African Queens Series: The Powerful Queen Nefertiti Of Egypt



Nefertiti is perhaps best remembered for the painted limestone bust depicting her. Many consider it one of the greatest works of art of the pre-modern world.

Queen Nefertiti is perhaps better known than her husband, the heretic king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). It is said that even in the ancient world, her beauty was famous, and her famous statue, found in a sculptor’s workshop, is not only one of the most recognizable icons of ancient Egypt, but also the topic of some modern controversy. She seems to have taken an unprecedented level of importance in the Amarna period of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. In artwork, her status is evident and indicates that she had almost as much influence as her husband. For example, she is depicted nearly twice as often in reliefs as her husband, at least during the first five years of his reign. Indeed, she is once even shown in the conventional pose of a pharaoh smiting his (or in this case, her) enemy.

Nefertiti may or may not have been of royal blood. She was probably a daughter of the army officer, and later pharaoh, Ay, who may in turn have been a brother of Queen Tiye. Ay sometimes referred to himself as “the God’s father”, suggesting that he may have been Akhenaten’s father-in-law, though there is no specific references for this claim. However, Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnojme, is featured prominently in the decorations of Ay’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor). However, while we know that Mutnojme was certainly the sister of Nefertiti, her prominence in Ay’s tomb clearly does not guarantee her relationship to him. Others have suggested that Nefertiti may have been a daughter of Tiye, or that she was Akhenaten’s cousin. Nevertheless, as “heiress”, she may have also been a descendant of Ahmose-Nefertari, though she was never described as God’s wife of Amun. However, she never lays claim to King’s Daughter, so we certainly know that she cannot have been an heiress in the direct line of descent.

If she was indeed the daughter of Ay, it was probably not by his chief wife, Tey, who was not referred to as a “Royal mother of the chief wife of the king”, but rather ‘nurse’ and ‘governess’ of the king’s chief wife. It could be that Nefertiti’s actual mother died early on, and it was left to Tey to raise the young girl. However, many other explanations have also been suggested.

Personal Life and the Relationship of King and Queen

Together, we know that Akhenaten and Nefertiti has six daughters, though it was probably with another royal wife called Kiya that the king sired his successors, Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun. Nefertiti also shared her husband with two other royal wives named Mekytaten and Ankhesenpaaten, as well as later with her probable daughter, Merytaten.

Undoubtedly, Akenaten seems to have had a great love for his Chief Royal wife. They were inseparable in early reliefs, many of which showed their family in loving, almost utopian compositions. At times, the king is shown riding with her in a chariot, kissing her in public and with her sitting on his knee. One eulogy proclaims her:

“And the Heiress, Great in the Palace, Fair of Face, Adorned with the Double Plumes, Mistress of Happiness, Endowed with Favors, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices, the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, May she live for Ever and Always”

Nefertiti and Akenaten playing with their children

Crucially important to Akhenaten was Femininity which was not only basic to his personal life, but also to his thinking and his faith. In fact, it is indeed difficult to find another founder of a religion for whom women played a comparable role. Akhenaten had a number of different women about him, and they are depicted in virtually every representation of a cult-ritual or state ceremony conducted by the king at his new capital honoring the sun god. Nefertiti was not the only queen to be treated well.

Each of the royal women had her own sanctuary, which was frequently called a sunshade temple. They were usually situated in a parkland environment of vegetation and water pools, emphasizing the importance of female royalty in the daily renewal of creation affected by the god Aten.

However, it was the figure of Nefertiti that Akhenaten had carved onto the four corners of his granite sarcophagus and it was she who provided the protection to his mummy, a role traditionally played by the female deities Isis, Nephthys, Selket and Neith.

One influence within the personal lives of Nefertiti and Akhenaten must have been the presence of Akhenaten’s mother, Tiye. Tiye would have held a special position as a wise woman in his court, and we can only surmise that this must have had some affect on the younger couple’s relationship.

Queen Tiye as the “wise woman” of El Amarna was often depicted with facial features that not only signaled old age, but life experience and wisdom calling for respect and even veneration.

When Nefertiti’s face is represented with the first signs of old age, this may well signify that she has assumed the position of “wise woman” following the death of Tiye, at which point her court status would have been even further elevated.

