OCTOBER   2019


Saturday, April 13, 2019


I call it the $390 million lunch. It was held alfresco on the banks of the Nile, late morning, Monday, 20 January, 1913. The host of this cannibal's soiree was the "tactless and brusque” archeologist Ludwig Borchardt (above), 50 year old special attache of the German Embassy in Cairo and director of the German Oriental Society, which had just finished its sixth season of excavations of the abandoned capital city of Akanaten.  Borchardt had spent two years cataloging the Egyptian Museum, and was the first to realize the Great Pyramids of Giza were not merely tombs, but a necropolis complex.  He had even studied the best forgers in the Cairo market.  No one knew ancient Egypt better than Ludwig Borchardt, and he was hungry for more.  His main course this day was Gustave Lefebvre, a 33 year old Frenchman fluent in classical Greek, who had studied in Athens, was an expert in Ancient Greek and Egyptian literature and had been working in Egypt since 1902. Lefebvre was no slouch. Nevertheless, Borchardt was about to him eat him for lunch.
The meal began with a feast, the best that could be supplied to distinguished Europeans in the age of imperialism, complete with copious quantities of good French wine.  And after the calf had been fatted, Bourchardt led his victim first into the hot office tent to read the carefully inventoried list of finds, and then into the larger darker tent where the finds were laid out in open boxes, as dictated under the Egyptian “Partage” law.  For 30 years every foreign expedition had been required to divide its finds "√† moiti√© exacte" – into two financially equal shares - from which the Egyptian Museum would take their choice. In 1912 the law was strengthened to also allow the Museum to retain any particular item from the expedition's share. It was all an attempt to stem the wholesale European theft of Egyptian heritage.
Except the new law said the division was supposed to be held at the museum on Wasim Hasan street in downtown Cairo, not in the field.  And there were no Egyptians in authority at the Egyptian Museum, -  there had never been.  No Egyptians were qualified.  Since the French invaded in 1798, and the British replaced them in the 1882, Egyptian history had been yet another resource to be exploited by the patriarchal European colonialist. Their excuse was they meant well. But even with the best of intentions, the most valuable bits and pieces of Egyptian history ended up being owned by Germans, the English, French and Italians. If they could have boxed up the pyramids and shipped them home, they would have. What was about to happen here at Arkanaten would be a good example.
Just after lunch on 6 December, 1912,  Ludwig Borchardt received a note from Ahmed al-Sabussi, one of his Egyptian foremen, informing him that a “flesh-colored neck with red bands painted into it” had been uncovered at a building then identified as P47.2, room 19. Later it would be determined to have been the studio of Thutmose, when an ivory horse blinker was found in a courtyard rubbish pit inscribed with his name and his occupation - “sculptor”.  Ludwig, sensing something, important, raced to the site and was presented with the now completely uncovered bust. The instant he looked at it, Borchardt knew it was Nefertiti because of her flat topped crown, and he knew it was extraordinary. He wrote in his diary, “You cannot describe it with words. You must see it....Colors as if just applied. Work is outstanding.” They even took the time to take photographs.
Borchardt noted that the bust was missing its left eye, and offered a reward of £5 if it could be found. (It would not be) Then, because it was getting dark, he ordered Professor Herman Ranke (above, left) to guard it overnight.  Ranke later boasted, that night he slept next to the beautiful Nefertiti. In the morning Borchardt had the queen moved to his own tent, and he kept her there, out of sight, until Gustave Lefebvre arrived in January to oversee the division of spoils – er, artifacts.
In the office tent Lefebvre noted that atop the left hand column of the inventory were listed ten stone artifacts, including a rare limestone colored “folding alter” a sort of  TV tray (above),  a duplicate of one  already the prize of a Berlin museum. Midway down the right hand column of 25 plaster busts, was listed “a colored gypsum bust of a princess of the royal family”. In fact it was Nefertiti. In addition, the Frenchman was shown a photograph of each artifact, although Bruno Guterbock, secretary of the Society, who was present, admitted the photo of Nefertiti was “not exactly the most advantageous.” Borchardt himself later confessed the picture was composed so as hide her beauty, but also“ to refute, if necessary, any later talk...about concealment.”  The slight of hand, worked. The affable Lefebvre accepted the Germans had divided the finds into “approximate equivalency”. In fact, it seemed more than fair. The Egyptians got all the stone artifacts while the Germans were keeping only the cheaper plaster ones.
