Germany: Time for Egypt's Nefertiti bust to go home?

A German museum has a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti as its centerpiece. But should Germany and other Western nations keep or return Egypt's cultural artifacts?

Markus Schreiber / AP
Nefertiti bust on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Queen Nefertiti, who lived 3,500 years ago, was a wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In 1912, German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt found her on the banks of the River Nile – her bust that is, made of stucco and lime. Her new home became Berlin’s Neues Museum. But World War II annihilated the museum and the German Democratic Republic’s communist government let it decay.

This past October, seven decades later, Queen Nefertiti found her home again, as the centerpiece of a new, €200 million (about US$300 million) restored Neues Museum.

The reopening marked Germany’s ability to overcome the scars of war. It also sparked a dispute between Egypt and Germany over who really owns the Nefertiti bust. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, said he would investigate whether it had come to Germany legally. If not, he said he would demand the bust be returned to Egypt.

Nefertiti is among an increasing number of ancient Egyptian relics Mr. Hawass is trying to get back to Egypt. Others include the Rosetta Stone (which helped unlock the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) from the British Museum in London; the Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris; and a bust of pyramid builder Ankhaf from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

“It is the Egyptian people’s right to see works of art from their country’s civilization,” Abdel Halim Nureddin, a former head of Egypt’s antiquities authority, told the Egypt Daily News. Many relics were acquired during British colonial rule.

The Nefertiti controversy is fueling a growing worldwide debate over ownership and cultural property, as countries from Italy to Egypt and Greece are reclaiming antiquities they say were illegally taken.

France this year agreed to return a set of 3,000-year-old Egyptian wall painting fragments it conceded were stolen in the 1980s before ending up at the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.

And when Greece reopened its new $177 million Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis in June, it made another request to Britain to return the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures that were taken off the temple by Lord Elgin in the 1800s. At stake is national and cultural pride.

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