March 2, 2018
Bust of Nefertiti, Neuse Museum, Berlin, Germany
You’ve seen the bust of Nefertiti. I know you have. Next to the Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza and King Tutankhamen’s funerary mask, the bust of Queen Nefertiti is one of the most famous symbols of ancient Egypt. The bust depicts a queen who was said to be the most beautiful woman in the history of Egypt—even her name meant “The Beautiful Woman Has Come.”
But she was more than just a pretty face; Nefertiti was one of the most powerful female Egyptian rulers of all time … and we hardly know anything about her.
Nefertiti was born presumably in 1370 B.C. , but the location of her birth is a matter of debate; some scholars believe that she was born in the Egyptian town of Akhmim, while others think that she might have been from Mitanni (Syria), since she seemed to espouse some particularly non-Egyptian ideas. It is generally thought that Nefertiti came from a respectable family, and that her father might have been Ay, thought to be an aristocrat in the Egyptian court. Whoever her father was, he was not a pharaoh—all daughters of the pharaoh had the title “King’s Daughter,” which Nefertiti did not possess. It’s been thought that Nefertiti’s paternal aunt was Queen Tiy, the wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and mother of Amenhotep IV, making the prince and Nefertiti first cousins (given the Egyptian royal tradition of marrying into the family, it’s possible that though they were cousins they may have been more closely related genetically.)
Nefertiti & Akhenaten
Nefertiti married Amenhotep IV when they were fifteen years old and by all accounts of the time they were a perfect match, passionately in love, and the prince startled the royal court by treating Nefertiti as his equal (ancient Egyptian women had many more legal rights and freedoms in their societies than many other cultures of the time, but they were still treated as ultimately inferior to men.) They regularly scandalized the nobles by racing each other around the city in horse-drawn chariots. In their roughly ten years of marriage, Nefertiti and Amenhotep IV had six daughters whom Amenhotep adored and Nefertiti lovingly referred to as her “garland of daughters.”
Rise to Power
In time the old pharaoh died and Amenhotep IV ascended the throne as the new pharaoh of Egypt. Few knew at the time—with the exception of Nefertiti—what Amenhotep’s grand plan was for his kingdom; sick of the priests of the sun god Amen-Ra wielding so much influence and retaining so much wealth, Amenhotep decided to wrest back the power he thought only the pharaoh should have. In a move that horrified the Egyptian civilization, Amenhotep outlawed the worship of all gods in the pantheon, thus taking the priests’ source of power and revenue away from them. The renegade pharaoh declared that only one deity would be worshiped now—Aten, the genderless sun-disc—and that only he and Nefertiti would be Aten’s priests. He then went as far as to change his own name from Amenhotep (“Amen is Satisfied”) to the now infamous Akhenaten (“Beneficence of Aten.”)
Nefertiti worshiping Aten
Akhenaten didn’t stop there. He uprooted his court from the capital of Thebes and moved everyone to a seemingly random spot in the desert and built a new city called Akhetaten (better known now as Amarna, and the time of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s rule is known as the Amarna Period), claiming that Aten had guided him to the place. Akhenaten further shocked his people by declaring Nefertiti to be his “co-king,” renaming her Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (“Beautiful are the Beauties of Aten, a Beautiful Woman Has Come.”) and granted her nearly as much power as that of a pharaoh. Nefertiti had unheard of control in many facets of Egyptian life, law and religion, and artwork was made depicting her smiting her enemies as a male pharaoh would.
Nefertiti smiting a female captive
The move to make Nefertiti co-king may have had a dual purpose; Akhenaten truly did love and value his wife, but Nefertiti had not been able to produce a male heir to inherit his throne. Since ancient peoples believed that women were responsible for the sex of a child, a woman who had six daughters was highly likely to produce nothing but daughters, and it was common for a pharaoh to divorce his queen and marry another woman in hopes of gaining a son (it was also suggested that Nefertiti did have a son, but he died in infancy.) Now that Nefertiti was co-king, none of Akhenaten’s advisors would dare to suggest that the pharaoh dismiss her, and Nefertiti was able to keep her position as Akhenaten’s wife and his closest ally.
