I know the bust of Nefertiti is not sentient. It is not aware of its surroundings or of itself. At its core it is limestone, the compressed bodies of billions of single celled living creatures, coral and plankton, that once had some chemical level of awareness. And I have imagination enough to dream of a universe where any life, once having been sparked, survives in some sense. And I can dream of what it must have been like for cold stone to have the sculptor's warm hands cut and file and shape and soften its surface, combining in some small way his imagination, his life, and the life of Queen of the Nile with the life turned into stone.
In Thutmose's universe his stone and plaster image of Neferetiti became one of the five parts that made up the living woman; Ib, (her emotional heart), Sheut (her ever present shadow), Ren (her living name), Ba (her personality) and Ka (what we would call her soul). It is thought her left eye was left unfinished in order to prevent the capture of Nefertiti's Ka by the bust. But could it not be that the stone and plaster image had its own Ka, or heart or shadow? And if so, what must have it been like to have slowly emerged from the darkness of nonexistence, to be born into existence slowly, and to have then been loved and admired for decades, before being abruptly thrown to the floor, abused and defiled, and then abandoned and forgotten - buried in sands for 3, 000 long dark empty years.
And then the light returned. Meticulously, the sand was brushed away, and once again warm human flesh touched her surface, lifted her up, and human eyes fell upon her shape and color, and human imaginations beheld her image, as a visitor from eons past. And then, in what must have seemed like a startlingly violent instant, she was traveling, whisked 2,000 miles from the place of her creation, into a new temple, a temple dedicated not to a god, but to the Ka of humanity, to that one part of humanity that no other creature on Earth has ever possessed but humans: our imagination. It seems that the bust of Nefertiti has enjoyed a most eventful Akh, or afterlife. She does indeed, live again.
When they first brought her to the Neuss (New) Museum, on Museum Island in the Spree River in Berlin, Germany, it was a re-dedication. The building had been erected in the 1840's, and was, like the Pharaoh’s new capital, a technological innovation – at the time. Instead of plaster, the New Museum was built with concrete poured over iron supporting rods with a brick exterior. The first floor contained Egyptian and German collections, and plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures (below).
But the arrival of the Queen inspired changes. The central Greek courtyard was given a glass roof, and converted into space to display Ludwig Borchardt's collections from Akanetan, referred to by its modern Arabic name of Armarna. And it was here (below) that Nefertiti found her new home. But it did not prove to be a permanent abode.
In January of 1933 a new Pharaoh came to town. Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. His new Reich minister, Herman Goring, began looking for a way to quickly and cheaply improve Germany's diplomatic standing in the world. At the time Egypt was nominally ruled by the debauched King Fariouk Fouad, but the real power behind his throne was Britain. And it occurred to Goring that returning the pilfered bust of Nefertiti on the occasion of his coronation, might cause the King to look favorably upon German diplomatic entreaties. Letters were exchanged with the offer. But when Hitler got wind of the idea he killed it because he was convinced Nefertiti looked to be a member of his mythical“Aryan master race” And that was, as far as I can tell, the last good thing Hitler did for Germany until he shot himself.
Adolf confidently started the Second World War on September 1st, 1939, and even though Goring had assured citizens that Berlin would never be bombed, in an abundance of precaution Nefertiti was boxed up and temporarily locked away in the vault of the Prussian Governmental Bank. Then, on the night of 25 August, 1940, 70 obsolete British bombers dropped 21 tons of bombs on Berlin, hitting empty fields and damaging some houses. The worst injuries were some cuts and bruises, and the bombers never came near to hitting the airport, which has their target.
The biggest causality was Hitler's equilibrium. He ordered the construction of three massive anti-aircraft gun towers in the center of the city. The largest (above) was built in the Tiergarten park, adjacent to the Berlin Zoo. It was 7 stories tall to allow the guns clear fields of fire. The walls were of reinforced concrete 26 feet thick, the ceilings were 16 feet thick. It was so large it could shelter 5,000 civilians, and many of Germany's most valuable artistic treasures, including Nefertiti, were moved there in the fall of 1941. And there she stayed, hidden again, as safe as if she were still buried in the Egyptian sands, for another four and a half years, until the Soviet armies approached Berlin.
On 6 March, 1945, Nefertiti made yet another trip, this one of 200 miles southwest to the rolling hills of the Thuringian Forest, where she was left for safe keeping 2,100 feet below ground level in a salt mine under the village of Merkers-Kieselbach. Late in March she was joined by 100 heavy woolen coats, 100 tons of gold bars, 550 bags of German currency (above) and 27 Rembrandt paintings. Two weeks later the entire cache was captured by soldiers of the 3rd American Army under General George S. Patton. Within days the entire treasure was transferred another 100 miles southwest to a bank vault in Frankfurt. There was so much loot that it took 2 convoys of 17 heavy trucks each. Being capitalists, the Americans shipped the gold first.
After Germany surrendered on 5 May, 1945, the Queen of the Nile was moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, on the north bank of the Rhine River. Here they brought her out into the light again to be examined by experts, and the public was even allowed to gaze upon her face. There she remained, transferred into German control, until 1956, when she was moved to the Dahelem museum in the American sector of Berlin. She could not return to Museum Island because the Neuse had been blasted to ruin during the war (above), and besides, the island was in East Berlin, the zone controlled by the Soviets. When the East Germans demanded she be handed over, the West Germans decided to transfer her to the Egyptian museum in the Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin. And there the Queen stayed for almost forty years - a human life time, but a blink of her single eye to Nefertiti. Then in 1989, the East German government collapsed. In October of 1990 Germany was officially one nation again, and Berlin one city, and it became a matter of national pride for the Germans to return their Egyptian queen to her throne.
In 2005 the German government began a 295 million Euro dollar rebuilding of the Neuse, under a plan drawn up by English Architect David Chipperfield - after all, it was the English who blew up the museum in the first place. And in 2009 the Queen once again held court in the Neuse Museum in the German capital. Her journey from the banks of the Nile to and from and to the banks of the Spree has been described as both “adventurous and beyond comparison”, and earning her the number two spot on Time Magazine's list of “Top ten plundered Artifacts”. Egypt still wants her back, and Germany still intends upon keeping her. And while one identity is barely 200 years old and the other goes back 4,500 years, both countries view Nefertiti as a national icon.
If you think about it, its a crazy situation, because she isn't really the queen of the Nile. She is limestone and plaster and paint, an image of a one time queen of a long dead empire that culturally has little in common with either nation. And if, like Pinocchio, she were to arise tomorrow morning, as a real woman, she would be a very confused lady, no matter which city appeared before her eyes. So far she has not had the afterlife she envisioned. And it may get stranger yet.
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