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Nefertiti fascinatingly recreated

THOSE WHO are familiar with Egyptian history can identify the lovely profile at once. The limestone bust of the queen discovered in 1912 by German archaeologists, which is now displayed at the Berlin Museum shows a doe eyed, full-lipped woman with a slender neck. An elaborately worked collar and a high headdress point to her royal rank.

Nefertiti, whose name means, "the perfect one has come", was the wife of Pharoah Akhenaton who 3,000 years ago tried to change the religious history of Egypt.

"Nefertiti Revealed" screened by Discovery Channel to an invited audience last week was a fascinatingly recreated account of the life and times of a revolutionary Queen.

Quite a bit is known about Akhenaton and his consort. But portions of the era are shrouded in mystery, either swept away by the sands of time or the hands of their enemies. Regarded as a bigot by many and hailed as a visionary by a few, Akhenaton decided to move away from the polytheistic worship of the gods Amon and Re to the monotheistic worship of Aton, the Sun-god in the form of a disc. Akhenaton who belonged to the late eighteenth dynasty moved his capital from Thebes, the traditional headquarters of the pharaohs, to the bleak expanse in the desert which is now called Telle el-Amarna. He was aided in his religious mission by Nefertiti, his chief queen and co-regent. She is believed to have not only helped him impose, on a reluctant people, the worship of a single god but also boldly cull out a path for herself, going where no woman or queen had dared go before, even taking part in ritualistic killings, the prerogative of the pharaoh. She and her six daughters, two of whom later became queens of Egypt, were frequently depicted in reliefs and wall paintings. The famed boy-king Tutankhamen, whose tomb containing the most fabulous treasures, was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, was both a stepson and son-in-law.

So hated were the pharaoh and the queen that their likeness was defaced after their time and every trace of their controversial reign, which antagonised the powerful priestly class, sought to be obliterated from the annals of Egypt.

But history has a strange way of resurrecting the dead and restoring interest in the once reviled.

"Nefertiti Revealed" pieces together the turbulent story of this charismatic queen. Twelve years into her husband's reign Nefertiti disappeared from the records. Did she fall out of favour? Did she retire? Did she metamorphose into the next pharaoh taking another name as was the custom? Or did she die? The documentary seeks to find answers to these tantalising questions. And more important, the question, of whether one of the three mummies found originally by French archaeologist Victor Loret in 1898, is indeed that of Nefertiti.

Dr. Joann Fletcher, Egyptologist and Field Director of the University of York's Mummy Research team, who headed a Discovery Channel funded expedition, certainly believes it is and she builds up a convincing body of evidence to prove her point. In the documentary, we travel with Dr. Fletcher who reconstructs her journey, undertaken first in June 2002 and later in February 2003, to the famed Valley of the Kings, where the mummies lie in a sealed chamber in tomb KV35.There are various pointers to the identity of one of them, says Dr. Fletcher and proceeds to lay her proof before the viewer (a team of experts — on anthropology, mummification techniques and radiography — help her). The piling up of the evidence is dramatically juxtaposed with scenes recreated from her life. The actress who portrays Nefertiti, with her exotic looks and enigmatic smile, brings the aura of the queen wafting through the screen. The close-up shot of her shutting her heavy, kohl lined eyes and then opening them slowly, is used once too often but effectively punctuates the narration. As do shots of her riding the chariot furiously or offering her hand to the pharaoh in a clasp of equality and understanding.

The all white costume and the ornate jewellery give a visual texture to the film. The recreated images of the towering temple complex at Karnak in Thebes where the old gods where worshipped, and the leaping walls of the new city of Amarna provide the grandeur of a civilisation that evokes wonder.

Since permission to undertake DNA testing is not granted by the Egyptian authorities, extremely sophisticated Canon machinery to carry out the digital X-rays is brought carefully into the cave and specialists set to work; their findings match up with Dr. Fletcher believes.

"Nefertiti Revealed" follows Discovery's formulaic approach to its programmes on Egypt. Trips to the tombs, computer reconstruction of the face and scenes of actors who recreate the past, are assembled together to provide the picture of research and discovery.

Some more footage of Dr. Fletcher explaining her 13-year long research before she comes to the valley, would have added more weight to the film.

Here, the expert arrives at the chamber, has it broken open and discovers the three mummies which seems rather pat.

"Nefertiti Revealed" will be shown on Discovery Channel on September 7 from 7p.m. to 9 p.m. and again on September 13 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The preview was first held in Chennai followed by the screening in Mumbai and Delhi.

But Discovery Channel does not offer Dr. Fletcher's evidence as conclusive as there has not been unanimity among Egyptologists regarding her findings. In fact, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has expressed basic doubts about the gender of the mummy.

Whatever be the controversy it has generated, "Nefertiti Revealed" offers hypnotic viewing. Not just to lovers of history or ancient Egypt but to all those who love the heady cocktail of beauty, power, success and intrigue.

And that means all of us today.

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

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