The Religion

Nefertiti and her King lived during a highly unusual period in Egyptian history.

It was a time of religious controversy when the traditional gods of Egypt were more or less abandoned at least by the royal family in favor of a single god, the sun disk named Aten. However, it should be noted that the Egyptian religion did not actually become monotheistic, for cults related to the other gods did persist and they were never really erased from the Egyptian theology.

It is believed that Nefertiti was active in the religious and cultural changes initiated by her husband (some even maintain that it was she who initiated the new religion). She also had the position as a priest, and she was a devoted worshipper of the god Aten. In the royal religion, the King and Queen were viewed as “a primeval first pair”. It was they who worshipped the sun disk named Aten and it was only through them that this god was accessed. Indeed, the remainder of the population was expected to worship the royal family, as the rays of the sun fell and gave life to, it would seem, only the royal pair.

Nefertiti and her King worshipping the Aten

However, many scholars presume that the Mutnodjme who later married King Haremhab is none other than the younger sister of Nefertiti. In Akhenaten: King of Egypt by Cyril Aldred, the author explains that a fragmentary statue of Mutnodjme discovered at Dendera describes her not only as “Chief Queen”, but also “God’s Wife [of Amun]”, which he explains puts her in the line of

those other great consorts who traced their descent from Ahmose-Nefertari. This links both sisters to the cult of Amun, which he tells us could obviously not have been openly proclaimed at Amarna.

Nefertiti’s Disappearance

Towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti disappeared from historical Egyptian records. For a number of years, scholars though that she had fallen from grace with the king, but this was actually a case of mistaken identity. It was Kiya’s name and images that were removed from monuments, and replaced by those of Meryetaten, one of Akhenaten’s daughters. It has been suggested, though there is no hard supporting evidence, that by year twelve of Akhenaten’s reign, and after bearing him a son and possibly a further daughter, Kiya became too much of a rival to Nefertiti and that it was she who caused Kiya’s disgrace.

It is possible that Nefertiti disappearance a number of years after that of Kiya’s simply meant that she died around the age of thirty, though there are controversies on this matter as well. It may not be simple coincidence that, shortly after Nefertiti’s disappearance from the archaeological record, Akhenaten took on a co-regent with whom he shared the throne of Egypt. This co-regent has been a matter of considerable speculation and controversy, with a whole range of theories. One such theory puts forward the idea that the co-regent was none other than Nefertiti herself in a new guise as a female king following the lead of women such as Sobkneferu and Hatshepsut. Another theory is that there were actually two co-regents, consisting of a male son named Smenkhkare, and Nefertiti under the name Neferneferuaten, both of whom adopted the prenomen, Ankhkheperure. Undoubtedly, like her husband who was originally named Amenhotep, she too took the new name, Neferneferuaten to honor the Aten (Neferneferuaten can be translated as “The Aten is radiant of radiance [because] the beautiful one is come” or “Perfect One of the Aten’s Perfection”). Indeed, she may have even changed her name prior to her husband doing so, but rather this means she also served as co-regent is questionable.

Some scholars are considerably adamant about Nefertiti assuming the role of co-regent, and even serving as king for a short time after the death of Akhenaten. One such individual is Jacobus Van Dijk, responsible for the Amarna section of the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. He believes that Nefertiti indeed became co-regent with her husband, and that her role as queen consort was taken over by her eldest daughter, Meryetaten (Meritaten). If this is true, then Nefertiti may have even taken up residence in Thebes, as evidenced by a graffito dated to year three in the reign of Neferneferuaten mentioning a “Mansion of Ankhkheperure”. If so, there could have been an attempt made at reconciliation with the old cults. He also suggests that Smenkhkare might have also been Nefertiti, ruling after the death of her husband, with her own daughter acting in a ceremonial role of “Great Royal Wife”.

However, other scholars are equally adamant against Nefertiti ever having been a co-regent or ruling after her husband’s death. In his book, Akhenaten: King of Egypt, Cyril Aldred references a funerary objected called a shawabti.

Excerpts By Jimmy Dunn courtesy of

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