CAIRO – Egypt's top archaeologist has formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades, the latest move in his eight-year-old campaign to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times.
The bust dates back to the time of the 14th century B.C. queen and tops Egypt's wish list of artifacts that Zahi Hawass wants to see back home. The bust is currently at Berlin's Neues Museum.
"I am doing something that I believe in and that should have been done a 100 years ago," Hawass told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "My campaign has united those who have been pillaged against the pillagers. It's the world's greatest campaign of its kind and has inspired many nations to follow suit."
Hawass, whose Indiana Jones hat has made him an instantly recognizable world figure, said his campaign has returned some 5,000 artifacts to Egypt from museums and private collections the world over since its launch in 2002.
His request for the Nefertiti bust, he added, was officially made after the approval of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Culture Minister Farouq Hosny.
Germany has declined past Egyptian requests for the bust's return, saying it was in Germany legally and is too fragile to move. But Egypt contends it was taken out with fraudulent documents in 1913.
On Monday, Germany said the latest Egyptian request did not change anything and that Cairo needed to use different channels if it wanted to make a formal request.
"This is not an official request for (her) return by the Egyptian state to Germany," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told reporters. "Such a request for her return would have to be directed from government to government, and that is not the case."
That view was echoed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees museums in Berlin. It pointed out that the letter was not signed by Nazif.
The foundation's "position regarding a return of the bust of Nefertiti is unchanged," its president, Hermann Parzinger, said in a statement. "She is and remains Egypt's best ambassador in Berlin."
The foundation reiterated its insistence that Nefertiti was acquired legitimately.
Hawass, however, disputed the German claim. He said a letter was sent to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to be conveyed to its German counterpart and a copy of the same letter was sent to the German ambassador in Cairo and the Prussian Foundation.
"This is not Zahi Hawass acting on his own," he said.
A statement by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, which is led by Hawass, said Egypt first requested the return of the Nefertiti bust shortly after the end of World War II, when it addressed the Allied powers occupying Germany at the time. Egypt followed up in 1947, this time writing to the U.S. government. It was recommended that the request be made when a "competent" German government was re-established.
Egypt, added the statement, recognized and appreciated the care accorded by Germany to the painted limestone bust of the famous ancient Egyptian queen, but added:
"Egypt is confident that the German authorities will assist in facilitating its return. The government and people of Egypt are eager that this unique treasure be returned to the possession of its rightful owners, the Egyptian people." If returned, Hawass said, the bust will be exhibited at a new museum south of Cairo.
"They don't like me for making these requests," said Hawass. "But I don't care; I am doing this for Egypt."
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.