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Im Licht von Amarna (Exhibition at the Neues Museum, Berlin)

Back in March J & I visited Berlin (post) and the main purpose of our visit was to go to the exhibition at the Neues Museum about Amarna – Im Licht von Amarna (In the Light of Amarna). We went in March because the exhibition was originally scheduled to end in mid-April, but I think it’s been extended till early August now. I’ve finally finished processing my photographs from the Neues Museum, originally I was going to post about both the exhibition & the rest of the museum in the same post. However it was turning into a bit of a monster post, so I’ve split it into two and in this post I’m going to talk about the Amarna exhibition (where photography wasn’t permitted).

100 Jahr Fund der Nofretete

The premise for this exhibition is that it is 100 years since the famous bust of Nefertiti was found, and the first bit of the exhibition we looked at was a (separate) little introductory room called 100 Jahr Fund der Nofretete. That had some of the documents, diaries & photographs surrounding the excavation of the bust. It also had some information on the display of the bust since it’s been in Germany – at first it wasn’t on public display, then after it went on display in the museum it was always treated a bit differently to the rest of the Egyptian exhibits. Most of them (this is pre-WWII) were housed in very ornately & colourfully decorated rooms, the bust of Nefertiti & other Amarna artifacts were displayed in plain white rooms so they stood out more. In the current layout of the museum the bust is still set apart from the other objects in a room on its own.


The exhibition proper was about the Egyptian site at Tell el-Amarna rather than the bust of Nefertiti. The city there (Akhetaten) was founded by the Pharaoh Akhenaten as his new capital. He moved the administrative & religious centre of the country away from Thebes when he changed the religion of the country. Thebes was strongly associated with the old religion, and was the primary cult centre for the god Amun, so the movement to this new city was a way of enforcing the break with the old traditions. The city was only inhabited for a period of about 20 years – built from scratch at Akhenaten’s order and abandoned when his successor Tutankhamun returned to the old religion & moved the capital back to Thebes. It was rediscovered by European archaeologists in the early 19th Century, with two major German excavations since (in the 1840s & the 1900s/1910s) which provided the bulk of the artifacts in the exhibition. The Germans weren’t the only nation to send archaeologists, just the most relevant for this exhibition, for instance there were and are several UK run excavations. Since the First World War the Egypt Exploration Society have organised the excavations there – the last 30 years or so led by Barry Kemp.

Im Licht von Amarna

The exhibition started by putting the Pharaoh Akhenaten into context. They had a family tree of 4 generations of Pharaohs – Tutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun. I was amused to note that it managed to skip anything controversial (like what the relationship between Akhenaten & Tutankhamun actually was). And they had several objects relating to these Pharaohs and their families. My favourite objects here were a small statue of Akhenaten’s older brother Tutmose who was Amenhotep III’s original heir, but he died young. This statue was the Prince’s mummy lying on a bed with his ba sitting on his chest. I also liked the small bust of Queen Tiye (Amenhotep III’s wife) that they had.

Next they had some displays relating to the layout of the city. The major buildings were planned out by Akhenaten (or his architects), these included palaces & two large temples to the new god Aten. There was a model of the Small Aten Temple (which is obviously the smaller of the two in the city), with some tiny little figures of people to give you the scale. Said scale was “enormous”!

This section also had displays about the new religion of the Aten. This had developed from increasing prominence of the sun god in previous Pharaoh’s reigns (notably Amenhotep III’s) and then Akhenaten took it to the logical conclusion. The Aten was the one god, and it was worshipped by Akhenaten (and his wife Nefertiti) as the sole intermediaries between the people and the god. In this part I was particularly impressed by an interactive display about one of the classic Aten reliefs – they had the relief projected onto the wall & then on the interactive panel you could highlight a section and it was explained.

The second half of this room was about the lives of the more ordinary people who’d been moved to Akhetaten. There were a selection of household goods – including plain pots with garlands of flowers round them, which were reminiscent of the decoration on other pots they had displayed. This section also had examples of the various crafts from the city. This included how faience was made (which I have forgotten all over again), which had several tiles that are normally in the British Museum as part of the display. There were also display cases for glass working, leather working & metal working. I was particularly struck by the leather underwear for the military!

The next rooms were focussed on the household complex where the bust of Nefertiti (amongst other things) was found. They had a model of this complex (I did like their models) which clearly showed how this wasn’t just someone’s house. There were also craft workshops, storage buildings, subsidiary houses. The Nefertiti bust wasn’t the only sculptors’ model found in this & other complexes, and the Neues Museum has several heads. I was interested to see they had one of Akhenaten, but sadly it’s been damaged both in antiquity & more recently. It didn’t look like it had ever been quite as fine as the Nefertiti one, but of course it’s hard to tell. Also at the side of these rooms was a small annexe about the end of the Amarna period. This included the famous scene of (possibly) Tutankhamun walking in the garden with Ankhesenamun.

And lastly it was through to the room with the Nefertiti bust. This is displayed on its own & the room it’s in helps to stage it for visitors. It’s pretty spectacular in real life, a shame you can’t take photos of it.