Then they went into the larger, darker storage tent, where all the boxes were sitting, open, available for inspection. Guterbock was now very nervous. He had warned Borchardt about his “"obfuscation of the material.” The box containing Nefertiti was in a back row, open as all the crates were, her blue crown hidden beneath a black wig. But if Lefebvre should bother to lift the two and a half foot tall statue he would know immediately it was far too heavy to be made of plaster. Borchardt assured his secretary that if caught he would simply say it was all a mistake. But, as the German had anticipated, after a “superficial examination” of the artifacts, Lefebvre approved of the German division of the spoils, thanked his host, and headed back to Cairo.
Within hours the lady began a 2,000 mile journey to Berlin, Germany. There she was presented to the man who had paid for her excavation, the cotton importer and clothing exporter, Henri James Simon (above). He was the sixth richest man in Germany, a self described Prussian Jew, known as the only collector who brought more objects out of Egypt than Napoleon. And he donated them all to German museums. However, the bust of Nefertiti was so beautiful that Simon held onto her for a year, in part at the urging of Borchardt.  Even after the rest of the expedition's hoard went on public display in the Berlin Museum in 1914, the lady was kept hidden.  At the end of June that year the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were gunned down in Sarajevo, Serbia. Within a month all of Europe was sucked into war, and for four years archeology became an unaffordable luxury.
The war ruined Simon.. The British blockade cut him off from his cotton and his customers. In 1917 he donated everything he still held to the Berlin Museum.  And in 1924 “she who comes in beauty” went on public display, even though Borchardt strongly advised against it. The queen of the Nile was an instant hit, producing headlines around the world, and long lines to gaze upon her face. The Europeans running the Egyptian Museum were offended and demanded the lady back. When it was clear there was no legal option, they canceled all German Egyptian digs in 1925. They later relented on that, but they never stopped asking that Nefertiti be returned.
For a long time there had been doubts about the authenticity of the limestone folding table top or altar which Borchardt had used to entice and distract Gustave Lefebvre. The hieroglyphic for truth (Maat) was misspelled in four separate places on the panel, and in the carvings Akhenaten is shown as left-handed, unlike every other depiction of him (above). And then in 2008 Italian scientists examined the the panel under ultraviolet light, and apparently what had looked like a patina of 3,000 years of weathering was merely a darker base color of paint. Even though the actual paper was never released for peer review, respected Egyptologist Rudolf Krauss, a curator at the Berlin Museum from 1982 to 2007, declared publicly that the altar was a fake perpetrated by Borchardt.  Fellow Berlin curator, Dietrich Wildung, called the altar rubbish, and Christian Loeben, director of the Egyptian collection at the August Kestner Museum in Hanover, Germany called it an absolute forgery. But without the full paper, detailing methodology and results, it is impossible to speak with certainty.
If Borchardt was enough of a scoundrel to have faked the altar, can we trust he did not also fake the bust of Queen Nefertiti? The insurance companies have decided to avoid difficult questions like that, and merely set a price on the head of a Queen of the Nile. That figure is now at $390 million.
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Friday, April 12, 2019


I know that the King of Egypt, Akhenaten, AKA Amenhotep IV, died around 1336 B.C.E., at about 50 years of age, in the 17th year of his reign, possibly of a heart attack. It is hard to speak with certainty after 4, 000 years, and until 2010 the only evidence we had were faint hints carved on the walls of ancient monuments and tombs. But using DNA his mummy (above)  has been identified with a “distinctive, egg-shaped skull, slight spinal scoliosis, impacted wisdom teeth... (and a) cleft palate”. These physical characteristics hint at Homocystinuria, an inherited disorder which also often produces glaucoma, which blinds its sufferers. This is what comes from sleeping with your siblings, as the gene causing this disorder is recessive and develops only when you inherit two copies. But intermarriage was something the Ancient Egyptian nobility often did, keeping the crown and their property in the family. Among other things.
