Nefertiti was a proud, powerful female leader, who smote those not worthy to oppose her. Why do the earliest centuries have what we cannot?
In 1912, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt was excavating the workshop of the ancient sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, south of Cairo, when he stumbled across an ancient bust of a most beautiful woman.
She was quite lovely, with a slender neck, flawless skin (even after more than 3,000 years), those trademark Egyptian almond-shaped eyes, ruby red lips, a patrician nose and that fabulous crown. One of the most recognisable relics from ancient Egypt, the bust has become a paragon of feminine beauty. The fact that it’s missing an eye is irrelevant – she’s still a knockout.
Borchardt was captivated (he was Pygmalion to her Galatea perhaps) and kept the bust – made of limestone covered in gypsum stucco and dating from the mid-fourteenth century BCE – in his home until 1924 when it finally went to the Neues Museum in Berlin. It must have been a wrench for him to part with it.
It is, of course, the face of Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned between 1353-1336 BCE. Her name translates as “a beautiful woman has arrived”.
Nefertiti was not merely Akhenaten’s consort. Many believe that Nefertiti was co-ruler with her husband. This is because there are images of her smiting Egypt’s enemies, and smiting, like lots of other aggressive actions, was usually the role of the pharaoh only. (Other people kill their foes; gods and pharaohs get to smite them.) There are also images of the couple riding chariots together, some family vignettes, and even sculptures depicting her making the same religious offerings as the pharaoh, a rite not permitted to queen consorts.
In fact, Nefertiti appears in almost twice the number of images as Akhenaten, and scholars remark on the fact that she is shown as having the same status as her husband; and although she wasn’t the pharaoh’s only wife, she was the most important. Her likeness is carved on the four corners of his sarcophagus, replacing the traditional deities. Ah love, ain’t it grand!
She may be one of the most famous women from the ancient world, but not a lot is known about Nefertiti before the reign of Akhenaten. There are a few candidates for her parents, but no-one can be certain, so her childhood is unknown territory for scholars.
She may have been the daughter of Ay, who became pharaoh after Tutankhamun, or she may have been the daughter of Tushratta, King of the Mitanni (present-day Syria), although this is probably stretching things because historians tend to agree she was Egyptian-born. Whatever her background, there’s no question that she was one of the most powerful queens of the ancient world.
With her husband, Nefertiti helped introduce a new religion to ancient Egypt – the worship of the sun disc, Aten. Akhenaten had changed his name from Amenhotep IV to reflect his devotion to the new deity, and changed the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new city, Akhetaten, meaning “horizon of Aten”. We know the city now as Amarna.
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This whole new religion was quite a change and Aten was referred to as the God, rather than one of many, and Akhenaten has been credited with establishing the world’s first monotheistic religion. He excised the names of Amun and other gods, literally scratching them off sculptures and other monuments. It wasn’t necessarily the best move for political stability, but that’s a topic for another article.
In the new religion, Nefertiti was promoted as a symbol of femininity and fertility (she had borne the pharaoh six daughters in ten years).
Akhenaten only reigned for seventeen years, and his son Tutankhamun reinstalled the old religion when he took the throne in 1333 BCE; poor old Akhenaten then became known as the heretic king.
Some twelve years into Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti disappears from the records and no-one knows exactly why. There are plenty of theories: she may have died, although there are no reports of her death; she may have been exiled, although this is not thought likely; there are suggestions that she took the name Smenkhkare, dressed as a man and officially ruled as Akhenaten’s co-regent; others think she may have outlived Akhenaten and ruled as the pharaoh Neferneferuaten before handing the kingdom to her stepson Tutankhamun.
It’s all speculation because no evidence exists to come to a satisfactory conclusion. No-one knows where she might have been buried, although there’s conjecture galore about this too, including recent suggestions that she was interred in a secret chamber within the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Her remains are hidden somewhere in the timeless sands of Egypt, and the quest to unearth her final resting place goes on. Nefertiti thus retains a captivating air of mystery.
And who doesn’t love a woman of mystery?