antiquities belong in Egypt.
No evidence for German ownership
For his part, Ulfert Oldewurtel, a German historian and classical archaeologist, said to Ahram Online that there is no evidence for German ownership of the bust, but pointed to the legal framework known as “the Division Law” that could prove it.
Legitimacy of Division Law now under question
Oldewurtel stressed that the legitimacy of treaties and agreements between Egypt and Germany to divide discovered antiquities is under question today. It is unclear whether these were legally and freely made.
Sadly, history is never easy, he said.
In the early days of Egyptology (1882-1922), Egypt was governed by the British, who decided what export permits were issued. Making things even more difficult, the institution charged with protecting Egyptian antiquities was controlled by the French until after the end of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. So, in the era from 1882 to 1952, none of the relevant legal entities regulating the export of antiquities were under the control of Egyptians.
From legality to ethics
The German archaeologist also noted that there are major discussions about provenance and restitution today. He pointed to the widely circulated and influential reports for the French president by Benedicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr on the restitution of African art.
One of the questions now being asked, he added, is not “was it legal then” but “is it right to hold onto these antiquities now?” This is very important because it moves the discussion away from the archives, lawyers and legal documents towards the question of ethics and morality.
Oldewurtel is personally torn about giving the Nefertiti bust back to Egypt, saying “I love the Nefertiti bust and I think she is a great representative for Egyptian culture and an outstanding ambassador for Egypt. Still, I think that the policies when the division of finds was done were colonial. I do not want to live in a world where French art is to be found only in France, or Mexican art only in Mexico.”
“I do not know how to heal the wounds of history without striking new ones,” he concluded.
The one-million-signature campaign to reclaim Egyptian antiquities
Dr. Zahi Hawass, a renowned Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities, said to Ahram Online over the phone that he is campaigning to reclaim three unique and very important antiquities from Egyptian history: the bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and the Dendera zodiac in the French Louvre Museum.
He plans to collect a million signatures from Egyptians and other nationalities demanding the return of their return. The petition, which has gathered nearly 200,000 signatures so far, is available at this link.