Biography of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti

Ancient Symbol of Beauty

Egyptian relief of Akhenaten and Nefertiti holding their daughters, 14th century BCE
Egyptian relief of Akhenaten and Nefertiti holding their daughters, 14th century BCE. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Nefertiti was an Egyptian queen, the chief wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten. She is best known for her appearance in Egyptian art, especially the famous bust discovered in 1912 at Amarna, along with her role in the religious revolution centering on monotheistic worship of the sun disk, Aten. The name Nefertiti has been translated as "The Beautiful One Is Come"; appropriately, Nefertiti is known for her great beauty.  She likely ruled Egypt after the death of Akhenaten.

What We Know About Nefertiti

Nefertiti was the chief wife (queen) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who took the name Akhenaten when he led a religious revolution which put the sun god Aten at the center of religious worship. Art from the time shows a close family relationship, with Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and their six daughters depicted more naturalistically, individualistically, and informally than in other eras. Images of Nefertiti also depict her taking an active role in the Aten cult.

For the first five years of Akhenaten's rule, Nefertiti is depicted in carved images as being a very active queen, with a much more central role in ceremonial acts of worship.

Akhenaten was succeeded first by one Pharaoh, Smenkhkhare, usually described as his son-in-law, and then by another, Tutankhaten (who changed his name to Tutankhamen when the Aten cult was abandoned), who is also usually described as Akhenaten's son-in-law.

Nefertiti's Rival?

Tutankhamen's mother is noted in records as a woman named Kiya.  She may have been a lesser wife of Akhenaten.  Her hair was styled in the Nubian fashion, perhaps indicating her origin. Some images -- a drawing, a tomb scene -- point to the pharaoh morning her death in childbirth.  Images of Kiya were, at some later time, destoyed.

What Happened to Nefertiti?

After about fourteen years, Nefertiti disappears from public view.  One theory is that she died about that time.

Another theory of Nefertiti's disappearance is that she assumed a male identity and ruled under the name Smenkhkhare after her husband's death.

Another theory is that Nefertiti advocated returning to worship of Aten when Akhenaten and Tutankhamen had turned back to worship of Amen-re, perhaps pressured by the priestly class.  As a result, she was no longer at the center politically, and may even have been murdered as part of the return to the traditional Egyptian religious customs.

A mummy thought to be Nefertiti was disfigured, with a stab wound, a fractured arm, and the face and chest attacked with a blunt instrument.  These could have been the cause of the death -- pointing to murder -- or an attack on the corpse, indicating great hatred.  The damage may have been done in retribution for her husband's apostasy in turning from the gods supported by many of the priests.  (The source of this evidence and theory is Dr. Joann Fletcher, a noted Egyptologist.)

Nefertiti's Ancestry

As for Nefertiti's origins, these too are debated by archaeologists and historians. She may have been a foreign princess from an area in what is now northern Iraq. She may have been from Egypt, the daughter of the previous Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, and his chief wife, Queen Tiy, in which case  either Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) was not the son of Amenhotep III, or Nefertiti married (as was a custom in Egypt) her brother or half-brother. Or, she may have been the daughter or niece of Ay, who was a brother of Queen Tiy and who became Pharaoh after Tutankhamen.

There's some evidence that can be interpreted as indicating that Nefertiti had an Egyptian woman as her wet nurse or governess.  This would indicate that she was Egyptian herself, or had come as a foreign princess to Egypt in early childhood.  Her name is Egyptian, and that would also point to either an Egyptian birth or a renaming of a foreign princess in early childhood.

DNA and Nefertiti

DNA evidence has recently surfaced a new theory about Nefertiti's relationship to Tutankhamen ("King Tut"): that she was the mother of Tutankhamen and a first cousin of Akhenaten. An earlier theory about the DNA evidence proposed that Tutankhamen was the son of Akhenaten and his (unnamed) sister, rather than of Nefertiti and Akhenaten. (source)