Still, as pharaoh—even as enlightened and progressive a pharaoh as he was supposed to be—Akhenaten still kept a harem of concubines, and one of these “lesser wives”, a woman commonly known as Kiya (also called Tudukhepra, where she came from is unknown, though Kiya is not an Egyptian name and a few researchers have suggested that she was a younger half-sister to Akhenaten) gave birth to the son Akhenaten so badly needed. The boy was named Tutankhaten (“Living Image of Aten”) and details about the royal family become shady at this point; records from the time suggest that Tutankhaten was adopted by Nefertiti, raised with her surviving daughters as her own son, and she even betrothed him to her daughter Ankhesenpaaten (later renamed Ankhesenamen.) Tutankhaten’s mother Kiya vanishes from the record soon after, and it was suggested that she gave birth to two more sons and a daughter before dying. Because Kiya had given birth to Tutankhaten she had earned the title “Greatly Beloved Wife,” causing some scholars to speculate that Nefertiti had the concubine assassinated (as suggested in the Discovery Channel special Nefertiti Resurrected) to keep from losing her position in the court. As there is no evidence of this, we can only speculate.
In Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, one of their daughters passes away, then three more princesses and Nefertiti herself disappear from history, leading to a host of speculation. Some surviving texts from the period say that Akhenaten might have married his daughter Meritaten, leading archeologist Norman de Garris Davies to suggest that perhaps Akhenaten had divorced and banished Nefertiti, though others say that Nefertiti simply died and Akhenaten then married his daughter. However, an inscription from Year 16—four years after Nefertiti vanishes from the record—of Akhenaten’s reign makes mention of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti, suggesting that Nefertiti was still alive and in power.
The Unknown Pharaoh
In Year 17 of the Amarna Period, the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten died, leaving nine-year-old Tutankhaten—who would rename himself Tutankhamen, “Living Image of Amen”, though you may know him better as King Tut—to rule Egypt. However, the crown did not pass immediately to Tut. Instead, it was given to a previously unknown male member of the family called Smenkhkare, who ruled Egypt as regent until Tut became an adult. He married Akhenaten’s widowed daughter-wife Meriaten, ended the worship of Aten, reinstated the Egyptian pantheon … and then suddenly disappears, disappears, with no account of his funeral to be found.
Much of the record of Smenkhkare’s reign and that of Akhenaten and his family had been erased by the succeeding pharaoh Horemheb, but in 1894, Egyptologists came across an inscription regarding the mysterious pharaoh and were confused by the wording; the hieroglyphs spoke of “King” Smenkhkare, but referred to the king as “she.”
Furthermore, it seems that Smenkhkare eventually changed his name to “Neferneferuaen,” the same name used by Nefertiti when she co-ruled with Akhenaten as king of Egypt.
This and many other questions caused archeologist John Harris in the 1970s to propose the shocking theory that Nefertiti and Smenkhkare were actually the same person. Perhaps after the death of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti, well aware of how much the Egyptian people had come to hate him and her as well, worried for the safety of Tutankhaten and attempted to rule Egypt under the guise of a man until Tut was old enough to rule. Since the later dynasty tried to erase all evidence of Akhenaten and his heirs, we have no record as to how long Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten actually ruled, when he/she died, what happened to his/her “wife” Meriaten, or where they are buried.
Artwork thought to be depicting either Tutankhamen and Nefertiti, Smenkhkare and Meritaten, or Smenkhkare and Nefertiti.
