She has been away from home for years. Now Egypt is demanding the return of the 3,400 year-old bust of fabled Queen Nefertiti. The country announced its plans to make a formal request to Germany.
According to Egypt, Germany illegally acquired the bust, which was uncovered nearly a century ago on the banks of the Nile. Germany, however, says it was bought legally and has in the past refused to give back Nefertiti.
“I do not know of the exact circumstance behind the bust’s journey from Tel El Amarna Egypt to Germany in 1913,” notes Egyptian studies expert Ziad Fahmy, assistant professor director of undergraduate studies at Cornell University. “Theft of ancient Egyptian artifacts and acquisitions from dubious antiquities markets and dealers were the norm throughout most of the 19th century. Also, when the deal was struck to take the Nefertiti bust to Germany, Egypt was under British occupation and most of the administrators and bureaucrats responsible for Egypt’s antiquities at the time were European.”
Nefertiti, known as one of history’s great beauties and the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton, was discovered in 1912 by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt and was bought by the Prussian state.
The return to Egypt would certainly have cultural and historic significance. “The return of the Nefertiti bust to Egypt would certainly make a splash in the world of Egyptology, since it is probably the second most recognizable ancient Egyptian artifact, second only perhaps to the King Tutankhamen’s gold mask,” says Fahmy, who does not see the return as causing a boost in tourism. But he notes there could be a political coup. “It is doubtful that it would make a noticeable impact on the overall number of tourists visiting Egypt or the Egyptian museum. The biggest impact it may have, however, is political, for Egyptian domestic consumption and for momentarily at least, tapping into Egyptian national pride.”
The bust, one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt, is currently in Berlin’s Neues Museum.
But will Germany finally return the bust? “I don’t know if it will be returned, but with enough political pressure it might be. There is also a possibility of some sort of compromise that might be arranged, with the bust being lent to the Egyptian museum,” notes Fahmy.
In 2009, Egypt cut ties with France’s Louvre Museum, demanding the return of several artifacts. That same year, the museum agreed to the return five 3,000-year-old fragments after it was determined they were stolen from a tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the King in the 1980s. Egypt is also seeking the return of Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is reportedly in the British Museum.