If Akhenaten's son had been his co-ruler, then the boy's mother would have been the regent, ruling the nation until the new Pharaoh grew.  But his son (by a “lesser” wife) was not the co-ruler,  Nefertiti was. So on the death of the King, the Queen became the Pharaoh, playing her new role under the name Smenkhkare and/or Neferneferuaten.  She was even depicted in the very un-Queenly activity of wield a killing mallet (above), dispatching prisoners under the rays of Aten, as other Pharaohs were. This had happened before, when the queen Hatsheput had put on a fake beard and governed for 22 years.  But Hatsheput's Egypt had been unified, while Nefertiti's was a land divided by religion.
Three of her daughters were dead, killed by a plague which  had ravaged Egypt for three years. The followers of Amun Ra saw this as divine punishment for the Aten heresy.  But Nefertiti had been devoted to her husband, and was determined to protect his legacy, their family and their faith.  Her problem was she had few allies inside Egypt.  So she appealed to the only other power that could resist the nobility and the Priesthoods, the mortal enemies of the Egyptian Empire, the Hittites.
The only copy we have of the this extraordinary appeal appears in the history compiled by the Hittite King Mursili II. He says the Egyptian Queen dispatched an ambassador to his father, King Suppiluliuma I, with the following plea. “My husband is dead and I have no son. People say that you have many grown sons. If you send me one of your sons he will become my husband for it is repugnant to me to take one of my subjects as a husband.”  The letter did not suggest the Hittite Prince would become Pharaoh, but the offer was unique in history. It would have been as if, an American President had offered to appoint a Russian as Vice President.  And that could never happen, could it?   The ruling Hittite Council were  suspicious and sent their Chamberlain,  Hattu-Zittish , to see of it was a trap.
Neffertiti's response to this envoy was almost frantic. “Why do you say 'They are trying to deceive me?' If I had a son, should I write to a foreign country in a manner humiliating to me and to my country? You do not believe me and you even say so to me!...I have written to no other country, I have written to you. They say that you have many sons. Give me one of your sons and he will be my husband and lord of the land of Egypt.” There it was, the offer to make a Hittite prince the King of Egypt. And that clinched the deal. Mursili II records, “Because my father was generous, he granted the lady's request and decided to send his son.” What a nice guy.
However, the transaction was never consummated. Shortly after arriving on Egyptian soil the Hittite Prince, Zannanza, was murdered.  Suppililiuma I demanded an explanation. “What have you done with my son?...the blood spilled between us is not right.” But the new Egyptian King gave no explanation. It appears another revolution had occurred in Egypt.
During the counter revolution, Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Lady of Grace, She Who Comes With Beauty, Great King's Wife, His Beloved, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Pharaoh of Egypt, simply disappeared. Her tomb was never occupied. Her mummy, if she ever had one, has never been found. Her name was scratched off almost all of the temples and her legend was systematically smashed. It appears they even broke into the workshop of Thutmose the Royal Sculptor, to smash and destroy all images of this woman. After even the bricks from the walls of Aketaten were scavenged, the broken images of Nefertiti were left behind, to be swallowed by the desert sands.
Her death was just the beginning. Nefertiti's record as a ruler was wiped clean, almost impossible to reconstruct. Some Egyptologists are still arguing about whether she had died years before. But she did not. The effort to abolish her memory seems too complete to have been merely punishment for a despot. Even a Stalin is remembered with reverence by some. But Queen Nefertiti, Pharaoh Neferneferuaten, seems to have committed a crime far worse than mere tyranny. She was a traitor, to the faith of her people, to the land of her people, to her role which was to produce sons for her King.
The casket of Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who betrayed the faith, was defaced (above). But it was also persevered, probably by his son, the boy King Tutankhamen .Some of the grave goods prepared for Nefertit's tomb were re-gifted and found in Tutankhamen tomb instead. But the woman Akhenaten loved more than any other, received no casket. She received no monument.  Her memory was scratched off, discarded, condemning her to three thousand years of silent death.
And then, out of the darkness of seemingly endless time came a wonk, a German nerd, a Teutonic bookworm, to rescue Nefertiti from obscurity. And for this he was branded a thief.
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Thursday, April 11, 2019


I would like to have met Thutmose, the sculptor. Without him we would never have known what a lovely woman  Nefertiti was.  His genius as an artist would not be realized for 4,000 years, but like Michelangelo, even during his own lifetime he was known as a great artist, entrusted with the public image of the two most important politicians in his world, the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife.  But more than that, like Leonardo da Vinci he was also an intimate witness to a major revolution in technology that literally built the world we live in.
