Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life

PHOTO: The bust of Queen Nefertiti, at Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in the Neues Museum Berlin on November 11, 2009.

German excavators discovered the famous bust of Nefertiti in Egypt 100 years ago. As an anniversary exhibition kicks off in Berlin, new findings are altering old ideas about Germany's controversial acquisition of the bust and the story of the legendary beauty herself.

In wartime, the course of the world is often accelerated in odd ways. To the sounds of sword thrusts and the thunder of cannons, entire empires have been dispersed, and fates brought together and accumulated. As if in stop motion, heroes have been born and destroyed once again.

But there was a time when things were completely different. The revolution of the Pharaoh and sun guru Akhenaton, who devised a light theology with his wife Nefertiti and, in 1350 B.C., declared the solar disk "Aton" to be the only god, was followed by a period of sluggish peace, filled with flute music and endless caresses. The whole thing was so odd that Egyptologist Jan Assmann refers to it as the "entry of the improbable into history."

The peculiar rulers of what was then the richest nation on earth lived in the newly founded Nile capital Akhetaton ("Horizon of Aton"). Servants carried them on a throne made of electrum. Pharaoh Akhenaton liked to be portrayed as having a fat stomach, while Nefertiti wore transparent robes that hardly covered her pubic mound.

Then came damnation. Angry successors destroyed the images of the heretics, their names were obliterated and almost all traces were removed.

This is why it was such a surprise when excavator Ludwig Borchardt, equipped with a license to excavate owned by Berlin cloth manufacturer James Simon, discovered more than 20 likenesses from the clan of star worshippers. He had sailed upriver from Cairo to uncover the ruins of the mysterious solar city, known today as Amarna. Borchardt was Germany's relic hunter, reporting his finds directly to the chancellor of the German Reich.

At the ancient estate of court sculptor Thutmose, he was rewarded with the discovery of precious objects that can only be compared with those found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Magnificent statues and portraits were brought out, depicting faces full of exhilaration and life. Such individually shaped and accomplished sculptures had never been seen before in the Nile Valley.

They were all bald. Presumably, the courtiers of Akhetaton, population of 50,000, had shaved off their hair to make it easier to wear heavy wigs. It also protected them from vermin. A Sensational Discovery

The most important find occurred on Dec. 6, 1912. Shortly after the lunch break, Borchardt received a note telling him to go to building P 47.2, room 19, where Ahmed al-Sanussi, a foreman, was in the process of uncovering a "flesh-colored neck with red bands painted onto it."

Because it was about to get dark, the sensational artifact was placed in a nearby tent, and Heidelberg professor Hermann Ranke was assigned to stand guard. He later told American students that he had slept next to the beautiful Nefertiti.

But what exactly happened on those balmy winter days on the banks of the Nile? How did the Germans manage to spirit away this terrific icon and take it to Berlin? There was soon talk of a "mistake," and then of deception and fraud. Even back then in the Weimar Republic there was bitter dispute about Nefertiti's ownership.

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