Biography of Queen Nefertiti, Ancient Egyptian Queen

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Zserghei (assumed)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Nefertiti (c. 1370 BCE–c. 1336 or 1334 BCE) was an Egyptian queen, the chief wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten. She is perhaps best known for her appearance in Egyptian art, especially the famous bust discovered in 1912 at Amarna (known as the Berlin Bust), along with her role in the religious revolution centering on monotheistic worship of the sun disk Aten.

Fast Facts: Queen Nefertiti

  • Known For: Ancient queen of Egypt
  • Also Known As: Hereditary Princess, Great of Praises, Lady of Grace, Sweet of Love, Lady of The Two Lands, Main King's Wife, his beloved, Great King's Wife, Lady of all Women, and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt
  • Born: c. 1370 BCE in Thebes
  • Parents: Unknown
  • Died: 1336 BCE, or perhaps 1334, location unknown
  • Spouse: King Akhenaton (formerly Amenhotep IV)
  • Children: Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, and Setepenre (all daughters)

The name Nefertiti has been translated as "The Beautiful One Is Come." Based on the Berlin bust, Nefertiti is known for her great beauty. After the death of her husband, she may well have ruled Egypt briefly under the name pharaoh Smenkhkare (ruled 1336–1334 BCE).

Early Life

Nefertiti was born about 1370 BCE, probably in Thebes, although her origins are debated by archaeologists and historians. Egyptian royal families were always tangled by the intermarriage of siblings as well as by children and their parents: Nefertiti's life story is difficult to trace because she went through several name changes. She may have been a foreign princess from an area in what became northern Iraq. She may have been from Egypt, the daughter of the previous Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his chief wife Queen Tiy. Some evidence suggests that she may have been the daughter of Ay, Pharaoh Amenhotep III's vizier, who was a brother of Queen Tiy and who became pharaoh after Tutankhamen.

Nefertiti grew up in the royal palace at Thebes and had an Egyptian woman, the wife of a courtier of Amenhotep III, as her wet nurse and tutor, which suggests she was of some importance in the court. It seems certain that she was brought up in the cult of the sun god Aten. Whoever she was, Nefertiti was set to marry the Pharaoh's son, who would become Amenhotep IV by the time she was about 11 years old.

Wife of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV

Nefertiti became the chief wife (queen) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (ruled 1350–1334), who took the name Akhenaten when he led a religious revolution that put the sun god Aten at the center of religious worship. This was a form of monotheism that only lasted as long as his rule. Art from the time depicts 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 central role in ceremonial acts of worship. The family most likely lived at the palace of Malkata in Thebes, which was grand by any standard.

Amenhotep Becomes Akhenaten

Before the 10th year of his reign, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV took the unusual step of changing his name along with the religious practices of Egypt. Under his new name of Akhenaten, he established a new cult of Aten and abolished the current religious practices. This undermined the wealth and power of the cult of Amun, consolidating power under Akhenaten.

Pharaohs were divine in Egypt, no less than gods, and there are no records of public or private dissent against the changes Akhenaten instituted—during his lifetime. But the modifications he made to the hide-bound religion of Egypt were vast and must have been deeply unsettling to the populace. He left Thebes, where pharaohs had been installed for millennia, and moved to a new site in Middle Egypt that he called Akhetaten, the "Horizon of Aten," and which archaeologists call Tell el Amarna. He defunded and shut down temple institutions at Heliopolis and Memphis, and co-opted elites with bribes of wealth and power. He established himself as a co-ruler of Egypt with the sun god Aten.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

In court artwork, Akhenaten had himself and his wife and family depicted in strange new ways, images with elongated faces and bodies and thin extremities, hands with long fingers curving upwards and extended bellies and hips. Early archaeologists were convinced that these were true representations until they found his perfectly normal mummy. Perhaps he was presenting himself and his family as divine creatures, both male and female, both animal and human.

Akhenaten had an extensive harem, which included two of his daughters with Nefertiti, Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten. Both had children by their father.

Disappearance—or the New Co-King

After 12 years of reigning as the beloved wife of the pharaoh, Nefertiti seems to disappear from recorded history. There are multiple theories about what may have happened. She may, of course, have died at that time; she may have been assassinated and replaced as a Great Wife by another, perhaps one of her own daughters.

One tantalizing theory growing in support is that she might not have disappeared at all, but rather changed her name and become Akhenaten's co-king, Ankhkheperure mery-Waenre Neferneferuaten Akhetenhys.

The Death of Akhenaten

In the 13th year of Akhenaten's rule, he lost two daughters to the plague and another to childbirth. His mother Tiy died the next year. A devastating military loss deprived Egypt of its lands in Syria, and after that, Akhenaten became a fanatic for his new religion, sending his agents out into the world to remake all the Egyptian temples, chiseling out the names of the Theban gods on everything from the temple walls and obelisks to personal objects. Some scholars believe Akhenaten may have forced his priests to destroy the ancient cult figures and slaughter the sacred beasts.

A total eclipse occurred on May 13, 1338 BCE, and Egypt fell into darkness for more than five minutes. The effect on the pharaoh, his family, and his kingdom is unknown but may have been seen as an omen. Akhenaten died in 1334 during the 17th year of his reign.

Nefertiti the Pharaoh?

The scholars who suggest Nefertiti was Akhenaten's co-king also suggest the pharaoh that followed Akhenaten was Nefertiti, under the name of Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare. That king/queen quickly began the dismantlement of Akhenaten's heretical reformations. Smenkhkare took two wives—Nefertiti's daughters Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten—and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, bricking up the temples and houses of the city and moving back to Thebes. All the old cities were revived, and the cult statues of Mut, Amun, Ptah, and Nefertum and other traditional gods were reinstalled, and artisans were sent out to repair the chisel marks.

She (or he) may also well have selected the next sovereign, Tutankhaten—a boy of just 7 or 8 who was too young to rule. His sister Ankhesenpaaten was tapped to watch over him. Smenkhkare's rule was short, and Tutankhaten was left to complete the re-establishment of the old religion under the name of Tutankhamen. He married Ankhesenpaaten and changed her name to Ankhesenamun: she, the last member of the 18th dynasty and Nefertiti's daughter, would outlive Tutankhamen and end up married to the first of the 19th dynasty kings, Ay.

Legacy

Tutankhamen's mother is noted in records as a woman named Kiya, who was another 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 mourning her death in childbirth. Images of Kiya were, at some later time, destroyed.

DNA evidence has surfaced a new theory about Nefertiti's relationship to Tutankhamen ("King Tut")—he was clearly the child of incest. This evidence might suggest that Nefertiti was the mother of Tutankhamen and a first cousin of Akhenaten; or that Nefertiti was his grandmother, and Tutankhamen's mother was not Kiya but one of Nefertiti's daughters.

Sources

  • Cooney, Kara. "When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt." National Geographic Books, 2018. 
  • Hawass, Z. The Golden King: The World of Tutankhamun. (National Geographic, 2004).
  • Mark, Joshua J. "Nefertiti." Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Apr 2014.
  • Powell, Alvin. "A different take on Tut." The Harvard Gazette, Harvard University, February 11, 2013. 
  • Rose, Mark. "Where's Nefertiti?" Archaeology Magazine, September 16, 2004.
  • Tyldesley, Joyce. "Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen." London: Penguin, 2005.
  • Watterson, B. The Egyptians. (Wiley-Blackwell, 1998).