With few hardwood trees, humans in the Nile Delta first built their homes with mud -  malleable mud -  sometimes formed into bricks, dried solid by the sun.  But each adobe brick swelled and contracted separately with the daily temperature swings, and thus larger structures tended to separate and crack. Stone, the other building material available in Egypt, would last forever, but was hard to work with without metals,  and if the joint where one stone met another was not a perfect, the entire structure was unstable.  And the fit was never perfect. The solution was a combination of the two materials; a malleable stone. In the building trade this is called mortar.
In the Old Kingdom, a thousand years before the birth of Nefertiti, mortar was not used to bind stones together, but merely provided a level surface for their meeting. The fingerprints of ancient Egyptians were recorded as they pushed mud into nooks and crannies, leveling the joints between the great sandstone blocks of the Pyramids of Giza. But over the next centuries mortar became the subject of a great deal of study, which is when the ancient Egyptians discovered Gypsum.
It was lying about all over Egypt. Its what you get when you dry up an ocean, and other then the bleaching skeletons of ancient whales, large deposits of gypsum are the strongest evidence that the Sahara desert was once an ocean basin. To a modern chemist it is calcium sulfate, and is the primary ingredient in dry wall. Deposits of gypsum so aided the creation of the city of Paris, that the formula used there gave rise to the ubiquitous phrase “Plaster of Paris”, and it can even be used as a fertilizer.
The ancient Egyptians were unaware of most of this, but they did know the material was soft, gritty and eager to dissolve in water.  And when blended in water with limestone or chalk (calcium carbonate), it produced the sought after malleable stone. During the middle of the 18th dynasty (1400 – 1300 B.C.E.) the use of gypsum mortars became standard throughout Egypt.  Now houses and smaller temples could be built of standardized mud blocks, joined by and coated with a binding agent of similar properties, so the entire structure expanded and contracted as one. It made the construction of the new city of Aketaten possible.   And with a few modifications to the formula, it made Thutmose a better artist.
Perhaps someday a new study of Egyptology will open a tomb and find the name Thutmose on a painted mural, with his mummy resting securely beneath. But I doubt it. I fear it far more likely that we will only know him by the few examples of his works that survived in his workshop on the southeast corner of a slum lined street in the southern section of Aketaten. What if the only evidence we had of Leonardo Di Vinci was the Mona Lisa and his crumbling masterpiece, “The Last Supper”? What would we think of him if we did not have his notebooks on anatomy, or his drawings of a flying machine? That is where we are in our appreciation of the world's first identifiable great artistic genius, Thutmose.
He must have begun with a plaster mask, poured directly on the subject's face. This is an indignity suffered by Hollywood actors today, and was possible here only because the Pharaoh Akhenaten (above) had endorsed Thutmose's “naturalistic” artistic revolution. Once the plaster cast had been created, it was used as a guide for carving limestone busts. Nefertiti's bust was 19 inches tall and weighed 44 pounds, or probably almost half of what the Queen's head weighed in life. Several busts of members of the court have survived, and provide an opportunity for living humans to look half way back to the invention of agriculture, directly into the real face of their  ancestors. What returns your gaze is a human, very much like people you know.
The limestone busts were a major technical achievement, but it was now that Thutmose the artist stepped up, as he “worked from life”,  applying plaster to the bust, to perfectly match the person sitting before him. In the case of Queen Nefertiti, Thutmose captured “laugh lines” around the corners of her mouth and cheeks, a bump on her nose, bags under her eyes and wrinkles beginning on her neck. He even flattened her cheek bones a little, indicating perhaps a slight change in weight between the casting, and the carving of the stone. This was a great beauty in her middle age, the mother of six girls, with gravity taking its toll, as it does to all of us. And when the plaster additions satisfied the artist, Thutmose then added yet another layer of stucco, smoothing the lines, straightening the nose, perhaps to please his model. She was, after all, the Queen, and vanity is a very human trait, but unlimited vanity a royal one.