“The Young Lady”
In 1906 or 1907 A.D., a tomb labeled KV55 was found in the Valley of the Kings by Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis. Inside the hastily constructed, unadorned and obviously ransacked tomb were three mummies, two women and a young man. One of the female mummies, a younger woman, was odd; it had no headdress, but had obviously been fitted for a false beard and a uraeus (a crown featuring a rearing cobra and the head of a vulture, the symbols of Wadjet and Nekhbet respectively, the protector-goddesses of pharaohs.) No name could be found on the coffin, but the words “Beloved of Akhenaten” were inscribed, and what should have been a royal cartouche identifying the mummy had been chipped off, and the name that should have been on the canopic jars was erased as well. Though there were three mummies in the tomb, it was clear that only this one had been purposely desecrated, with damage made to the face and one arm post-mortem (the arm had been removed and replaced with the mummified arm of another woman.) Whoever this was, they had not been popular in life.
The Valley of the Kings, where the alleged tomb of Nefertiti, KV55, was found.
For many years people speculated who the “Young Lady” was, with many assuming that it could be King Tut’s mother Kiya, or possibly his grandmother, Queen Tiy. In 2000, Egyptologist Joyce Fuller was inspired by a joke about the mummy’s wig to take a closer look at the unnamed woman and, realizing that the female mummy had been prepared in a way reserved only for male pharaohs, developed a shocking theory; what if the mummy was actually Nefertiti? Further investigation revealed that the woman had likely died from a violent attack. Perhaps she had been assassinated.
In 2017, Josh Gates, the host of the popular Travel Channel show Expedition Unknown, along with Egyptologist Aidan Dodson, obtained permission from the Cairo Museum to take digital scans of the Younger Lady’s face and head. The scans were used to create a 3D printed copy of the head, which was then brought to a French forensic reconstructionist who created a sculpture of what the woman may have looked like when she was alive. The reconstructed face bears a remarkable resemblance to the famous bust of Nefertiti that had been uncovered at the abandoned city of Akhetaten (currently at the Neues Museum in Berlin.) This is by no means definite proof, and further testing must be done.
Josh Gates with the reconstructed face of the mummy thought to be Nefertiti.
Earlier in the year, DNA samples were taken from the Young Lady mummy and found to be a genetic match to the DNA of King Tut, likely making the Young Lady his mother. It is now popularly thought that the Young Lady is Nefertiti and therefore Nefertiti is Tut’s mother, but the historical record has never claimed this, and no artwork shows Nefertiti with Tut. Since Egyptian royal families were extremely interbred and Nefertiti and Akhenaten were thought to be at least first cousins, it’s highly likely that Nefertiti and Tut would be closely related genetically. Again, more testing is needed to find proof.
Finally, many people have complained that the reconstructed face of “Nefertiti” is far too white to be accurate. On Expedition Unknown, Josh Gates states that the skin color was only a guess, not something to be taken literally. Furthermore, Egyptian women, especially royalty, were frequently depicted in artwork with much paler skin, so we really have no idea what Nefertiti’s actual skin color was (especially since we don’t know for certain where she came from.)
Hopefully, the mystery of Nefertiti will soon be solved, and the true story of one of Egypt’s most powerful queens can be properly told.
Nefertiti Works Cited:
“Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nefertiti
“Ancient Egypt: Mummy of Queen Nefertiti Brought to Life” http://www.newsweek.com/ancient-egypt-queen-nefertiti-ancient-bust-fair-skin-800519
“Is this the glamorous face of Queen Nefertiti?” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5371859/Is-glamorous-face-Queen-Nefertiti.html
Expedition Unknown; Egypt’s Lost Queens, Part 2, Travel Channel
Nefertiti Resurrected, Discovery Channel
Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon
The Usborne Book of Famous Women, Richard Dungworth et al
Nefertiti; Unlocking the Mystery Surround Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen, Joyce Tyldesley
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s History, Sonia Weiss et al
Eyewitness Books: Ancient Egypt, George Hart
The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Helen Strudwick
Ancient Egypt, Lorna Oakes & Lucia Gahlin