Cairo or Bust for Nefertiti

Photo by Philip Pikart; Neues Museum, Berlin

She has been dead for more than 3 millennia, but Queen Nefertiti is kicking up diplomatic dust between Cairo and Berlin. Today, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities demanded the return of a famous bust of the queen which has been in Berlin since its discovery in 1912 by German archaeologists. Egypt has been trying to get her back since the 1920s—Adolf Hitler refused to send her back in the 1930s—but now it is bringing more pressure to bear. Council chief Zahi Hawass made the request in writing to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation which oversees the Neues Museum where Nefertiti now reigns. Hawass said in a statement that the council is asking that "this unique treasure be returned to the possession of its rightful owners." Egypt maintains the discoverer misled Egyptian authorities after its discovery. But the initial German reaction was dismissive.

A foundation statement (German, here) noted that the bust was removed with permission by the Egyptian government. "There can be not talk of anyone being fooled," the statement read. A German foreign ministry spokesperson noted at a press briefing today in Berlin that the council request is not a formal government request, since it was addressed to the foundation, and since it was not signed by the Egyptian prime minister or foreign minister. The 3300-year-old limestone bust, which still boasts vibrant colors, has become an icon of female beauty and power and reflects the unique style of the Amarna period. Nefertiti was wife of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who abandoned the old gods during his New Kingdom reign, and he spurred a radical new style in Egyptian art as well as religion. For now, it seems Nefertiti will stay in Berlin.