Ancient Egyptian icon: Face by Joyce Tyldesley

Why did the bust of a queen carved more than 3,000 years ago achieve such fame when it was exhibited in 1924?

Female perfection … the Nefertiti bust. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Even with her blinded left eye, Nefertiti has come to epitomise female perfection. Uncannily symmetrical, and with the second most famous half-smile after the Mona Lisa, her image has been pressed into service to sell everything from cruise holidays to women’s underwear. Even now, when you think she might have earned a rest, she continues to turn up on key rings, T-shirts and, in a sinister turn, adverts for cosmetic surgery. Recently a British woman paid £200,000 and underwent eight nose jobs and three chin implants in an attempt to sculpt herself into a simulacrum of ancient Egypt’s most famous queen.

Nefertiti was first unearthed in 1912 when the archaeologists of the German Oriental Company went digging in the soft soil of the left bank of the upper Nile valley. At Amarna they discovered the workshop of Thutmose, the court sculptor who around 1350BC was charged with producing a set of images of the reigning dynasty, to replace the existing pantheon of animal-headed gods. By the time Ludwig Borchardt and his colleagues arrived with their picks and sieves there wasn’t much left of the assorted princelings and highnesses – an ear, a mouth, two feet and fragments of faces without ears. But there, in the limestone and gypsum jumble, was a complete bust of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife, radiant in her distinctive blue flat-topped bonnet crown. “Really wonderful work,” an enraptured Borchardt wrote in his diary that night: “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

Calling Nefertiti “it” might seem odd, but perhaps Borchardt was responding to the way that Thutmose had given the Queen a strong jaw and a hint of an Adam’s apple. Certainly, this nod to androgyny was enough to set off excited chatter among later scholars about how she might have ruled over Egypt in her own right following the death of her husband, like one of those female pharaohs with a fake beard. The only problem with this theory, as Tyldesley points out, is that full-length statues of Nefertiti show her with the slackened breasts and rounded belly typical of a mature royal consort and symbolic mother to her people. And the fact that she was born a commoner meant she could never have occupied the throne in her own right. As for the missing eye, Tyldesley has no truck with the fairytale that Thutmose wrenched it out to punish the beautiful queen who had spurned him as a lover. It is far more likely that the sliver of crystal lens and black wax got ground underfoot during one of the workshop’s periodic lootings.

The gold mask of Tutankhamun … the discovery of his lavish tomb turned the world’s attention on to Egypt. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library L/Alamy


But it’s when Nefertiti goes on public display in Berlin in 1924 that this book’s narrative crackles into life. Instead of making disciplined guesses about limestone shavings, Tyldesley is able to plunge us into an atmosphere thick with mandarin intrigue, gossip, erotic longing and winged eyeliner. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s lavish tomb two years earlier had turned the world’s attention on to Egypt. At a time when Europe was grieving the loss of its young men, the revelation that the pharaohs sent their dead off to the next life equipped with nice clothes, decent wine and loyal pets was something of a comfort. Nefertiti’s role as both the boy-pharoah’s stepmother and mother-in-law placed her firmly inside this optimistic realm where death was merely the well-furnished anteroom to a rather lovely country house weekend.
And then there was the way she looked. In an era in which society women were turning up to parties with jewelled scarabs and slicked-back hair, the Egyptian queen resembled the kind of film star you might see at a Saturday matinee in one of the vaguely Egyptian art deco cinemas that were sprouting in the suburbs. Enticingly exotic but not off-puttingly foreign, Nefertiti occupied an appealingly indeterminate space where everyday womanhood, with its worries about economic depression and political turbulence, could be turned into a performance of high style.
Over the near century that Nefertiti has lived in the Neues Museum in Berlin, rumbles about colonial appropriation and possible reparations have never gone away. Tyldesley is of the firm opinion that the deal by which the Germans acquired the limestone bust was legal if a tad opportunistic: far from  being smuggled out in a basket of fruit as legend has it, Nefertiti was offered fairly to the Egyptian authorities, who couldn’t see the point of acquiring a painted plaster head of a mere queen consort. Still, that hasn’t stopped them wanting her back. As early as 1933, Hermann Goering was on the point of shipping her to King Fuad as a gesture of goodwill, until Hitler stepped in to nix the deal, declaring hysterically that he was in love with the Egyptian queen and wanted to keep her for himself. It is a sign of Nefertiti’s ability to shapeshift between cultures and speak to a whole register of desires that the German chancellor was also able to imagine, to his entire satisfaction, that she was, in fact, a perfect Aryan.

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