As queen of Egypt married to the iconoclastic pharaoh Akhenaton, Nefertiti helped in the temporary transformation of the cultures traditional religion into a monotheistic cult of sun worship. She also had an important role in ruling the empire and inspired standards of female beauty.
|Akhenaton, Nefertiti and children|
Nefertiti was born in the royal city of Thebes on the Nile River in Upper Egypt; her name means "the beautiful one has come." Her origins and much about her life are unclear. Her supposed mother or stepmother, Tiy, was also described as her "nurse" and "governess." Her putative father was Ay, at first a scribe and keeper of the king's records. Eventually, Ay was to become grand vizier, or chief minister, as well as commander of the king's chariotry.
Perhaps her father's ascendancy made it possible for Nefertiti to secure an entrée to the court and to become friendly with the king's oldest son, the younger Amenhotep, a year her senior. Amenhotep happened to have her father, Ay, as tutor. Nefertiti had a younger sister, Mudnodjme, whom some scholars posit became the chief wife of King Horemheb, a view contested by others.
Given her father's presumed ambitions and the young prince's affection for her, at age eleven Nefertiti already appeared to have been groomed to be queen. It is agreed that she spent much of the her childhood in the royal palace at Thebes, a magnificent city beautified by Ay, this time in his capacity as chief architect to King Amenhotep III, the prince's father.
After the young King Amenhotep IV ascended the throne at about age sixteen upon his father's death, he married Nefertiti, then fifteen. She thus became Queen Nefertiti, empress of the two Egypts, Upper and Lower. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, royal couples were considered the intermediaries between the people and their gods; Amenhotep and Nefertiti, according to custom, were thus ascribed near-divine attributes.
The new king, however, broke rank with his predecessors. He evinced little interest in hunting, the affairs of state, or warfare. Rather, his focus was primarily theological. In fact, the sovereign became a religious reformer and was eventually considered a heretic. In contrast to his ancestors, Amenhotep IV replaced Amun-Re, the supreme god of all Egyptian gods, with a new paramount, powerful, and eventually sole god, Aton, whose manifestation was the sun-disk, the physical embodiment of the planet. Until then, Aton had been only a minor Theban god. Symbolically, in Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaton. Because of mounting opposition to his iconoclasm and to his closure of the temples of the other gods, Akhenaton decided to build a new capital, Akhetaton (the modern Tell el-Amârna, on the Nile in Middle Egypt some 250 miles north of Thebes). The royal family and a good part of the court then moved there.
In the meantime, however, Meritaten and Mekitaten, two of the royal couple's six known daughters, had been born in Thebes. Four more girls--Ankhesenamen, Nefernefruaten the Younger, Nefernefrura, and Setepenra--were to follow. Some scholars suspect that the royal couple, or at least Akhenaton, may also have had a son, Smenkhkare, who ruled briefly either with or following his father. Indeed, under a contemporary pharaonic tradition, the king may have sired other children either with his secondary wives such as his favorite, Kiya, or even with his own daughters, of whom he married three; incestuous couplings were favored to maintain the royal line. Various reliefs show the royal couple with their daughters, often in intimate, domestic surroundings that had never been represented before.
The rise and fall of Egypt's new capital city, Akhetaton, with which Nefertiti became so closely associated, was little less than meteoric. In less than two decades, it was built with palaces, temples to the god Aton, monuments, residences, and burial places. A new style of art flourished during this brief "Amarna period." In the fourteenth century B.C.E., Egypt was still the world's most important empire. Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Palestine, Mitanni, and the region of Asia Minor where the Hittites lived all paid tribute in the form of slaves, animals, and princesses, who were used as royal spouses or concubines to reinforce political ties.
