Nefertiti has been immortalised in part due to her role in her husband’s overhaul of the Ancient Egyptian religious structure and thanks to the discovery of the famous bust giving a face to the name. However, her story was more complex and interesting than her being the simple wife of a pharaoh.

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Early Life

The name Nefertiti means “the beautiful one has come” and while we know the meaning of her name we know very little about Nefertiti’s early life. There are no surviving documents that give historians information on who her family may have been which has led to two popular schools of thought. The first is that she may have been a foreign princess, possibly Thadukhepa, the Mittani princess sent by her father Tushratta to marry Akhenaten’s father but as he died not long after her arrival she instead married the son and later changed her name to a more Egyptian one, (name changing would be something of a common practice during her time as queen.) The second school of thought is that she may have been the daughter of Ay, a royal adviser and the brother of Queen Tiy, Ay himself would go on to be pharaoh after Tutankhamen’s death in 1323 BCE. Records show that Nefertiti’s wet nurse was the wife of Ay which may be where the connection was drawn from.

If she was the daughter of Ay, this would have made her the cousin of the king and a respectable choice for a royal wife as incestuous relationships were not thought of in the same way as we see them today. We don’t know how old Nefertiti was when she married Akhenaten so we don’t know for sure how old she would have been but historians are fairly confident that she would have been in her early teens (between 12 and 15 years old). 

Life as Queen

Akhenaten took the throne after the crown prince after his older brother died unexpectedly. The cause of his brother’s death was never recorded but infant mortality was reportedly as high as 50%. Needing an heir, his father named him as co-regent (perhaps due to his lack of preparation) and the two reigned together during his father’s final years.

It was speculated that if Akhenaten was born around year 7 of his father’s reign then he would have been around 30 years old when he took on the reigns of Egypt alone, his age making him less easily moulded by Egypt’s courtiers and their whims. As a child Akhenaten would have witnessed his father’s interest in Egypt’s various sun gods, moreover the prince was educated during a time of burgeoning religious intellectualism, in which priests attempted to understand the mysteries of the sun’s movements, death and rebirth, fertility, life-giving and healing abilities. It’s possible he may have received training to become a priest as the second of the king’s sons and when he took the throne in his brother’s place, what he had learnt had begun to form what would become the new religion of the Egyptians.

Nefertiti and her husband ruled together from 1353 to 1336 BCE. Nefertiti herself gave birth to 6 daughters all within approximately 10 years, and one of her daughters, Ankhesenpaaten (later known as Ankhesenamen) would go on to be the wife of Tutankhamen. There is some speculation that the couple had a son together, however the images that we see showing the king and queen do not depict a son instead only showing their daughters. The first possible records of Nefertiti comes from a private tomb in Thebes. In TT188 the tomb of the royal butler Parennefer, a lady accompanies the king as he worships the Aten and she held various titles including:

  • Hereditary Princess,
  • Great of Praises,
  • Lady of Two Lands,
  • Chief Wife of the King,
  • His Beloved, Great King’s Wife,
  • His Beloved, Lady of all Women,
  • Mistress of Lower and Upper Egypt,
  • Beauty of Aten,

The titles Lady of Two Lands and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt are more akin to kings titles but may only be indicative of her role as queen.

Somewhat suddenly during the 5th year of his rule, Akhenaten began construction of his new city Akhenaten which meant “Horizon of the Aten”. It was at this time that he also changed his name from Amenhotep IV  to Akhenaten meaning “The One Who is Beneficial to the Aten” to reflect his religious philosophy. Royal name changes like this were unheard of. Slight alterations might be made to celebrate milestones or great victories. Nefertiti wasn’t left out of the re branding and her name was also amended to Neferneferuaten Nefertiti meaning “The Beauty of the Beautiful Ones of the Aten, The Beauty Has Come”.

The new city (now known as Amarna) is located about halfway between Memphis and Thebes with no other ancient sites nearby. While somewhat isolated from the rest of Egypt, the city itself was built on the banks of the Nile, specifically the East bank. In this fairly isolated location, the unwanted influence of Thebes could be ignored while still allowing Egypt and her capitol to be connected to the rest of the world. In this new city, new temples, which were punctuated by a series of gateways began to spring up. Airy courtyards filled with hundreds of alters open to the air and light proliferated with no closed sanctuary. This was unlike traditional temples where rituals were carried out in small darkened sanctuaries in the innermost recesses of the temple. Furthermore, there was no need for cult statues, the Aten could be felt on the skin, he burnt the eyes. Instead statues would be the human bodies of his Earthly manifestations- The Pharaoh and his Queen.

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Remains of Amarna today. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Images of Akhenaten and his family dominate the pictorial reliefs of many of the tombs, which is one of the major changes in the period. In nobles tombs from other periods of ancient Egyptian history the king is often depicted but in a much different manner,  usually enthroned or possibly with one or more of the gods but in the Amarna tombs he is usually shown seated with wife and daughters. Nefertiti and her husband are instead portrayed as a couple in love with images showing the couple holding hands and kissing. While this may have been somewhat unheard of at the time, some historians have speculated that this would have fit in with the image of Nefertiti holding a role much like the goddess Hathor. As her husband’s chief priestess and ideological muse, it has been speculated that the name “Nefertiti” may have been given to her as she became part of the King’s harem as she was meant to act much like Hathor who acted as the sexual partner to her father the sun god- representing the divine feminine essential to any union between sun and sky. In this new city, Nefertiti was given the honour of worship at her own temple at the site of Kom el Nana, then called “the sunshade of the Aten”. Here she was depicted without her husband instead with her young daughter, holding her arms up in worship as the life-granting rays of the solar disk consumed the food on the offering table below.