And then he painted the face to life, using black quartz held in place with beeswax for the iris of her one eye. For the blue of her jewels he used ground glass with copper oxide. For the yellow bands in her crown he used arsenic sulfide (the mineral orpiment), and for the green crown of Egypt, powdered glass and cooper and iron oxide. The black eyeliner was coal and beeswax, with red chalk for the lips. Her rich skin tone was recreated by adding red chalk to lime spar, also known as our old friend mortar.
The assumption is that the bust which survives today in a Berlin museum, was created as a guide for apprentice artists to produce the many copies that would have sat in the offices of bureaucrats and in temples from the Nile Delta to the southern reaches of Kush, beyond the cataracts of the Nile. This was not the image of a queen on a coin, but the real face of a real woman, who you would recognize if you saw her on the street or sat  next to you in the theatre. And this is the first time in human history that such a face was created and has survived for 4,300 years, half way back to the birth of agriculture.
Gaze into her face. This was the woman whom the Pharaoh declared to be his co-ruler in the 12th year of his reign, equal in power with the king himself. No King had ever named his wife as co-ruler.  Now her word was law, just as his was.  A hundred years previously the widow Hatsheput had successfully ruled for 22 years as Pharaoh, establishing the wealth that ensured the survival of the 18th dynasty. But she had first been regent for her young nephew, before taking power herself.  Nefertiti had no such justification. Why would Akhenaten promote her to power?  He must have trusted her with his life, and more, with his revolution.
By 1338 B.C.E, it must have been clear to Akhentaten that his revolution had failed. The new faith had not spread beyond his new capital. Worse, his orders were being ignored, within and without the empire. His border with the Hittites, who were centered in modern day Turkey, was crumbling. What could have cause him to share his power at such a crucial moment? There are hints and rumors that the King, the Pharaoh, the beloved of the sun god Aten,  had gone blind.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019


I know just what the King was looking for – a spot where the sandstone cliffs closed in to within half a mile of the river, and where the once-in-a-century flash floods had sliced a V-shaped notch in the canyon rim, carving a dry canyon or wadi opening toward the river. Perhaps the King already had such a location in mind, or perhaps Bek, his Chief of Works, knew just the spot where every morning the sun-god Aten would first dramatically peek into the life giving valley of the Nile. The spot they chose was 100 miles south of the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, and 150 mile north of the New Kingdom capital of Thebes. Here, almost equal distance between the two historical  power centers of Egypt, Amenhotep IV decided to begin his revolution.
The Pharaoh was able to build his new city of Aketaten almost at will because of a recent technological import, the shaduf (above). Wikipedia explains this was “an upright (tripod) frame on which is suspended a long pole... At the long end of this pole hangs a bucket, skin bag, or bitumen-coated reed basket. The short end carries a weight...When correctly balanced... some effort is used to pull an empty bucket down to the water, but only the same effort is needed to lift a full bucket...a shaduf can raise over 2,500 liters (of water) per day.” With this relative new tool, irrigation ditches and fields to grow enough coarse wheat, beans and lentils to feed a city could be established anywhere along the Nile.
But the King could have no secrets from his Grand Vizier, who was also the High Priest of Amun-Ra. And it was that priest,  Huy, through his bureaucrats up and down the river, who assisted in planning and assembling for this assault upon the god Amun Ra. Only the power of the army would have kept Huy from striking back in defense of his god. Still, throughout 1347 and 1346 B.C.E. , as preparations continued, Thebes must have been a very tense place.
On the 13th of October of 1345 B.C.E., the fifth year of the Pharaoh’s reign, at the beginning of the cool winter months, they dedicated the start of construction of Aketaten, the "Horizon of the Aten". To the east of the 8 mile long construction site a walled village had been prepared for the artisans, foremen and skilled workers - some 64 simple mud brick row houses in a neat rectangle, with a guard house at the only exit. With 5 – 10 men per house, this would have contained over 600 men. In addition each region would have paid part of their yearly taxes with unskilled workers, who would sleep and eat in tents or in the open.
