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Nefertiti's bust sparks ‘scientific war’

Egypt's request for Queen Nefertiti's bust for an exhibition, and Germany's subsequent refusal, has sparked a row.

art and culture Updated: Apr 23, 2007 19:06 IST

Egyptian Queen Nefertiti has sparked a war (of words) between Egypt and Germany.

The bone of contention is the famous 3400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti.

The situation has escalated to such an extent that the head of Egypt's antiquities authority has threatened to ban exhibitions and tours of Egyptian artefacts in Germany.

"We will never again organise antiquities exhibitions in Germany if it refuses a request, to be issued next week, to allow the bust of Nefertiti to be displayed in Egypt for three months,” said Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Hawass has requested the sculpture for a temporary exhibition, but German officials say the iconic artwork is too fragile to travel.

Bernd Neumann, Germany's Minister of State for Culture, said antiquities experts have determined the statue is too fragile to make the 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometre) trip to Cairo.

"To lend the Nefertiti bust would be irresponsible," National Geographic quoted Neumann as saying in a statement.

Elsewhere, Hawass has said Germany probably feared Egypt might not return the sculpture back.

"They fear we will be like Raiders of the Lost Ark and we will take it and not give it back," said Hawass, who is a frequent and vocal advocate for the permanent return of Egyptian artefacts to their homeland.

Dietrich Schulenburg, spokesperson for Neumann, however, said Germany's sole concern was preserving the artefact.

"The ownership of Nefertiti by Germany is not in question," said Schulenburg.

The painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti has been in Germany since 1913, a year after it was discovered by a German archaeological team at an ancient sculpture workshop at Tel el 'Amrna, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) south of Cairo.

The Nefertiti issue last flared in 2003, after the Egyptian Museum in Berlin let two artists place the bust atop a nearly nude female bronze for a video installation to be shown at the Venice Biennale modern art festival.

The decision outraged Egyptian cultural officials, who banned Dieterich Wildung, the director of the Berlin museum, and his wife from further exploration in Egypt.

The museum eventually had to cancel the Venice-bound exhibit.

Hawass, who is also an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society, said his department would send a letter to Germany formally requesting a loan of the bust for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo.

"I will begin a negotiation. If it fails, we will organise a worldwide boycott of loans to German museums. We will make the lives of these museums miserable. It will be a scientific war," said Hawass.

Hawass further said Egypt didn't consider the Nefertiti bust to be a looted antiquity. Still, it was one of a handful of truly singular Egyptian antiquities still in foreign hands.

"I really want it back," Hawass said.

First Published: Apr 23, 2007 17:57 IST