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A house altar showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. Image from Wikimedia Commons

But not everything was as wonderful at Akhenaten as the images may have tried to show. A graveyard preserving the skeletons of thousands of children proves that abuse, overwork and undernourishment of a coerced labour force was the foundation of this city. And in less than 30 years after their reign the city that they had built to the sun god Aten would disappear back into the desert.

The Famous Nefertiti Bust

On December 6th, 1913 a team led by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered a sculpture buried upside-down in the sandy rubble on the floor of the excavated workshop of the royal sculptor Thutmose in Amarna. This painted sculpture showed the face of Nefertiti with a slender neck, well proportioned face and the blue cylindrical headpiece which is a style only seen in images of the queen. While this find has immortalised the Egyptian queen there has been many years of debate as to whether the bust may in fact be a fake. Found at the same time as Nefertiti’s bust was her husband’s badly broken sculpture. The argument that the bust is a fake rests on this evidence, after all if they were both found in the same place they would surely be in a similar condition? Whether authentic or fake this has become one of the most well known faces of ancient history.

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The Nefertiti Bust. Image from Wikimedia Commons

When Nefertiti had been Great Royal Wife for 7 or 8 years she would see two of her daughters elevated to her role alongside her husband and their father presumably taking the title of highest ranking queen from her. This was not just a title in name, as both of his daughters would bear Akhenaten children. Because there is suddenly no more mention of Nefertiti as Great Royal Wife, archaeologists have presumed that she died. But instead she had reinvented herself once again. This time as co-king alongside her husband. After year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign a new co-king was pictured alongside him named Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, who is now identified by most historians as Nefertiti herself, and in one of the tombs at Akhenaten may depict her ascension to co-ruler. In the images we can see two kings sharing almost the same space on the throne, but the definition of 2 garments, 4 hands, 4 legs, and 2 bodily contours. By making her co-king, as the younger monarch the legacy of his reign would fall to her after his death. While some may argue that Akhenaten would not have elevated his wife to such a position, it should be remembered that the move to a new city meant that her husband relied more on Nefertiti politically and she may have been one of the only people that he could trust as her position depended upon him. Who better to surround yourself with than those who need you?

After Akhenaten’s Death

Akhenaten died around year 17 of his reign and would have been around 50 years old. After his death all mentions of Nefertiti disappear coinciding with the death of one of her daughters Meritaten. While some historians have argued that Nefertiti may have died at the same time as her daughter, scenes of mourning by both parents found in Meritaten’s tomb and lack of mourning scenes for Nefertiti seem to argue against this.

The next king to take the reins of Egypt was  Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare. Until recently the king was believed to be a male relative of Dynasty 18. Perhaps a brother of Akhenaten. Because this unknown king had wives it was assumed that the name belonged to a male king. But closer research reveals that it was Nefertiti herself. The argument behind this states that If she transformed herself so completely from queen to co-regent making herself almost unrecognisable, then maybe she remade herself again from co-king to king. The argument against this is based on the fact that this king married one of Nefertiti’s daughters.  But in order to take the throne in the role of a male king she would have needed someone to take the feminine role and who better than a trusted daughter? After all, her husband had married his own daughters before this. Furthermore, a rare image of Smenkhkare and his/her Great Royal wife Meritaten was inscribed in a tomb at Akhenaten’s capital. A figure named Smenkhkare is shown wearing a masculine kilt but also a feminine garment tied under the breasts, this mixing of masculine and feminine is something that Egypt had already seen during the role of Hatshepsut.

If Nefertiti was indeed Smenkhkare she may have positioned Ankhesenpaaten, her daughter as Tutankhamen’s wife in order to help him solve problems beyond his abilities. It is believed that Tutankhamen ascended to the Egyptian throne in 1336 BCE at around 9 years old. Interestingly he didn’t seem to have a female regent which may explain the choice in wife as Ankhesenpaaten would have gained valuable experience as the Great Wife of her own father.

Nefertiti was perhaps one of the most powerful women ever to have ruled in Egypt. Her husband went to great lengths to display her as an equal, and in several reliefs she is shown wearing the crown of a pharaoh or smiting her enemies in battle. But despite this great power, Nefertiti disappears from all depictions after 12 years. The reason for her disappearance is widely debated with some scholars believing she died, and others speculating she was elevated to the status of co-regent. One of the largest sticking points amongst historians is that no DNA analysis could prove Nefertiti’s identity because it remains unclear who her parents were and the remains of her children have never been positively identified either. Regardless of who her parents may have been, thanks to her rediscovery in the historical record, it is unlikely that she will be forgotten any time soon.

Author- Emily Casson


Charles River Editors Ancient Egypt’s Most Famous Royal Family: The Lives and Deaths of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun

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