First to be built was the Chapel of the Great Temple to Aten - the rest of the temple would come in time.  At the same time the royal palace and estates were started, barracks for soldiers and military headquarters, all to the north of the new temple.  A ditch separated this section from the central city, with large houses for court officials and priests of Aten, each with their own grain storehouses, and, of course, more temples to Aten.  Here, as well, were homes for the clerks and head servants, and the workshop of the highest ranking member of the division of Works who moved to Aketaten, Bek's assistant, Thutmose, the sculpture.  As you moved southward through the city along the “Royal Road”, the homes got smaller, all white washed mud brick and built quickly. The western edge of the city was the High Priest Street, ending in the large temple granaries among the slums and workers' apartments of the southern section.
Carved into the crowding cliffs were to be the tombs of the priests and functionaries who had converted to the new faith.  And up the canyon leading toward that V-shaped notch in the cliff, in what became the royal wadi, was to be carved the magnificent tomb of Nefertiti and her King, Amenhotep IV.  It was at the dedication and ground breaking ceremony that the King took the next step in his revolution.  He publically changed his name.  The Pharaoh decreed that henceforth he would be known as Akhenaten, “The Spirit of Aten”.  It was a declaration of war between the power of the King and his god Aten, and the power of Huy and his god Amun Ra.
“His Majesty mounted a great chariot of electrum, like the Aten when He rises on the horizon and fills the land with His love, and took a goodly road to Aketaten, the place of origin (where Aten's light first fell on the Nile each morning), which (the Aten) had created for Himself that he might be happy therein. It was His son Akhenaten (the Pharaoh), who founded it for Him...Heaven was joyful, the earth was glad (and) every heart was filled with delight when they beheld him.”
His new city had no walls, as if the King were defying Huy to move against him. But Huy could afford to be patient. The strength of Amun Ra (above) did not spring merely from the wealth of its most powerful acolytes such as Huy, but also from its appeal to the masses. They trusted the god “who hears the prayer, who comes at the cry of the poor and distressed..” Most Egyptians confessed their sins to the merciful and forgiving Lord of Thebes, Amun Ra. “Though it may be that the servant is normal in doing wrong, yet the Lord is normal in being merciful. The Lord of Thebes does not spend an entire day angry...As the Ka (soul) endures, thou will be merciful” And Huy knew the power of this simple idea, that the world was not created merely to please the kings and queens, but that they were created to serve the world. Amun Ra was the faith of the people. Aten was the faith of the King. And they both were moves toward monotheism.
While his new capital was being prepared, Akhenaten, who had been Amenhotep IV, returned to Thebes and step by step pushed his revolution. All donations to Amun Ra were temporarily diverted to the priesthood of Aten, to support construction of Aketaten . But over time that would become permanent. In 1343 B.C.E. the Pharaoh left Thebes for the last time, taking his dear wife, Nefertiti, his harem, his advisers and  most of the government to his new city. None were allowed follow him to Aketaten, unless they had publicly renounced Amun Ra and the other old religions, and sacrificed to Aten. This meant that none could appeal their case directly to the king unless they had first converted. But a small statue of Osiris found within the site of Aketaten, shows that for many, this conversion was a matter of convenience only.
Next, the Pharaoh decreed that all other faiths were apostate, and illegal. He ordered the closure of all temples to Osiris, Isis, Ptah, Mut and Amun Ra,. Further  he order the desecration of the images of all other Egyptian gods.  The carved name of the gods, their “ren”, was to be scratched out of the blessings and oaths inscribed in all temples and tombs. It was an act of desecration under the old religion, for without a ren the gods could not assist the deceased to rise from the dead. In effect, it damned the Pharoah's own father, and all fathers and mothers of all of Egypt to the eternal cold night. The destruction was carried out in Thebes, but the absence of resistance to this royal decree seems to indicate it was carried out in few other places in Egypt. And, since Akhenaten had sworn to never leave Aketaten again, it was unlikely he would ever know of this defiance. The Pharaoh continued to issue edicts. And increasingly they were ignored. Either he was willing to be lied to, or he was unaware his self imposed isolation was depriving him of control of everything beyond the the walls of his new palace. Or he had lost his mind.
Nine years after he had ascended the twin thrones of Egypt, in 1341 B.C.E., the King's mother, Queen Tiji, arrived in Aketaten unannounced, and without conversion to Aten. She was delivering a message to the King, and he would have to listen to her. The relationship between divine kings and their mothers is always difficult for the King. It may be easy to convince strangers that you are a god, but your mother remembers how you came into the world, and it was aboard no chariot of electrum. It was Tiji who convinced her son to cool down his revolution. But whether she told him his decrees were being ignored, or warned him the army had reached the breaking point of support is unclear. But we know that after her visit the revolution abruptly came to a halt. There would be no more changes in Egypt. And we know that Tiji did not stay in Aketaten very long.
