Today, Nefertiti’s (c. 1370 to 1336 BCE) face is one of the most recognizable images of the ancient world. Her name translates as, “the beautiful one has come.” Thanks to a world-famous bust by the sculptor Thutmose discovered in 1912, Nefertiti’s image has achieved a newfound fame thousands of years after being erased from ancient Egypt’s historical records.
Evidence suggests Nefertiti was a follower of the cult of Aten, an Egyptian sun deity, from an early age. Her belief system may have influenced her husband Amenhotep IV’s decision to abandon Egypt’s traditional gods in favour of a monotheistic cult devoted to the Aten. After the death of Amenhotep III, and the ascension of Amenhotep IV Nefertiti became queen of Egypt.
Following Amenhotep IV’s inheritance of the throne of Egypt, Nefertiti ruled with Akhenaten until his death, whereupon she vanishes from the pages of history.
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Facts About Nefertiti
- Today her fame is due to her iconic bust displayed in the Berlin Museum. In ancient times, Nefertiti was one of Egypt’s most famous queens and was renowned for her beauty.
- Her name translates as “the beautiful one has come”
- Nefertiti ruled with the Pharaoh Akhenaten until his death, whereupon she vanishes from the pages of history
- Nefertiti was a follower of the cult of Aten, an Egyptian sun deity, from an early age and is believed to have played a major role in her husband’s promotion of the cult
- Her family lineage and her life after Akhenaten’s death remain unknown to this day and her tomb has never been discovered
- Nefertiti had six daughters, two of whom are believed to have become Queens of Egypt
Queen Nefertiti’s Lineage
Nefertiti is believed to have been the daughter of Ay, the vizier to Amenhotep III. Nefertiti’s father Ay was a tutor to the future Amenhotep IV and may have introduced Nefertiti to the prince when they were children. She is thought to have grown up in the royal palace at Thebes and by the age of eleven was engaged to Amenhotep’s son, the eventual Amenhotep IV. Nefertiti and Mudnodjame her sister, were regularly at the court at Thebes, so the two would have encountered each other regularly.
Ancient images and inscriptions support the view that Nefertiti was devoted to the cult of Aten. However, as every Egyptian followed his or her own god as a normal part of their life, there is no reason to suggest Nefertiti was an early proponent of either to monotheism or of elevating Aten over the other gods competing for adherents amongst ancient Egyptians.
Similarly, few details of Nefertiti’s later life have survived the later purges and come down to us today.
Nefertiti And Akhenaten’s Relationship
During the 18th Dynasty, the cult of Amun had grown in wealth and influence, rivalling that of the pharaohs by Akhenaten’s time. In his fifth year on the throne, Amenhotep IV abruptly changed his name to Akhenaten, abolished Egypt’s traditional religious practices, closed its temples and elevated Aten to the status of the one true God.
Nefertiti is thought by some scholars to have ruled alongside Akhenaten as a co-regent. Certainly, Akhenaten connected his cartouche with Nefertiti’s indicating their equal status. There is also some evidence Nefertiti took on some of the traditional affairs of state, normally duties overseen by the pharaoh while Akhenaten was occupied with his theological transformation and ambitious construction projects.
Surviving images show Nefertiti hosting receptions for foreign dignitaries, chairing diplomatic discussions and officiating at religious services. Some go so far as to show Nefertiti smiting Egypt’s enemies, a traditional focus of a pharaoh. Judging from these images, Nefertiti exercised more tangible elements of power than any Egyptian female ruler since Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE). Nefertiti was even recorded dispatching royal decrees from their palace complex at Akhetaten, which again in line with Egyptian tradition, were areas of the pharaoh’s responsibility.
Politically, monotheism is seen by many Egyptologists as a political manoeuver designed to severely curtail the power of the priests of Amun and restore the power of the throne.
Domestically, Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters: Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Nefernefruaten-tasherit, Neferneferure, and Setepenre. Judging from the stele and inscriptions, which survived their later purge from Egyptian records, is that the king and queen was a devoted royal couple and were constantly in each other’s and their daughters’ company.
Nefertiti and Akhenaten resided in the royal palace of Malkata in Thebes, built by Amenhotep III and restored by Akhenaten who re-named it Tehen Aten or “The Splendour of Aten.”
