Nefertiti: History, Major Facts and Greatest Accomplishments
Nefertiti, (died c. 1330 BC), Egyptian queen consort of the 18th dynasty (r. 1353–1336 BC), generally regarded as one of the most recognizable and beautiful figures of ancient Egypt. Born possibly to Ay, an influential ancient Egyptian statesman and perhaps pharaoh for a brief period, Queen Nefertiti married her husband Amenhotep IV (later known as Pharaoh Akhenaten) at just the age of 15. She bore the king six daughters.
As the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti wielded an unparalleled amount of influence in the Egyptian court. She is most known for wholeheartedly supporting Akhenaten’s radical and very controversial religious revolution, which saw the sun god Aten elevated to a kind of monotheistic eminence and status. She and her husband were called the heretic royal couple because they rejected they the established religious structure and powerhouse in Thebes in favor of Atenism.
Nefertiti contributed a great deal to maintaining Egypt’s economic and political power in the region. Historians and scholars credit her and her husband with reigning over a very wealthy and prosperous Egypt.
What else was Queen Nefertiti most known for? And did she ever rule Egypt in the capacity of pharaoh?
In the article below, WHE dives into the life, achievements and death of Nefertiti, the ancient queen whose iconic bust ranks up there as one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in history.
Egyptian Queen Nefertiti: Fast Facts
Born – c. 1370 BC
Died – c. 1330 BC
Husband – Pharaoh Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV)
Father – Ay
Children – Meketaten, Ankhesenamun, Ankhesenpaaten, Setepenre, Neferneferure, and Neferneferuaten Tasherit.
Reign as chief royal wife – c. 1351 – 1334 BC.
Reign as pharaoh – probably for 4 years – two years as Smenkhkare and two years as Neferneferuaten.
Who was Nefertiti?
To this day, after more than 3,000 years since her death, archaeologists and scholars are still left scratching their heads as to where Nefertiti came from, as well as how her early life was like.
The theory that is normally cited is that this beauty icon of ancient Egypt was born to Ay, a powerful statesman and grand vizier to pharaoh Amenhotep III and later to Pharaoh Akhenaten. If this were true, the young Nefertiti would most likely have grown up mingling with many members of the Egyptian royal family, including her future husband Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who was the second son of Amenhotep III.
There have been some scholars that proposed that Nefertiti was probably the cousin or sister of Akhenaten, whom she later married and ruled together with. Like many ancient royal families, the ancient Egyptians allowed for crown princes and royal rulers to marry their siblings or other extended family members. However, if this theory were to hold then there should be somewhere in the records that associates Nefertiti with the titles “King’s Daughter” or “King’s Sister” to support the claim that she was the daughter of Amenhotep III or the brother of Akhenaten.
The third dominant theory about the origins of Nefertiti is that the Egyptian queen was a foreign born princess called Tadukhipa, the daughter of Mitanni (Syria) king Tuhratta. Like the first two theories, this theory also can’t be proven, as more questions than answers are raised.
Therefore, the mysteries surrounding her origin story have led to a wide range of speculation in the historical community, but ultimately little is known for sure.
Did you know: Grand Vizier Ay, Nefertiti’s possible father, was crowned pharaoh after the death of King Tuttankhamun?
Meaning of Nefertiti
We may not be certain about Queen Nefertiti’s origins and early life history; however we are reasonably certain about the meaning of Nefertiti’s name.
We know for a fact that her name translated to something like “the beautiful woman has come”. This epithet of Nefertiti gives some bit of support to the theory that Nefertiti was a foreign-born princess.
Similar to mysteries surrounding her birth and origin story, Nefertiti’s exact date of marriage is a subject of speculation. The commonly held view is that this future queen of Egypt tied the knot with her husband, future King Amenhotep IV, at the age of 15.
Her husband was initially second in line to the Egyptian throne as he had an older brother, crown prince Thutmose. The early death of Thutmose catapulted Akhenaten to first in line to his father’s throne.
