It started as a simple advertisement for a doll of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten who ruled Egypt during its glory days in the 14th century B.C.

The ad portrayed the legendary queen with vaguely Caucasian features and light-colored skin. Published last year in the Biblical Archeology Review, the picture ignited a surprisingly intense and at times bitter debate over the racial affinities of the ancient Egyptians.

"Queen Nefertiti was a beautiful black Egyptian queen," wrote an outraged reader, Joan P. Wilson, in a letter to the magazine. "The Egyptians are a black race of people. This doll has creamy white skin color . . . . "

Since then, the battle has raged over the racial character of one of history's most complex, successful and innovative civilizations. The Egyptians can claim so many accomplishments -- the world's first nation state, advances in early medicine and the engineering triumphs of the pyramids -- that the opportunity to claim descent from them would be a matter of pride for almost anyone.

Egyptologists Reticent

The issue has become so emotionally charged that Egyptologists, sensitive to the oft-voiced accusation that they interpret history with a blind eye to the accomplishments of blacks, are often reluctant even to talk about the issue.

"You won't find an Egyptologist to discuss it," said Howard University classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr., who has studied the portrayal of blacks in antiquity.

Because Nefertiti remains so well known, she has come to represent the quintessential ancient Egyptian woman in the minds of many. If Queen Tiye remained popular today, the debate might have been less rancorous. Queen Tiye, who also lived in the 14th century B.C., was much more clearly a black African.

Society Was Multiracial

Ancient Egypt, it seems, was a genuinely multiracial society. It was a cosmopolitan crossroad at the juncture of black Africa and white Eurasia. There were black pharoahs and there were white pharoahs and there were many in between.

Whether Nefertiti was black or white is not a question that can be answered with ease. The distinction is at least as subjective when applied to many living people. But more importantly, many scholars say the question itself is beside the point. Despite the propensity of modern Americans to classify people as black and white, the ancient Egyptians apparently never did.

"When you talk about Egypt, it's just not right to talk about black or white," said Frank J. Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, and one of the historians who have been drawn into the discussion that began with the Nefertiti advertisement. "That's all just American terminology and it serves American purposes. I can understand and sympathize with the desires of Afro-Americans to affiliate themselves with Egypt. But it isn't that simple.

"The ancient Egyptians identified people by their national names," he said. "Whenever a {non-Egyptian} group moved into Egypt, they were accepted. There was no mass dis-crimination. New groups became Egyptianized. To take the terminology here {in the United States} and graft it onto Africa is anthropologically inaccurate."

Mummy remains, anthropological records and other tests indicate that Egyptians varied greatly in complexion from the light Mediterranean of Nefertiti to the darker brown of upper Egypt to the Nubians, who were distinctly Negroid. Egyptian hair, both ancient and modern, ranges from straight to wooly and from reddish brown to black.

Nubians and Kushites, with their Negroid features, mixed easily with Asiatics and Caucasoids with blond hair. By most accounts, Egypt's relations with its neighbors were based on politics and not race. According to Yurco, even Egypt's conquered enemies were conscripted into the army and integrated into Egyptian society. People of Mediterranean origin often married Egyptians and settled on farms granted by pharaohs.

Debate Politically Charged

Yet, claiming Egyptian ancestry has become a singular point of pride among some black Americans.

"This is not just a simple academic controversy," said Molly Myerowitz Levine, who teaches classics at Howard University. "The debate is taking place in a politically charged atmosphere."

In his book "Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization," Cornell University professor Martin Bernal argues that racism has pervaded our interpretation of ancient cultures and that Egypt contributed greatly to the Greek civilization that many, especially Americans of European ancestry, view as the foundation of Western culture.

He said European scholars, intoxicated with the love of Greece, ignored the major contributions that Egyptians made to the roots of Hellenic civilization and thus discounted the Afroasiatic roots of Western civilization.

He further suggests that by the end of the 18th century, racism in northern Europe became systematic in order to justify the slavery and colonization of Africans. It became particularly important to justify the belief that virtue was in some way connected to skin color. He argues that for 200 years classical scholars have suppressed the fact that pre-Hellenic influences on Greece were Semitic and African.

"The milky white bust that {Biblical Archaeology Review} and most of the Western world call Nefertiti has all the earmarks of the Piltdown phenomenon -- European scientists lying about history," another reader of the magazine, Arzinia Richardson, wrote, echoing the Bernal criticisms.

"Since most of the so-called Egyptologists were educated and indoctrinated in the European cultural schemes, their standard operating practice has been, upon discovering ancient artifacts, to try and identify {them} as other than black."

An Old World Crossroad

It is perhaps an irony, then, that most historians depict the ancient Egyptians as a highly nationalistic society that was largely unconscious of race. The truth about Egypt is that it lies on a crossroad of the Old World, drawing important influences from throughout the region, mixing race and ethnicity perhaps as freely as any nation ever has.

It is also likely that Egypt then spread that cultural brew toward Europe, helping to influence Greek culture and those that sprang from it.

"We are applying a racial divisiveness to Egypt that they would never have accepted," Yurco said. "They would have considered this argument absurd, and that is something we could really learn from."