The king did not renounce his new faith. Nor did he leave Aketaten. But he restricted himself to rides on the Royal Road that went no where except to his daily absolution in the Great Temple of Aten,. His life became centered on his beloved main wife-sister, now called Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, “The Aten is radiant of radiance because the beautiful one has come.” And I think it was now she sat as a model for the sculptor Thutmose, as he created one of the most famous icons of art in the history of the world.
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Tuesday, April 09, 2019


I warn you that meeting an icon in the flesh is almost always disappointing. Kings and queens, gods and saints, zealot and demagogue are really just stone cold reflections of their acolytes' vision. Real heroes have feet of clay, and it is the clay that is usually the interesting part. With clay you can shape mountains, build palaces, sculpt river valleys, hold warm food or a cold drink, even record legends. But what are you to do when you meet an icon that is both stone and clay? What are we to make of Nefertiti?
At first glance she is a contradiction, the definition of feminine beauty and royal imperiousness, at once immediate and distant, warm and lifeless. She is iconically Egyptian, and yet she now sits alone in a room in Berlin, Germany. She is a Mona Lisa in sandstone, and clay and plaster, powdered glass and arsenic sulfide, coal and beeswax. And so lifelike you might expect her to suddenly rise and walk out of the room, except she is 4,300 years old. And she has no legs. She is the illusion of a genius, a display of talent and skill that humans would not achieve again until Michelangelo turned stone into an apprehensive David. And yet she was abandoned, discarded as sacrilegious trash, forgotten in the ruins, not worth picking up or going back for. And we are forever in the debt of the fools who wanted her forgotten forever.
The real woman was bred to be a ruler, bred to be a breeder of rulers, who only produced six girls for her husband. Because of that it was the men in her lives who defined Nefertiti. Her father Ay was ambitious, and used her beauty to grasp for power. Her husband, a scarecrow of a misshapen prince who became the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV was one of the most powerful and extraordinary mad men in history. And likely her brother. She was immortalized by the artist Thutmose, a bureaucrat, the Chief of Works for the Pharaoh, but who was artist enough to dare capture her honest humanity in plaster. And she was saved from obscurity by a Prussian academic, Ludwig Borchardt, an overachiever, a dedicated student of ancient Egypt, a savvy horse trader, and a fervent German nationalist. And to her list of admirers and fans  we have to add Adolf Hitler and George Patton and a arrogant Egyptian archaeologist. Consider all of that and you might begin to understand the difficulty in finding the real woman behind the statue. 
The dominance of those men might explain why we do not know her real name. History records her as Nefertiti (above), which translates as “The Beauty Has Come”. And that she was. But that name was bestowed by her husband, and royal Egyptians changed their names every time they changed their roles in life. Her younger sister's name was Mutbenret, a common girl's name meaning “Sweet one of Mut”. Mut was the mother goddess of Egypt. Unless they had a different father (which was certainly possible) Nefertiti's original name was probably closer to her sister. As a queen of the Nile, Nefertiti was also known as the Great Royal Wife, Lady of Grace, Sweet Love, Lady of all Women, Lady of the Two Lands, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. And Egypt was the stage upon which she performed all of her roles, those of the living breathing woman, and those of a stone and plaster icon, missing an eye to keep her a icon soulless.
An ancient Egyptian proverb says “Help yourself and the Nile will help you.” Egypt has been defined by the river for 12,000 years, since the sluggish White and pulsing Blue Nile's first joined and began chasing the retreating Mediterranean Sea northward. From their junction just above the 5th cataract (modern day Khartoum), the Nile traverses 1,200 miles of desert in a great S curve. Then, at Aswan and the first cataract, the placid river heads due north for another 930 miles, a mile wide moving oasis dividing lifeless sands, to modern day Cairo. Over its final 100 miles above Cairo the river divides into two again, the Damietta and the Rosetta channels,  before reaching the sea. And it was here, in the 150 mile wide Nile Delta that Lower Egypt was born first.  Later, three hundred miles lower on the river,  Upper Egypt formed around the city of Abydos. About 3150 B.C.E. (5,000 years ago), the two kingdoms were united when Namer, ruler of Lower Egypt took as his bride the Upper Egyptian princess Neithhotep, meaning “loved of Neith”.
