18 October 2009

Nefertiti Overshadowed

The New York Times reported today that Zahi Hawass has begun an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the removal of the Nefertiti bust from Egypt in 1913. If the bust is deemed to have been removed illegally, Hawass will officially request its return to Egypt. The controversy surrounding the bust's removal is not a new one, and details of the circumstances have been revealed in recent editions of the journal KMT. The artifact was excavated in December of 1912 by a German archaeological expedition working at the site of el-Amarna. At the time, excavated antiquities were subject to a "division of finds" policy, by which a representative of the Egyptian antiquities organization would select those artifacts to be kept in Egypt, and the rest would be awarded to the foreign institution that sponsored the dig. The Nefertiti bust was removed from Egypt in the context of this division of finds. I have nothing new to add to this much-discussed topic; if the information in KMT is reliable, then it would appear that there was fault on both sides. The discoverer of the bust, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, very likely glossed over the significance of the find when the government inspector came to the site in early 1913 - Borchardt may even have visually obscured the true quality of the bust. On the other hand, the inspector Gustave Lefebvre (in 1913, the Department of Antiquities [now the SCA] was still under French control) failed to recognize the value of the bust and did not claim it for Egypt.

One thing I will comment on, however, is that I find one aspect of the current German response potentially disingenuous: "...because it [the bust] is so fragile, I am not sure the statue can even be flown." During WWII, the Nefertiti bust, along with thousands of other artifacts from German museums, was packed up and shipped to a secure location in case of Allied bombing of German cities. Nefertiti survived the war inside a packing crate in a potash mine in central Germany. The bust also survived a trip to a collection point at Wiesbaden after the war, and then the return journey to Berlin in 1955. To say now that a flight to Egypt is impossible...well, it would certainly be a smoother ride than in the back of a truck through the German countryside. Perhaps the bust is more fragile now than at the time of its last trip in 1955, but considering that the Germans tout the exemplary conditions under which it has been displayed, one would hope that any further degredation after 1955 would have been minimal.

What grabbed my attention in the article, more than the Nefertiti bust controversy, was the mention of Farouk Hosni's failed bid to become the new Director General of UNESCO. His scandalous remark at a meeting of the Egyptian parliament overshadowed, for me, the Nefertiti debate. In case you haven't heard it: "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt." This seems to have been something of an off-the-cuff remark, rather than an official statement. Nevertheless, should the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization be someone whose first thought goes to book-burning when confronted with questions about "the other"? I am not concerned with who "the other" is in a situation such as this - the world is full of opposing sides. I'm concerned with the reaction. Book burning is an anathema. It is a violation of education, of science, of culture. In other words, everthing that UNESCO protects. Can you find copies of Mein Kampf in American university libraries? Certainly, and in multiple versions. So too can you find The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion, as well as the works of Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and the collected speeches of Osama Bin Laden.

Zahi Hawass may very well have a legitimate claim for the return of Nefertiti to the Egyptian Museum. Perhaps Egypt should also focus on bulking up its libraries, as well as its museums?

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