Ah, Nefertiti. Her very name means beauty; “the beautiful one has come.” Thoughts of her conjure up visions of an opulent ancient civilization; a land of pharaohs, pyramids, gods and gold. Her mystery endures, as well as her famous bust – an unequivocal masterpiece of ancient art. However, Nefertiti was much more than just a pretty face… Here I will explore the extraordinary time in which she lived, and her role in it.
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
Before I can introduce you to Nefertiti, I have to share some essential information about the time and place in which she lived. This famous queen can only be understood in context, and in her case the most influential element of that context was her husband: the controversial pharaoh Akhenaten.
He is, by far, one of the most fascinating characters in ancient Egyptian history. Although raised, like all Egyptians, with an astonishing pantheon of gods, Akhenaten soon broke the mould. Unsatisfied with the idea of multiple gods – powerful Amun, the loving couple Isis and Osiris, royal Horus, kind-hearted Hathor, vicious Sekmet, playful Bes, and innumerable others – the pharaoh cast them all aside in favor of a single god: the sun disk, Aten. Akhenaten’s devotion to the sun god was all-encompassing, spurring him to leave tradition behind and institute a single God. He is often considered the first monotheist.
Akhenaten was also a religious zealot. He built a brand new capital city, which he christened Akhetaten, meaning “Horizon of Aten” (now known as Amhara), and moved the entire court there. Upon his death this city was all but abandoned.
His spiritual conviction stretched to names, as well. Nefertiti became known as Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, a mouthful that means “beautiful are the beauties of Aten, for the beautiful one has come.” Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamen (yes, THAT King Tut!), was originally named Tutankhaten; the child-pharaoh’s name was forcibly changed to reflect reinstitution of the old gods after Akhenaten’s tumultuous reign. (Incidentally, Tuankhamon’s young wife, Ankhesenamun, was Nefertiti’s daughter…)
Which is enough context to launch into Nefertiti’s own story:
For all of the queen’s fame, her origins remain unknown. Egyptian pharaohs traditionally married their siblings – in order to keep the godly bloodline pure – but kings did have multiple wives, including foreign princesses sent to keep the peace. From what I have read, no evidence suggests that Nefertiti was her husband’s sister. This makes her even more remarkable, for it meant that somehow she rose to supreme power, even as a woman of unknown birth.
And rise to power she did. Contemporary art depicts her standing at the pharaoh’s side as an equal, even smiting enemies. In addition, many scenes of domestic life show the queen and the pharaoh sitting affectionately together, playing with their daughters. (Altogether, they had six girls). Despite Akhenaten’s rather odd looks, Nefertiti’s care for him must have been real on some level, to have raised a large family together, shared the power and duty of royalty, and appeared as a loving couple in so many artistic renditions.
The best-known artistic rendition of Nefertiti, though, shows her alone. In fact, the years of the capital at Akhetaten birthed a vibrant new style of ancient Egyptian art, known as the Amarna style. (Click here for an excellent Brittanica article on it; fascinating history.) The Amarna style was characterized by attention to detail, changes in representation of the human body, and casual depictions of people’s daily activities. Out of this same artistic movement came the exquisite bust of Nefertiti.
Having been a fan of ancient Egypt for many years, I’ve seen my share of its artwork. Much of it is stunning, but nothing compares to Nefertiti’s sculpted bust. The detail is so realistic, it appears as if she could turn her neck to look at you. Everything – from the facial features to the paint strokes – reveals the hand of mastery. The sculptor, Thutmose, truly created a work of art that was meant to endure the ages.
However, it remains unfinished: the left eye is inexplicably unpainted.
In 2009 a CT scan revealed yet another layer of mystery. It turns out that, underneath the smooth and polished outer layer, Nefertiti’s bust hides an even more realistic face. It portrays her as an aging woman with wrinkles and a bump on her nose. Is this the true face of Queen Nefertiti? If so, it speaks even more to Thutmose’s artistic excellence… and also prompts the question of why it was covered up, then left incomplete.
The mystery of Nefertiti is compounded by the fact that she only exists in records for a short time, and then suddenly disappears from history. Some believe she changed her name, perhaps disguising herself as a man to co-rule as pharaoh. Others think she was murdered. Or exiled. Nefertiti’s star shone bright, but oh so briefly.
Until now her tomb has yet to be discovered, which I believe supports the exile theory. Still, archaeologists persist in claiming to have found her tomb. Thus far none have been confirmed; this recent National Geographic article has her lying in a hidden chamber in King Tut’s tomb. Personally I find that unlikely. Why would she be buried with her unremarkable son-in-law? The priests of Amun-Ra tried to erase her religious beliefs and story, but it seems like she would have turned up somewhere if she truly did stay in Egypt during that transitional time. That kind of thinking is for the experts, though. I am merely a curious reader, and author who likes to make it spicy! Just one of the many ways in which history obliges fiction writers, by providing a wealth of possibilities and no solid answers.
In my story, Queen of Beauty, I have chosen to give Nefertiti a second chance at life – and love – in exile. If she was anything like how I imagine her, I sincerely hope the truth was something like my fiction.