I come back to the beginning, to the face of she who comes in beauty. Nefertiti draws you back, as if she were about to speak. But who could ever live up to her image? Icons exist because they are the human ideal. And ideals are a human weakness, and a strength. They are what we wish we were. But they are not reality. Consider this - when she married her King, Nefertiti (above) was just 14 years old, little more than a girl.
But when she sat for Thutmose the sculptor she was around thirty, and had born six children, two of whom had died. There was a lifetime in those sixteen years in-between, her life time, the more so because she would be dead before she was 35. Look at her again, and see if she is the same woman, in your eyes.
Her mummy has never been found, while her King's mummy has been identified (above). We now know that Akenaten the heretic king stood just 5' 3” tall, that he a had crooked teeth. And yet he had come to see himself as a messenger of god. His beloved Nefertiti could not have lived with him without believing that as well.
The simplest explanation for the confusion that followed Akenaten's death is that Nefertiti became Pharaoh. And after a reign of less than four years, she was replaced by her nephew, called Tukenaten until her death, and Tutankhamen afterward. He was the boy king who returned the capital to Memphis, and whose mostly intact tomb caused such a sensation when it was opened in 1922 by the Englishman Howard Carter. But King Tut left no heirs, and his was succeeded by Nefertiti's father, the ambitious Ay. After years of political and religious infighting, Ay finally wore the twin crowns. But his rise after Nefertiti's death seems to imply he must have played some role in the event. We know with a certainty that he returned to the old faith of Amun Ra and participated in the removal of his daughter's memory from Egyptian records. What kind of father could wipe out the memory of his own daughter?
The man who financed the expedition that brought her back into the light, Henri James Simon, died in Paris after a short illness in December of 1932 – less than a month before Adolf Hitler came into power. And then Simon became a non-person, removed from history like the Queen of the Nile. Simon's crime, like Nefertiti's, was a matter of religion. He was a Jew. As was Ludwig Borchardt (above). Both men were despised by the Nazi goons, not for their flesh but for an Antisemitic image of them. Simon was the lucky one. Borchadt, the man who betrayed his profession for his country, was hounded out of Germany, and died in Paris in August of 1938.
On the west wall of the tomb prepared for Ay, in the cliffs east of Akhenaten, was inscribed a poem, perhaps even written by the old man himself. It ends; “Every lion comes from its den, All serpents bite.” On the tomb walls he was identified as a Grand Vizier, “God's Father”, the “Fan bearer to the right of the King”, “Overseer of All Horses”, a royal scribe and “Chief of the Archers”. The tomb's praises stop there because it was never used. The old man ruled as Pharaoh for perhaps ten years, and badly. His armies were defeated by the Hittites. After his death around 1320 B.C.E. the old man's mummy ended up sharing Tutankhamen tomb, in the Valley of the Kings. He was replaced by a commoner, his military commander, Horemheb.
It was the Pharaoh Horemheb who fully persecuted the memories of Nefertiti, Akenaten, Tutankhamen and Ay, and who finally and fully abandoned the capital of Akheaten This must have made it difficult at home as his second wife was Mutnedjmet, Nefertiti's sister. No Egyptian Queen would ever again beg a foreign prince to share her kingdom. It was Horemheb who saved Egypt through reforms and reestablishing order. But he left no heirs, and the 18th dynasty died with him. What came next was the 19th, and Setti I, and the greatest Pharaoh of all, Ramses II.
It is usually forgotten in the press that to the archaeologists, the greatest find in Akenaten was not the beautiful lady abandoned on the floor of a forgotten sculptor's workshop, nor even the empty tombs carved into the limestone cliffs, but the the Armarna Letters. These 382 cuneiform baked clay tablets were the remains of Akhaten's “House of Correspondence”, the library of bureaucratic messages between the great kings of Babylon, Mycenae, Greece and the Hittites, and the Egyptian subject peoples across the Middle East. This treasure trove was discovered not by a European scientist, but by an old Egyptian woman, scrounging for dried dung, to fertilize her garden. She actually ground up an unknown number of the priceless tablets to bury in her back yard. And that is not the most absurd thing to have happened to the ancient Egyptians over the last 3,400 years.
According to Henri Stierlin, a Swiss historian, the Nefertiti bust was created by artist Gerardt Marks, made to order for Gustave Borchardt. Stierlin contends ancient Egyptians never cut their busts vertically at the shoulders, as Nefertiti is, and would never have allowed a figure missing an eye. He does admit the pigments used have been carbon dated to the time period of Nefertiti, but reminds defenders of the Neuse museum, that the altar offered to Egyptian antiquities by Borchardt has proven to be a fake. Why not another?
The problem is, if the altar is a fake, it was procured to distract the Cairo Museum away from the bust. Why bother to do that if the bust was also a fake? And Borchardt must have faked not only the bust, but his own diary entries (above) a decade after they were written. So we now have to ask why he would commit a crime that would has sullied his reputation among archaeologist everywhere but Germany, and then commit yet another more difficult crime guaranteed to destroy his reputation in Germany? And how do you get 3, 400 year old pigments on a 100 year old bust? There is no record of any counterfeiter ever removing and re-hydrating ancient paint. And yet, to believe Stierlin, we have to believe Borchardt did all of that. To employ Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation would seem to be that Borchardt was trying to sneak Nefertiti out of Egypt, and Stierlin is just trying to sell books.
So the bust of Nefertiti is the real McCoy, a 3,400 years old “icon of international beauty” and confirmation that ancient peoples were after all just people, as stupid and smart, as greedy and selfless, as ugly and beautiful as you and I and the average supermodel. If Nefertiti was a living breathing enchantress whose radiant “smile is animated with an inner light”, as described by French Egyptologist Christian Jacq, then Thutmose who created the limestone and plaster bust of her, was as great an artist as Leonardo da Vinci who painted the Mona Lisa. And why not? There have been, in my brief lifetime, a Sophia Loren, a Catherine Deneuve, a Michelle Pfeiffer, and a Vanessa Williams. In the 2,000 year history of the Egyptian empire, why would there not have been a Nefertiti? And the truth is, what you see in the face of a beautiful woman or a statue, is always what you hope to see there.
Except the face of Nefertiti is not exactly smiling. I sense instead an air of dismissive superiority, arrogance and vanity. Given her unlimited power of life and death over her subjects, how could you call a Queen of the Nile an egomaniac? Who did not tell he she was beautiful? Who did not tell her she was wise? I would be willing to bet, no one – twice. How could the wife of a god, a Pharaoh herself, not be pretentious, smug, and supercilious? If Nefertiti truly believed that every July she was responsible for the Nile flood, how could she not be peremptory, pompous and presumptuous? If the sun god Aten was drawn to rise every morning in response to her entreaties, it would be illogical for her to be courteous, humble or obliging. For her to have displayed any sign of uncertainty, modesty or weakness, would have been a death sentence. So we should assume she did not do that, at least until just before her death.
So we are back to the beginning, still trying to separate the living woman from the stone image, the flesh and blood from the icon. Each year half a million people journey to look upon her visage. What each sees in her face is what each wants to see. Her father Ay saw a chance for advancement. Most ancient Egyptians saw a heretic. Akanaten saw the love of his life (above). Borchardt saw a path to fame. Adolf Hitler saw confirmation of Aryan purity. Modern Egyptians see an icon of imperialist arrogance. Modern Germans see an icon of German nationality. They are all wrong.
And they are all right. And so are you.
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