Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life

The questions were revived a few years ago by Egypt's then Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass, when he demanded the return of the Nefertiti bust. He charged that the bust had been covered "with mud" and then smuggled out of the country.

A document by an eyewitness provides an insight into how the haggling in the desert sand took place. Borchardt's behavior was savvy and almost devious in the tug-of-war for the pharaoh's wife. A legal reassessment of whether he broke the law may now even be necessary.

The owners of the bust, however, are tired of the debate. They prefer to celebrate. To mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery, a major exhibition is taking place at the Egyptian Museum, which is encompassed by the Neues Museum on Berlin's Museum Island. "In the Light of Amarna," which begins on Dec. 7, is devoted to the epoch when Egypt's conservative guiding principles were briefly upended and mankind invented monotheism.

The solar enigma of Amarna is exhibited in an 820-square-meter (8,826-square-foot) space, with artifacts on loan from Paris and New York. At the center of it all is the bust, 50 centimeters tall, whose "anxious charm" once delighted German author Thomas Mann. The queen is portrayed with almond eyes and a swan's neck. Her crown is blue, like the hair of Aton.

What an archetype of the erotic. Mona Lisa seems pasty by comparison.

The left eye is missing. Although the excavator had workers sift through the rubble and even promised a finder's fee of five pounds, the iris, made of black wax and rock crystal, was not found.

Computer tomography images reveal the level of skill employed by the sculptor more than 3,300 years ago. First, he carved the face of Nefertiti from a piece of limestone. Then he covered it with plaster, smoothed out the nose, removed small creases and narrowed the cheeks. A Fascinating Era

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke called the result "enchanting." The French Egyptologist Christian Jacq praised the "radiant grandeur" of the bust, whose "smile is animated with an inner light."

But of what use are such hymns of praise? Who was the historic figure behind the regent, who lived shortly after the Stone Age, and her husband -- the epitome of ugliness -- who impregnated his own daughters?

Critics say that the enchantress from the faraway pyramid nation has been viewed from an overly "modern" perspective until now. Doesn't her face also seem cold and dismissive? A cobra, prepared to strike, was originally mounted on the front of the crown. The appropriate reaction to the sculpture, writes US art historian Camille Paglia, is fear.

Egyptologist Christian Bayer recently discovered a fragment that perfectly matches the original in a Cairo museum. It's a copy. Bayer suspects that the bust was used for purposes of mass production, an official propaganda image of sorts -- not unlike the images of Josef Stalin.

Even more confusing is the fact that archeologists are now familiar with more than 100 images of Nefertiti. She is portrayed as a sphinx, with thick lips, trampling down her enemies, as an older woman with stretch marks -- and even with male facial features.

So who exactly was Nefertiti? The answer is made more difficult by the fact that Amarna is like a vortex in which all traditions and habitual ways of thinking were destroyed. Even gender boundaries were broken down. Not surprisingly, the study of this strange era is particularly interesting.

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