There have been some Egyptologists that have suggested that Nefertiti got married to her husband shortly after Akhenaten took the throne. Some Egyptologists like Dimitri Laboury state that the marriage took place in the fourth regnal year of Akhenaten.
In any case, what we know for a fact is that Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife (i.e. the principal wife of the Egyptian pharaoh). And as it was common for Egyptian pharaohs to take many secondary wives, Nefertiti most definitely shared the royal court with women like Kiya, the woman who some archaeologists claim was the mother of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Akhenaten’s son.
Other secondary wives of Nefertiti’s husband include the daughter of the Satiya, the ruler of Enisasi, and the daughter of Burna-Buriash II, a Babylonian king.
Queen Tey – Nefertiti’s wet nurse and later chief wife of pharaoh Ay
In one of the records, a woman called Tey is depicted as the “Nurse of the Great Royal Wife”. Tey was probably the wet nurse of Nefertiti. It’s also been noted that Tey was the wife (second wife possibly) of Ay, a very influential courtier who served many pharaohs, including Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamen. Tey’s husband, Ay, possibly became pharaoh following the death of Tutankhamun. Tey in that situation would have become Great Royal Wife of the king.
However, the big takeaway from the above is that Tey was possibly Nefertiti’s stepmother.
Ay – Nefertiti’s possible father
It’s been suggested that Ay, the famous advisor and grand vizier to pharaoh Amenhotep III, was the father of Nefertiti. Ay is commonly said to be the sister of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III. If all that were to hold true, then Ay was the brother-in-law of a pharaoh, father-in-law of a pharaoh, and father of a pharaoh.
However, there is no part in the records that mentions Ay as the father of Nefertiti, making the above possible theories of Nefertiti’s parentage a bit shaky.
The interesting here is that it’s been suggested that Ay himself went on to become king of Egypt after the death of Tutankhamun.
There are some records from tombs unearthed in the burial place of nobles in Amarna that state Nefertiti had a sister called Mutbenret. In some of those tombs, Mutbenret is shown standing beside two dwarfs, while in other tombs she can be seen worshiping the Aten.
In the tomb of Ay, an Egyptian grand vizier and pharaoh who was possibly her father, she is depicted as a young girl. Her title was ‘The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife’. The two dwarfs that she was mostly depicted standing beside are known as Mutef-Pre and Hemtniswerneheh.
We know for a possible fact that Akhenaten fathered at least six daughters with his Chief Wife Queen Nefertiti. The names of those six daughters are Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten (later called Ankhesenamun), Setepenre, Neferneferure, and Neferneferuaten Tasherit. Two of her daughters – Meritaten and Ankhesenamun – went on to become queens of Egypt. Meritaten was the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Smenkhkare; while Ankhesenamun was the chief consort of King Tutankhamun.
It is also been stated that the Nefertiti had a son with the pharaoh, but the evidence is not conclusive. If she did have a son, the child most likely died in infancy.
Gempaaten – “The Sun Disc is Found in the Estate of the God Aten”
As it was part of royal tradition, Nefertiti and her children lived in a number of magnificent royal palaces and complexes in Karnak in Luxor, Upper Egypt. Her husband even erected a number of structures in honor of her, including the Mansion of the Benben (Hwt-ben-ben) at Karnak (also known as the Temple of Amenhotep IV). Located in the mansion was a main temple called the Gempaaten, which means “The Sun Disc is Found in the Estate of the God Aten”.
Very little of the temple or its foundation survive to this day, as it’s been destroyed by the passage of time and vandalism. We do have a theory of just how the structures might have looked like, as archaeologists have recovered several thousands of the talatat blocks that were used in the construction. Talatat are limestone blocks of standardized size that became very popular during the reign of King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti. The royal couple mainly used them in the construction of Aten temples at Karnak and the capital at the time, Akhetaten.
Did Queen Nefertiti ever reign as Pharaoh of Egypt?
Some Egyptologists believe that Queen Nefertiti and Pharaoh Akhenaten ruled as equals from 1353 to 1336 BC. Considering the number of artworks that she is found in, she was undoubtedly no ordinary chief consort of the Pharaoh. She played a very crucial role in the affairs of Egypt. This explains why she was sometimes depicted in tombs as having the same status as the king. For example she was shown riding a chariot, smiting the enemies of Egypt, and worshiping the Aten in ways that were primarily reserved for the ruler of Egypt. Her central role in religious practices of the time is the reason some contemporary art depicted her wearing a pharaoh’s crown.
Interestingly, the name Neferneferuaten appears almost around the same time that Nefertiti’s name vanishes from the historical records. This has led some to believe that she not only had the powers of a full-fledged pharaoh but also ruled as one.
Pharaoh Smenkhkare – Nefertiti’s possible male alter-ego?
It has also been speculated that Nefertiti took the throne of Egypt following the death of her husband. Perhaps similar to what Pharaoh Hatshepsut did about a century prior to Nefertiti’s era, Queen Nefertiti may have ruled under the name Neferneferuaten and then later Smenkhkare.
Proponents of this theory state that her reign as Smenkhkare came after the death of Akhenaten and before the reign of Tutankhamun. Meaning Smenkhkare was Nefertiti’s possible male alter-ego.
It was also around this time that Meritaten’s name begins to appear as the Great Royal Wife. It’s possible Nefertiti upon becoming pharaoh elevated her daughter Meritaten to that distinguished position.
The end of the Amarna period and the restoration of the old gods
Some scholars and archaeologists have maintained that Akhenaten died just in time before the blowback from the Amarna revolution became severe. Now, if Nefertiti was indeed Pharaoh Neferneferuaten or Smenkhakare, then we could credit her with reinstating the old Egyptian gods and religious beliefs. Not only did she restore the Theban priests of Amun to their previous statuses, but she also likely relocated her residence from Amarna to Thebes.
Her successor, Tutankhamun, followed in her footstep to rid Egypt of the vestiges of Akhenaten’s radical reforms. For example, King Tut returned the capital to Thebes in his third regnal year.
How did Nefertiti die?
Just like her early life, Nefertiti’s later life and death have been been shrouded in quite a lot of mystery for many centuries. It was also not helped by the fact that her successors took very bold steps to try and remove her name from all official records and artworks. After all, she was heavily associated with the Amarna period, the reign of heretic pharaoh Akhenaten.
Some scholars have opined that she may have died towards the later period of her husband’s reign. This is because her name simply disappeared around the 12th regnal year of Akhentaten. It’s been proposed that she died of a plague that was devastating Egypt at the time. Other scholars say that she died of natural causes.
The other theory is that she went on to rule in her own right as pharaoh following the death of her husband. And after her death, she was succeeded by King Tut. There are some scholars that opine that she instead served as co-regent to Tutankhamun before dying in the 3rd regnal year of Tutankhamun.
Where was she buried?
There have been some proposals that Queen Nefertiti was likely buried in the a chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb. As of 2022, there is no evidence to support or refute this claim.
Discovered in 1898 by French archaeologist Victor Loret, the two mummies – ‘The Elder Lady’ and ‘The Younger Lady’ – in burial chamber KV35 in the Valley of the Kings have been suggested as possible candidate for the remains of Nefertiti. About a century after their discovery, some scholars opined that ‘The Elder Lady’ seemed more likely to be the remains of Nefertiti. However, it was later revealed that it was instead the remains of Queen Tiye, pharaoh Akhenaten’s mother.
With the Elder Lady eliminated, some scholars pinned their hopes on the Younger Lady. However, that too turned out to be the wrong remains of Nefertiti. The remains was instead that of Tutankhamun’s mother.
Therefore, the answer to the question – Where was Nefertiti buried – remains a mystery to this day.
Marriage proposition to the Hittites
There is an ancient Hittite letter that goes back to the Amarna period. In the letter, a desperate Egyptian queen makes an appeal to Suppiluliuma I, the king of the Hittites, for a foreign prince to marry. She appeals to Suppiluliuma to send one of his sons to Egypt so she could take him as her husband. The queen had lost her husband and she had no children. The queen made this bold and usual request because she was afraid of marrying one of her subjects.
Some scholars have suggested that this queen was Queen Nefertiti. She kind of fits the bill. First of all, she had no surviving male child with Akhenaten. Second, her husband possibly predeceased her. In the Hittite records – The Deeds of Suppiluliuma – the Egyptian queen is referred to as Dakhamunzu or Dahamunzu. Other possible candidate for this Egyptian queen is Meritaten and Ankhesenamen, the wives of Pharaoh Smenkhkare and Pharaoh Tutankhamun respectively
Just how powerful was Queen Nefertiti?
During the reign of her husband, she wielded an unusual amount of power for a queen consort. She was almost her husband’s equal when it came to running the political and religious affairs of the kingdom.
Queen Nefertiti was perhaps the most powerful queen ancient Egypt ever saw, as she wielded a tremendous amount of influence during and after the reign of her husband Akhenaten.
Epithets and titles of Queen Nefertiti
Perhaps due to the immense love Pharaoh Akhenaten had for Queen Nefertiti, the queen came to wield a kind of power very few of her predecessors had. She was indeed more powerful than previous Egyptian queens. As such the queen was given many titles, including “Hereditary Princes”, “Lady of All Women”, “Great of Praises”, “Lady of Grace”, “Sweet of Love”, “Lady of the Two Lands”, and “Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt”, among others.
Religious and political revolution
In addition to her image being one of the most famous images of the ancient Egyptian era, Nefertiti is most known for wholeheartedly supporting her husband Akhenaten’s radical and very controversial religious revolution, which saw the sun god Aten elevated to a kind of monotheistic eminence and status. Known as the Amarna religious revolution, Akhenaten and Nefertiti relocated the royal residence from Thebes to Akhetaten (also known as Tell el-Amarna).
Known as the ‘Horizon of the Aten’, Akhetaten was an entirely new capital set up about 200 miles north of Thebes. Akhetaten, which was likely established around 1346 BC, was devoted to the worship of the god Aten. The king and queen also invested a lot of resources in populating the city so as to make it one befitting of not just the royal couple but also one that exults the importance of Aten.
The change in capital was just one of the measures taken by Akhetaten’s in his effort to switch the state religion. The Theban patron deity Amun, a popular one for that matter, was replaced with Aten.
Steadily, Akhenaten and Nefertiti began doing away with the old gods, closing temples of the old gods, and stripping priests of those temples off their power and influence.
Owing the royal couple’s complete devotion to the Aten, their names were changed to honor the new god. Nefertiti’s name became Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, which means “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a beautiful woman has come”. Amenhotep’s name became Akhenaten. To shore up their influence in the new political and religious structure, the couple made themselves the only two priests of Aten. Thus they became the conduit of the Aten.
It’s safe to say that Akhenaten’s religious and political reforms were very unpopular with not just the Theban priests but also the people of Egypt. But who could defy the king?
The fact that Akhenaten tried to convert Egypt to a kind of monotheistic society even made him unpopular. This sentiment is evident in the urgency which was taken by Akhenaten’s successors to return Egypt back to its old beliefs. Akhenaten and his wife would later suffer “condemnation of memory” (Damnatio memoriae), a term used to describe the removal of a person from all official records, arts and monuments.
Such was the captivating thing about Nefertiti’s bust that German führer Adolf Hitler rejected calls for him to return the bust to its rightful land of birth – Egypt. The German dictator stated, “I will never relinquish the head of the Queen.”
Nefertiti’s iconic limestone bust was unearthed in 1912 by a team of archaeologists led by German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt (1863-1938). The bust was discovered in Amarna, Egypt. Scholars estimate that it was created around 1345 BC in the workshop of a royal sculptor named Thutmose. It’s also been noted that Nefertiti likely signed off on the image.
The bust shows the Egyptian queen with one blank eye. Scholars have come with some possible theories as to why the left eye is blank. The first theory is that Nefertiti in real life likely had a natural fold of skin over her eye. The second theory is that the sculptor Thutmose did this as an insult to the queen for her association with the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. Perhaps, the damage to the bust’s left eye was simply an accident.
Following its discovery in 1912, it was sent to Germany, with the German team claiming to have obtained license from the Egyptian government.
A year later, in 1913, it was displayed at the Neues Museum in Berlin, triggering an enormous increase in the public’s interest in ancient Egyptian history and religion.
When the Nazis came into power, the bust was seized, along with other priceless works of art. Adolf Hitler ordered all those precious artifacts to be hidden, especially during the Allied bombing of Germany in 1945 (during World War II). American troops would later find the bust stacked with other artworks in a salt mine. Not wanting to get involved in the rift between Germany and Egypt over the bust, the Americans then handed the bust to the West Berlin authorities.
In 2009, the Nefertiti bust went on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. This came in spite of Egypt’s repeated appeal to the German government to return the bust, which the Egyptians accused the Germans of illegally taking it out of Egypt in the 1910s.
The Nefertiti bust is considered by many as one of the most beautiful and recognizable artwork from antiquities. In terms of significance, its discovery in 1912 comes in behind Howard Carter’s unearthing of Tutunkhamun’s tomb in 1922.
Nefertiti’s legendary beauty
The sculptor of the bust of Nefertiti developed the artwork by accentuating all of Queen Nefertiti’s immaculate features. This is not the only artwork which sees Nefertiti depicted in an idealized version of what it meant to beautiful at the time.
Perhaps, Akhenaten insisted she be portrayed more elegantly and beautiful than she was at the time. It is most probable that the face we know of today did not much how Nefertiti actually looked in real life. We could say that the artists of her era did a lot of photoshopping to make her become the ideal image of beauty in ancient Egypt.
It is that combination of power, authority and beauty that made Queen Nefertiti an iconic image and personality over the centuries. It’s also likely her subjects worshiped her as fertility goddess. This point is supported by her accentuated feminine image as well as the emphasis that was placed on her sexuality in some of the artworks. Scholars also like to cite the frequent depictions of her with her six daughters as an indication that she was seen as a fertility deity.
Depictions of Nefertiti
Nefertiti appears very often on the talatat limestone religious buildings built in honor of her by her husband King Akhenaten. She even appears twice as often as Akhenaten. Research has also shown that she almost always appears in the presence of her husband, either behind him or standing beside him. Perhaps this was Akhenaten’s way of showing how much he valued her as his chief wife. It also shows the significant amount of influence that she wielded during her husband’s reign.
As stated above, it’s likely that she was a co-ruler during the latter period of her husband’s reign. This theory is supported by one artwork of hers that shows her about to strike a foreign prisoner with some kind of weapon. Ancient Egypt often reserved such images for the pharaohs.
Family tree of Nefertiti
More facts about Nefertiti
Even after more than three millennia since her death, her fate remains a big mystery to archaeologists and scholars. We don’t know much about who she was and her early life prior to her marriage to Akhenaten.
She wielded absolute power as she and her husband were the only two priests of Aten. The royal couple absorbed much of the power that they had stripped away from the Theban priests and former religious leaders. Safe to say that this move did not go over too well with those groups of people.
Many artworks of Queen Nefertiti show her alongside her husband. The two most likely had a strong and genuine love for each other. This explains why they appear as kind of inseparable in those artworks. As it was expected, Nefertiti was very much faithful to her husband. This came despite the numerous wives and children (from those wives) that he had.
At the time of her reign, Egypt’s capital, which was situated just on the east bank of the Nile, stretched for more than 3,000 acres. The population of the city was in the region of 50,000.
Her husband inherited a very prosperous and powerful Egyptian kingdom. The land of Egypt had progressed from the steady reigns of Akhenaten’s predecessors, particularly Amenhotep III.
She was once considered as a candidate for the mother of Tutankhamun, however a genetic study conducted on discovered mummies suggests that she was not.