Nefertiti Vanishes From History
Shortly after Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s daughter Mekitaten died in childbirth aged just 13, around the fourteenth year of their reign, Nefertiti mysteriously disappears from recorded history. In the absence of accurate information about her fate, four theories have been promoted to explain her vanishing:
She was replaced by Kiya after falling out of favour with Akhenaten for failing to give him a male heir
She was dismissed by Akhenaten for abandoning their worship of Aten
The death of Mekitaten prompted Nefertiti to commit suicide
Nefertiti continued ruling using the name “Smenkhkare” until her stepson, Tutankhamun, came of age and ascended the throne. Of these four contenting theories, only the fourth is supported by concrete evidence to any degree.
Firstly, Tutankhamun was Akhenaten’s male heir, so it is unlikely he would have cast aside Nefertiti on that account. Secondly, there is nothing to suggest Nefertiti abandoned the Aten cult. Thirdly, Nefertiti was still alive following her daughter’s death and Akhenaten’s successor’s throne name is identical to Nefertiti’s.
The gradual revival of support for the old gods towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign is the only evidence supporting theory two. Egyptologists believe this could not have occurred without royal encouragement.
However, a grassroots resurgence of traditional religious practices could simply have been a popular movement supported by Egyptians tired of being coerced into abandoning their traditional worshipping practices.
Ancient Egyptians firmly believed their actions were directly linked to their nation’s heavenly balance. Consequently, their relationship with their gods assumed a critical significance in their daily lives. Akhenaten’s direction to his people to discard Egypt’s traditional pantheon of gods disturbed their ma’at resulting in Egypt spinning out of balance.
It is highly likely that the former priests of Amun and other cults would have eventually pushed back on this dictate and looked both to regain their former wealth and influence and to restore ma’at or harmony throughout Egypt without the imprimatur of their ruler. While Nefertiti had been a follower of Aten since her early youth and participated in numerous religious observances it remains unlikely she would have chosen to champion a return to Egypt’s traditional religious observances.
Even today, Nefertiti retains her almost magnetic attraction for controversy. In 2003 CE Joann Fletcher a British archaeologist identified a mummy known as the “Younger Lady as matching surviving descriptions of Nefertiti. The Discovery Channel subsequent broadcast of Fletcher’s theory assumed the identity of the queen’s mummy had been confirmed. Regrettably, this was not the case. Egypt subsequently banned Fletcher from working in the country for a time. It seems final resolution of the mummy’s identity awaits a future discovery.
Nefertiti’s iconic bust currently held in Berlin’s Neues Museum also caused a spat between Egypt and Germany. Due to the popularity of the alluring bust, Nefertiti’s face is one of antiquity’s most recognizable portraits and probably second only to her stepson Tutankhamun. The bust was a creation of Thutmosis (c. 1340 BCE) a royal court sculptor. He intended it as an apprentice model for their depictions of the queen. In late 1912, Ludwig Borchardt a notable German archaeologist was conducting an archaeological dig at Tell al-Amarna when he uncovered the beautiful bust in the remains of Thutmosis’ workshop. The aftermath of this discovery triggered a rolling and periodically incandescently hot dispute between Egypt and Germany.
The German museum asserts Borchardt discovered the bust and lodged the correct legal declaration describing his find before bringing the bust back to Berlin. The Egyptians argue the bust was acquired nefariously and thus it was exported illegally and hence should be repatriated to Egypt. The Germans counter that the bust was acquired legally and being their property should stay in the Neues Museum.
In 2003 this controversy was reignited when the Neues Museum allowed Little Warsaw, two artists to position the bust on a bronze nude to illustrate how Nefertiti may have appeared in real life. This ill-judged decision prompted Egypt to renew its efforts to repatriate the bust. However, the bust resides in the Neues Museum where it has been ensconced since 1913 CE. Nefertiti’s alluring bust continues to be one of the museum’s signature artworks and a star of its permanent collection.
Reflecting On The Past
Is the serene beauty gazing confidently and serenely out from the Berlin bust, topped with its unique tall, flat-topped blue crown really the face of the extraordinary Nefertiti?
Header image courtesy: Keith Schengili-Roberts [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons