nefertiti, queen nefertiti
Fritz Reiss/AP
The 3,300-year-old bust of Nefertiti.

Nefertiti, Egyptian Queen

October 20, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
As wife of King Akhenaten, Nefertiti was queen of Egypt’s 18th dynasty and played a prominent role in Egyptian worship of the sun god Aton or Aten. Her name means “the beautiful one has come,” and her legendary beauty is still evident in Egyptian reliefs and statuary.

Nefertiti’s Early Days

Though much of Nefertiti’s early life is a mystery, it is believed that she was born in 1390 B.C. According to British archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley, author of  “Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen,” circumstantial evidence suggests that she was born to the Egyptian Ay, a courtier and brother of Akhenaten’s mother, Tiy. She had a younger sister, Mutnodjmet.

Some scholars believe that she was a foreign princess, possibly from Mitanni (now known as Syria). Her name—Nefertiti, meaning “the beautiful one has come”—is an Egyptian birth name, however, suggesting that she was born in Egypt. In addition, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, “evidence indicates that she had an Egyptian wet-nurse or governess of noble rank, strong support for a birth within the circle of the Egyptian royal court.”

Other scholars believe that her father eventually became a vizier (prime minister) for Tutankhamen, Time magazine reported in 2003. Whatever her lineage or upbringing may have been, Nefertiti was chosen as “principal wife” of Amenhotep IV, who became pharaoh in approximately 1350 B.C. (Amenhotep later changed his name to Akhenaton, or Akhenaten, meaning “one who serves Aten.”)

“At the time of her marriage, she may have been no older than 12,” according to Time.

Nefertiti’s Reign as Queen

Life in Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign was tumultuous. As Time magazine describes, the priesthood associated with “Egypt’s traditional polytheistic religion” had become very powerful.

In order to gain more power for himself, the young pharaoh did away with the old system and replaced it with a new religion: a “divine triad,” Tyldesley explains, focused on worship of the sun god Aten; the king, Akhenaten; and his queen, Nefertiti.

Unlike queens before her, Nefertiti played a prominent role in her husband’s reign. She not only bore him six daughters (two of whom would become queens of Egypt), she also seems to have acted more as his co-ruler, rather than his consort.

Ancient reliefs show her worshipping with her husband at religious ceremonies, appearing at state occasions and killing enemies of Egypt—“previously only a role given to the pharaoh,” according to PBS. Akhenaten held his wife in high esteem: When he “ordered colossal statues of himself, he would order statues of equal size for his ‘Great Wife’.”

Nefertiti’s “sexuality, emphasized by her exaggeratedly feminine body shape and her fine linen garments, and her fertility, emphasized by the constant appearance of the six princesses, indicate that she was considered a living fertility goddess,” Tyldesley writes.

But life during Akhenaten’s rule wasn’t peaceful. Due to the religious reform that took place, many Egyptologists consider this period in Egypt’s history as the “reign of heresy,” Minnesota State University’s EMuseum explains. Some scholars wonder if Akhenaten was responsible for the reform, or if it was Nefertiti’s idea.

After 12 years of Akhenaten’s reign, one of his daughters died, three disappeared and Nefertiti vanished. Some scholars believe that Nefertiti also died, even though there is no record of her death and nothing to suggest that she was buried in the royal tomb.

According to Tyldesley, the burial site in the Valley of the Kings confirms that at least one burial at Amarna was reinterred at Thebes during King Tut’s reign. Egyptologists now suggest that Nefertiti may be one of the unidentified bodies found among the royal mummies in the Valley of the Kings.

Nefertiti’s Legacy

Nefertiti was largely forgotten until Ludwig Borchardt, a German archaeologist, discovered a bust of the queen in 1912. The bust was found in the workshop of sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, and was put on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in the 1920s. The sculpture quickly attracted “worldwide attention,” Tyldesley reports, and made Nefertiti “one of the most recognizable and, despite a missing left eye, most beautiful female figures from the ancient world.”

The bust is not without controversy, however. Egypt wants the bust of Queen Nefertiti back, charging that it was illegally removed from the country. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, says the 3,300-year-old sculpture is “too fragile to move,” the Associated Press reports.

New evidence may suggest that the Queen wasn’t really as beautiful as her sculpture. In March 2009, researchers announced that they had found, under layers of stucco, a limestone face in the “inner core” of the bust, thanks to CT scanning technology. “Nefertiti's ‘hidden’ visage is more realistic, with creases around the corners of her mouth … and cheeks, less prominent cheekbones, and a bump on her nose,” National Geographic reported.

Others debate the authenticity of the bust itself. Henri Stierlin, a Swiss art historian, claims that the bust is less than 100 years old. He believes the sculpture was used to “test ancient pigments” and was created by a sculptor commissioned by Borchardt, the archaeologist who found it.

Even though radiological tests have shown that the bust is more than 3,000 years old, Stierlin asserts that it’s possible only to carbon date the pigments, not the “bust because it is made of stone covered in plaster.” Dietrich Wildung, director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, has dismissed the allegations, saying that CT technology and material analyses of the Nefertiti bust prove otherwise.

In 2004, controversy of another kind erupted over Nefertiti: Had her mummy really been found? A two-hour documentary on the Discovery Channel, and a companion book by Dr. Joann Fletcher, claimed that a previously unidentified and mummified body had been identified as the remains of Queen Nefertiti. But Mark Rose, writing for Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America’s magazine, refuted the claim and gathered responses from other respected scholars on the topic.

“[T]here can be no doubt in the mind of any Egyptologist or educated Egyptology buff that the identification of the mummy in question as Nefertiti is balderdash,” Rose wrote. “There's simply no reason why her mummy must have survived. It could well have been destroyed long ago.”

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