At the end of 1350 B.C.E., when Amenhotep III died after 38 years on the throne, the capital of Egypt was Thebes. Egypt had reached its pinnacle – of wealth and power and influence and art. But the 45 year old man who wore the twin crowns had grown timid and fat, racked by debilitating arthritis and that most Egyptian of ailments, dental abscesses – developed by a life time of grinding sand grains in every mouthful of food. Amenhotep III's devotions to the minor god Aten, the sun disk, grew to match his agonies. His great wife, Tyie, had assumed many of his duties, as he prepared to enter the city of the dead. Only near the end was the Pharaoh's eldest surviving son, who had been schooled away from Thebes, finally brought back to the palace. His absence had kept him safe but woefully inexperienced in politics.
The term Pharaoh began as the name of the King's “Great House” - his palace. But it had come to refer not only to the god-man on the throne, but to the palace servants, the bureaucrats and functionaries, much as the term “White House” is used today. This institutionalized Pharaoh was supported by two pillars of power, the army which obeyed only the King's commands and the priesthood of the god Amun-Re (pronounced Amun-Ra). The god Amun had started as a local deity of Thebes, but through centuries of donations by wealthy nobility and even Pharaohs, the god Amun-Re had grown to ultimate power, co-opting many of the old gods into an all encompassing triad deity, the father son and holy ghost. According to an Egyptian proverb, “All gods are three... He who hides his name as Amun (the invisible father), he appears to the face as Re (the sun), whose body is Ptah.(the creator). By 1350 B.C.E. the priesthood of Amun-Re controlled up to 30% of all land in Egypt, vast wealth and estates, armies of slaves and fleets of ships; even more numerous than the Pharaoh.
The man who placed the twin crowns of Egypt on Amenhotep IV's head was the High Priest Amenhotep-Huy (above). He had also been the previous Pharaoh's Vizier, or chief of staff, and his “Director of Works for Upper and Lower Egypt”, Superintendent of the Harem; Overseer of the Double Treasury of the Great Royal Wife, and Steward of Queen Tiji.  And he continued in those posts under the new Pharaoh, because Huy had allies in both the government and the faith, making him the second most powerful man in Egypt. In some ways, the most powerful. In addition Huy was a wealthy man in his own right, from a powerful delta family. He personally owned large estates and an exclusive resort on the “Reed Sea” where he rewarded his supporters with lavish vacations. He had even dared to dictate to the old and weak previous Pharaoh.
The new young ruler (above) waited, squirming against the restraints placed on him by Huy. At first he went about his duties, dedicating several new temples in Thebes and its religious suburb of Karnak, including one close to his father's heart, the Gempaaten (“the Aten is found in the estate of the Aten”). Most of these temples had been started by his father, and built by his chief architect Bek. But it seems Amenhotep had begun to feel out those around him. We know he encouraged Bek to turn away from the standardized art of his father - and Huy. Amenhotep urged Bek to draw and sculpt more closely from life. The young king and his beautiful wife spreading such revolutionary messages must have set off sparks of support among the young artisans in his service.
After two years Amenhotep and Nefertiti had two daughters (above), Meritaten (she who is loved of Aten) and Meketaten (she who is protected by Aten). As their names indicated, the Pharaoh had begun to turn his private face away from Amun- Re. He was growing more determined that when he finally had a son, the boy should never be forced to kowtow before a mere functionary, a priest like Huy. An idea was forming in Amenhotep's mind, a way to freedom, a sweeping away of the old way of doing things, breathing new life into his Kingdom, and using some of that great wealth his father had guarded to restrain the smothering Priesthood of Amun-Re.
In the third year of his reign, Amenhotep IV ordered Bek to dispatch royal engineers up the Nile, looking for a spot away from Thebes where a new city could be established, a new city dedicated to the god Aten. What he did not tell anyone yet, was that he intended this new city be the new capital of Egypt; to be named Akhetaten
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