Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cool response from Berlin to Egypt's official Nefertiti request

Monsters and Critics

Berlin responded cooly on Friday to renewed demands from Cairo that the prized bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti should be returned to its country of origin from its current home in a Berlin museum.

'A request from Egypt to return (Nefertiti) has not reached us yet,' said a spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Berlin museum housing the 3,500-year-old sculpture. She referred to a previous statement which denied any Egyptian claim to the bust.

'Everything has been said on this subject,' added a spokesman for the German Culture Minister.

On Thursday, Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said that next week he would formally request Nefertiti's return to Cairo.

'We are no longer discussing whether to do this, but only how to formulate this demand,' Hawass told German Press Agency dpa.


Gordon Napier said...

Egyptian archaeologists and officials should probably be more concerned with conserving and learning from the antiquities presently being uncovered (and those already in their custody) than in making political gestures like this.

The case for the return of Nefertiti from Germany is weaker than the case for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain. The bust was uncovered from the sands where it had lain forgotten for 3000 years, unlike the Athenians sculptures which were integral components of a standing structure. (There is a better case for returning Egyptian obelisks, especlly when this could restore the symmetry and grandeur to some of the Temple facades- though this would be more tricky logistically.)



The Germans are of course bluffing when they claim to have air-tight proof that they acquired Nefertiti legally. They know very well that the circumstances under which the bust of the Egyptian queen was whisked away from Egypt have not been clarified beyond all reasonable doubt.

On 6 December 1912, when Egypt was still under Turkish domination a group of German archaeologists and Egyptian assistants, under the leadership of the German archaeologist, Professor Ludwig Borchardt, dug out what turned out to be the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. The practice at that time was that when such findings were made, they were presented to a committee that decided what part was to remain Egypt and what part would go to the country of the archaeologist who made the discovery. The committee at this time was always presided over by a European; in this case a Frenchman and many of the members were Europeans. In this particular case, Borchardt, was also a member of the committee. According to Gert v. Pacezensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause; Europa - Schatzhaus der “Dritten Welt”, Borchardt covered the find with a layer of grime, in such a way that the member of the committee who made the evaluation of the found did not see properly the whole lot and thus was not aware of the importance of the find. It was decided to leave the socle on which the bust stood in Egypt and let Borchardt have the bust. From documents later available, it was clear that the professor realized how important the found was and was planning to take it to German. When the bust came to Germany in August 1913 it was kept secret for some ten years and not exhibited so as to avoid the Egyptians getting to know about it. Finally, in 1923, after a decade, the bust of Nefertiti was shown in a book by Borchardt “Porträts der Königin Nofretete”. After this publication, the Egyptians started demanding that the bust be sent back and the Germans refused since then.
Simon who financed the excavations at Amarna and gave the bust to the museum was willing to return it to the Egyptians in exchange for artefacts that Egypt was offering in accordance with German requirements. Simon published an open letter in the "Berliner Tageblatt" of 28th June 1930, in favour of an exchange of Nefertiti for other sculptures. He referred to other Egyptian artefacts which were, from the artistic point of view, more accomplished than the bust of the Egyptian Queen In a contribution entitled, “Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection”, Dietrich Wildung, Director, State Museums of Berlin, wrote:
“In 1930 Egypt suggested an exchange of the Nefertiti for superior quality objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. James Simon was in favour of the suggestion, as he hoped that it would enable Germany to resume excavations in Egypt that had been interrupted in 1914 and thus place the country back on the international stage of Middle East archaeology.”

Apart from the question of legal acquisition, there remains the wider picture. Whose queen was Nefertiti? Not even the Germans would deny that she was the queen of the Egyptians. If the Egyptians want her back, why all this resistance? Once can understand the Germans’ commercial interest in retaining an image that they have commercialized beyond all belief. What happened to the various declarations on the need for international cooperation and the claim that these iconic objects belong to humanity? Should one not seek a way that would accommodate the interest of both Germans and Egyptians?

If we take into account the thousands and thousands of Egyptian artefacts that the Germans have in Berlin (100,000) and other German museums, it becomes very telling that they are ready to battle over one object, however important it may be, with the Egyptians. How many German artefacts are in Egyptian museums? Or should international cultural cooperation always be one way?

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