On a sunny afternoon on Dec. 6, 1912, an Egyptian worker at a dig along the banks of the Nile came across what may be the most striking find in the history of Egyptology. Ludwig Borchardt, the German archaeologist in charge of the excavation, scribbled excitedly in his diary a century ago: “The tools were put aside, and the hands were now used … It took a considerable amount of time until the whole piece was completely freed from all the dirt and rubble.” What emerged was a 3,300-year-old limestone bust of an ancient queen, colored with a gypsum lacquer. A flat-topped crown perched above a finely defined brow. Her cheekbones were high, nose distinguished. A thin, elegant neck — some now describe it “swanlike” — rose from the bust’s base. “We held the most lively piece of Egyptian art in our hands,” wrote Borchardt.
The bust is of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt and wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned in the 14th century B.C. A hundred years after Nefertiti’s bust was lifted out of the ground at Amarna, some 480 km south of Cairo, it remains one of the most iconic figures of Egyptian antiquity, far smaller than the pyramids or the Sphinx, but no less globally resonant. The bust adorns souvenir schlock throughout Egypt and history schoolbooks worldwide. When it went on display at a museum in Berlin in the 1920s, it was almost immediately held up as a symbol of universal, timeless beauty. That’s not surprising. Nefertiti’s name means “the beautiful one has come.”
But she’s much more than a pretty face. The queen and the bust that made her famous in our time are both fascinating stories — with endings that are still shrouded in uncertainty. Little is known of Nefertiti’s origins save that she was born outside the royal family, the daughter of the pharaoh’s vizier. She married Amenhotep IV, who inherited a vast, rich empire from his father Amenhotep III that stretched from the Nubian wastes to the river lands of Syria. Theirs was a moment of relative stability, with trade, not conquest, filling Egypt’s coffers.
Yet Nefertiti and her husband were for centuries virtually wiped off the historical record; it’s only once archaeologists in the early 20th century started excavations of their capital complex at Amarna that they loomed out of the dark of the past. The reason, it seems, was a move taken by Nefertiti’s husband to abandon the cults of certain gods — and the bloated, powerful priesthoods that surrounded them — in favor of worship of just one abstracted figure: Aten, a god represented as a sun disk. Amenhotep IV assumed the name Akhenaten, or “one devoted to Aten,” and he and Nefertiti arguably became the world’s first monotheists. There are other moments in history when a royal takes such a daring ideological turn — Byzantine Emperor Julian forsook Christianity for Greek polytheism and philosophy; Mogul Emperor Akbar embraced the din-e-ilahi, a cosmological religion that melded Hinduism and Islam — but Akhenaten stands out for seeming so uncharacteristically modern in such an ancient moment. That modernity is reinforced by the outsize role played by Nefertiti. Friezes, steles and inscriptions all make clear that she was firmly at Akhenaten’s side, and sometimes even standing before him. In one image found on blocks at the site of Hermopolis, Nefertiti is cast in the classic role of a male conqueror, grabbing her enemies and captives by the hair while smiting them with a mace.
Historians and archaeologists now puzzle over whether she ruled on in the wake of her husband’s death. But evidence is spotty. Much of the artwork and symbolism of their rule was erased by reactionary successors who restored polytheistic worship to the court. Unlike many ancient Egyptian royals, archaeologists have yet to identify their mummies, though speculation has been rife in recent years.
Nefertiti’s bust, then, remains the most vivid artifact from their reign. It was found by Borchardt’s excavation in the studio of the court sculptor Thutmose and, it seems, whisked out of the country to Germany swiftly thereafter. That appropriation was in theory legal — the Europeans who dominated Egypt at the time as a colonial protectorate also ran the administration of its antiquities. When Egyptian authorities realized what sort of treasure had been taken from them, they petitioned Berlin for its return. Hitler’s Nazi government, which came to power in 1933, planned to return it to Egypt’s King Fuad until Hitler had a change of heart. “Do you know what I’m going to do one day? I’m going to build a new Egyptian museum in Berlin,” Hitler wrote in a letter to the Egyptians. “I dream of it. Inside I will build a chamber, crowned by a large dome. In the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti will be enthroned. I will never relinquish the head of the queen.”
This particular architectural fancy of Hitler didn’t come to pass, and Nefertiti’s bust found itself hidden in a salt mine for much of World War II. It’s now on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. But for years, it hasn’t rest easy. Like the Elgin Marbles, the bust has become one of the totemic objects of a global conversation on culture and who owns it. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s outspoken, controversial antiquarian in chief, campaigned in recent years for the object’s return to Egypt and was repeatedly turned aside by the Germans, who insist that the bust is both legally in their possession and in too fragile a state to be moved. His last demand was issued on Jan. 24, 2011: “I am doing something that I believe in and that should have been done a hundred years ago,” Hawass told reporters. A day later, Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution kicked off, and Hawass’s boss, President Hosni Mubarak, was soon toppled. Hawass himself has since lost his government perch, and the momentum for Nefertiti’s return has faded in the wake of Egypt’s other, far more immediate upheavals.
Nefertiti’s bust sits alone in Berlin, the centerpiece of an exhibition now commemorating its discovery. Defenders of global museums insist that no one nation has an exclusive right over the legacy of the past. “There are artworks that belong to our collective consciousness — Nefertiti is such a work,” said German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, at the exhibit’s opening. Looking at Nefertiti’s serene face — Borchardt claimed it was “the epitome of tranquility and harmony” — one wonders what she would have thought.