Because her husband's interests were primarily theological, Nefertiti helped to spread the new faith as Akhenaton's equal, participating enthusiastically in the new religious ceremonies. Unlike other chief wives, Nefertiti is shown taking part in daily worship, replicating the gestures of the king and making offerings similar to his. Yet since her husband was additionally focused on artistic innovations and poetry, not matters of state or war, Nefertiti necessarily found herself acting as a co-regent, even though such a status was never formally announced. Indeed, stelae, monuments, tomb inscriptions, and other artifacts depict the queen as assuming a major role at diplomatic receptions and in the ritual smiting of her country's foes. Even by the standards of Eighteenth Dynasty royal women, Nefertiti seems to have achieved unusual power and influence.
Whatever Nefertiti's role, and perhaps in part because of Tell el-Amârna's orientation as a visionary rather than a warring pharaoh, the couple's reign was not a particularly good time for Egypt. There was restlessness in the empire, which in the fourteenth century B.C.E. stretched from Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq) to Nubia (approximately the modern Sudan), with some of these dependencies being at odds with one another in petty power struggles of their own as well. Akhenaton seems to have been unwilling to lead the traditional punitive expeditions to restore law and order.
Tragedy seems to have struck the royal family sometime after Year 11 and probably in Year 14 of Akhenaton's seventeen-year reign. The couple's second daughter, Mekitaten, aged around thirteen, died in childbirth. Her grief-stricken parents are shown in relief mourning over her lifeless body. This was the last known record of Nefertiti. There are several theories about her abrupt disappearance from public view.
One theory assumes that Nefertiti fell out of power and retired in disgrace in the Northern Palace as another wife--perhaps Kiya or even the royal couple's oldest daughter, Meritaten--came to monopolize the king's affection. Another view holds that Nefertiti came to disagree with Akhenaton on theological grounds; for example, he may have been shifting toward at least a partial restoration of the rival god Amen, while Nefertiti may have clung to Atonism. Still another theory has her committing suicide. Some theories stretch the imagination even further; one speculates that Smenkhkare, Akhenaton's heir, was supposedly none other than Nefertiti, appearing from that point on as a male.
However, the view that the "great royal wife" died a natural death at about age thirty--a not-unusual lifespan even among royalty at the time--is endorsed by most modern scholars. Nefertiti's mummified remains have never been discovered, nor have her husband's been positively identified. This absence of evidence may be the result of the religious counter-reformation that gathered momentum as the earlier principal god, Amon-Ra, was restored; references to Atonism and its sponsors were often obliterated and their records destroyed.
A few years after Akhenaton's death, moreover, the court returned to the earlier royal city of Thebes, and the late capital, Akhetaton, was laid to nearly complete ruin by enemies. Vandals and thieves may also have taken their toll. Yet it should be borne in mind that archaeologists discovered the famous limestone bust of Nefertiti--among other works in what had been the workshop of the master sculptor Thutmes in Amarna--only in 1912. This may logically suggest that the final chapter about Nefertiti has not yet been written.
What is so striking about Nefertiti's life and work is that, even though her likeness--derived from Thutmes's bust of her, now located in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany--is one of the best-known and most frequently reproduced in the world, and while she lived at a time when Egypt was the most cultured and most powerful nation on earth, remarkably little is known about her. It is surmised that she must have been about four feet, six inches tall, the height of an average Egyptian woman of the time. It is known from her depictions that she often went about scantily dressed, as was customary in the warm climate. Otherwise, she appeared in the traditional garb of a clinging gown tied by a girdle with ends falling in front; at times, she is depicted coiffed with a short wig. She probably had a shaven head to improve the fit of her unusual tall blue crown. It is known that she identified with her husband's heresy and that, according to Akhenaton's poetry, he loved her dearly. It is also known that her beauty was legendary.
Yet many other details of her life, such as her personality and character, remain unfathomed. On the whole, then, "The Heiress, Great of Favor, Lady of Graciousness, Worthy of Love, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Great Wife of the King, Whom He Loves, Lady of the Two Lands"--as she is characterized in a contemporary inscription--though a historical figure of enormous importance, continues to be a riddle.
Peter B. Heller