Nefertiti: Will the iconic Berlin resident ever make it home?

She left Egypt over a century ago, but Egyptians won't rest until her return. 

We're not in Thebes anymore, Your Majesty!&nbsp;<br>
We're not in Thebes anymore, Your Majesty!
imago images/Andreas Neumeier

Berlin-Nefertiti, the “Great Royal Wife” of Egypt’s 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, and one of ancient Egypt’s most recognised and celebrated queens, left her homeland more than a century ago. The stunning bust depicting the Egyptian queen has since resided in the glorious city of Berlin, moving from one exhibition to another before finally settling in the Neues Museum. In 2019, some 828,000 people visited the museum making it the fourth most popular in Berlin - and Nefertiti is clearly the the main draw.

While Berliners have certainly embraced the queen, affectionately nicknaming her the “Lady of Berlin”- and frequently using her image to advertise the German capital - her countrymen haven’t particularly been pleased with her lengthy departure, resulting in a century-long debate over whether the queen legally parted ways with her homeland or, as Egyptians claim, was deliberately and deceptively taken away against their will.

Most recently, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Khaled Al-Anani reiterated his country’s claim over the bust during a visit to Germany in September 2020. Speaking on TV after the visit, Anani said he had asked the German authorities to return Nefertiti’s bust, but they insisted on keeping it. He added that Germany agreed to hand over five other artefacts of minor value to return to Egypt.

The organisation running the Neues Museum insists the bust was taken from Egypt legally. 

“There is extensive documentation that the bust was legally designated to the German side during the partition of the finds in 1913. In addition, given the findings of a very thorough conservational examination of the bust in 2007, any transport for loan would be irresponsible and could lead to irreparable damage,” explains Birgit Jöbstl, a press officer at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).

“The bust of Nefertiti was discovered at Tell-el-Amarna in December 1912 during an archaeological excavation that was approved by the Egyptian Authorities,” elaborates Jöbstl.

“The excavation was made possible by funding from James Simon, a Berlin merchant and patron of the arts, on behalf of the German Oriental Society (DOG), and was supervised by Professor Ludwig Borchardt of the Imperial German Institute of Egyptology. From the outset, there was an arrangement with the Egyptian Antiquities Department that finds would be divided up in return for the funding. In order to ensure that both parties received equal shares, it was agreed that the team of archaeologists would divide the finds into two parts and the Egyptian Antiquities Service, as the representative of the Egyptian government, would select one. This is what happened.”

The accuracy of the German version of events has long been debated by researchers, with some claiming the bust was basically hidden and taken out without the knowledge of the authorities.

In fact, some went further to claim that “German museum records suggest that Borchardt feared that the Egyptian Antiquities Service might demand her return; this concern on the part of Borchardt implies that Nefertiti might not have been extracted completely legally from Egypt,” claims Dr Salima Ikram, a renowned Pakistani Egyptologist who resides in Egypt, in her contribution to the 2010 book, Contested Cultural Heritage.

“Recently there has been some more research carried out as other papers have been released and it seems that the bust perhaps was examined by the antiquity service and let go, or maybe disguised in some way by the Germans and not looked at carefully by the antiquities representative, and was then assigned to the Germans,” Ikram told Berliner Zeitung.

But seeing that Egypt was under British colonial influence at the time of the discovery, should that invalidate Germany's claims over the bust - even if it was taken out legally?

“This is a very tricky question because if we start going back in time as to what country is what, ownership becomes more complicated,” says Dr Ikram.

“Should the Parthenon Marbles (currently on display at the British Museum) go back to the Turks as they were part of the Ottoman Empire when they left? Also, when the ruler of Egypt (Mohammed Ali) decides to give away artefacts to the Austrians from our first museum, or gives away a pair of obelisks and gets a clock in return, what can one say?”

Egypt’s century-long attempts

Claims about the illegality of the partition of the artefacts have been the foundation of Egypt’s attempts to repatriate the bust for over a century. German leaders in the 1920s and 1930s (yes, the exact leader you’re thinking) have all but fully denied Egypt’s claims over the bust. Egypt even made an attempt after the Second World War, only to be turned down by the Allies who at the time controlled West Germany where the bust had ended up.

In 2005 Egypt formally asked UNESCO to interfere to help repatriate the bust but the appeal fell to deaf German ears. Unsurprisingly, Antiquities Minister Khaled Al-Anani's appeal in the autumn was also rejected. 

Though such attempts have been widely reported by the media, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation stated that “there have never been any official requests for the repatriation of the bust of Nefertiti by the Republic of Egypt in the past, and as far as SPK knows, there are no existing new ones. There have only been requests or public statements made by various individuals and groups.”

Egypt's anitquities authorities could not be reached for comment. 

Could it be good for Egypt?

The fact that the Nefertiti bust, along with many significant pieces from ancient Egypt, aren’t in Egypt may be seen in a negative light by Egyptians. But the fact remains that such pieces acting as worldwide ambassadors of the Egyptian civilization may prove to be valuable in a way or another.

“As the export of Nefertiti is still, in my mind, rather nebulous, I do think that Nefertiti should come home. However, she is one of our most successful ambassadors in the world, historically,” says Dr Ikram.

“Whatever their origins, foreign museum collections have served to educate and inform people about Egypt’s history and culture, and a wider, more global past. Indeed, these artifacts are Egypt’s best ambassadors to the rest of the world and are also a vital part of Egypt’s own past and contemporary identity,” Dr Ikram writes.

Meanwhile, and for the foreseeable future, Egypt’s iconic queen will continue to reside in Berlin’s Neues Museum, seen only by the few Egyptians who manage to make it there, and known to the rest of her countrymen only through photos.