Nefertiti: The Modern Queen of Ancient Egypt
You might be wondering: why Nefertiti of all people? I could have written about Cleopatra, who won the hearts of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar or perhaps, Hatshepsut, who put on the guise of a man to rule Egypt as a Pharaoh. I could even have written about the successful male Pharaohs of Egypt like Khufu, the king behind the Great Pyramid of Giza or even Nefertiti’s own husband, Akhenaten or her step-son, Tutankhamun. Why would I want to dedicate an entire article to Nefertiti? What is so special about her?
Camille Paglia would tell you- “Nefertiti is like Athena. Born from the brow of Zeus, a head-heavy armored goddess. She is beautiful but desexed.” Well, at least, that is how she sees it. My answer to the same, however, is multifold. For one, she was a powerful symbol of love in ancient Egypt. Never before were ancient Egyptian Kings and Queens portrayed in the writings, statues and inscriptions of the time as a couple madly in love. This was probably because most of the royal couples were siblings. But, this was not the case for Nefertiti and her husband, Akhenaten. They were not siblings. Absolutely nothing is known about Nefertiti’s parents. Many have speculated that she might have been the daughter of Ay, in line to the throne after Tutankhamun. Some have even linked her to a Mitanni princess, Tadukhipa. However, nothing exists to confirm either of the theories. In my opinion, given the amount of information we currently have, it is possible that she was a commoner. Remains from 14th century Egypt, however, show the couple publicly holding hands, embracing or riding chariots and kissing. In fact, Akhenaten even wrote a poem for his beloved Nefertiti. This adequately proves that they were indeed in love with each other and were certainly not, at least directly, related. This is rather surprising because incest was the norm among members of the royal family. Deviation from the norm did not, however, affect her position and Nefertiti soon became the principal wife and chief consort of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Like any other beloved queen of the ancient world, Nefertiti was a symbol of great beauty. Her name literally translates to ‘the beautiful one has come’. Ideals of beauty were largely defined by what the rulers looked like at the time. Artefacts from this period of history, however, are vastly different from the reigns of other Pharaohs. This is because Akhenaten, his daughter Meritaten, and other members of the royal court are depicted with drastically elongated skulls, extremely narrow rib cages, chicken legs and protruding bellies. It goes without saying that that is very different from contemporary standards of beauty, they’d probably “ugly” and not regal today. Of course, it is possible that they took pride in what they looked like and did not want to be depicted any differently. As for the seemingly disfigured body parts, it wasn’t very uncommon because incest was a common practice. Lack of genetic diversity led to genetic deformations. The issue arises when we start inspecting Nefertiti, for she too was depicted with a long, bald head and a swan-like neck, and she was, almost certainly, not a product of incest. Many have questioned if her portrayal was so because Akhenaten and perhaps, Nefertiti herself wanted to be portrayed in this manner. Some pseudo-scientific theorists have also speculated the possibility of her being an extraterrestrial being. This would indeed explain her unusual looks. It is, however, in my opinion, likely that she was in fact a product of incest or that her elongated head was only a decorated head gear meant to give her a specific look. As for now, there is no direct evidence to support or reject any claim.
Contrary to how most historical characters of this period in Egyptian history are depicted, Nefertiti is showcased as much more ‘beautiful’. In fact she even meets modern standards of beauty. We know this because of one of the most famous finds of all time: the bust of Nefertiti. Currently housed in a museum in Berlin, the bust was found by German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt, on the 6th of December, 1912, in an artist’s studio in the then mostly unexcavated South-West Amarna. The British carried out expeditions in 1891 and 1892 in Tell-el Amarna, and concluded their endeavour with the statement that all that was left to be discovered had been retrieved by them.
The bust is extremely beautiful and exceptionally well preserved, in stark contrast to the other busts found nearby that date back to the same time period. In fact, a bust of Akhenaten, found almost alongside that of Nefertiti’s, was found to be completely disfigured by nature. This raised some questions about the authenticity of the find. Is the famous bust of Nefertiti even real?
What bothers me the most is how Nefertiti looks like a modern beauty- olive skin, impeccable eyebrows, long neck and high cheekbones. A missing eye has also led to speculation that she might have suffered from an ophthalmic infection. It is weird to even think of the sculpture as a 3,000 year old object because, as many Egyptologists say, ‘it is simply too beautiful’, both in terms of conservation and good looks. Careful investigation reveals something even more strange, the style is inconsistent with the time period. The shoulders, in the case of Nefertiti’s bust, are cut vertically as opposed to the usual horizontal cut along the shoulder line. However, another piece of work found during Borchardt’s excavation has the same kind of cut. Thus, there exists, at least one other bust from the same time period, sculpted in the same style.
Borchardt left behind extensive notes on his dig and findings at Amarna. He claims that the bust was found 50 cm under gravel. He explains that the artwork was sitting on a shelf, about 1.5 m from the ground, when the city was abandoned. As time passed, the walls decayed and the bust fell face down. The problem with this theory is that only the ears in the bust are damaged. If it did fall from such a height, that too face down, the nose would have been damaged, most definitely, especially because it is a delicate limestone sculpture. Is it possible that the bust was forged, then? Some modern experiments do reveal, however, that the plaster used in the bust is from the Amarna period. Although it is certainly possible that usable plaster, dating back to Akhenaten’s reign found in the same dig, was used if the bust is indeed fake. One thing that makes this theory less plausible, however, is the fact that the person who did forge the bust would have to have known all about ancient Egyptian hand and finger measurements. This is unlikely as the forger must have been a local Egyptian, probably not well versed with Egyptology.
There is also the question of why. Why forge something like this? When Kaiser William realised that Germany was lagging behind in the field of Egyptology, he ordered German Egyptologists to get him something, whatever might be the cost, to shock the world. In addition, one of Germany’s princely families was in Egypt at the time of the dig. Borchardt, who specialised in the domestic lives of ancient Egyptians, might have hired an artist to work on the limestone and plaster, in an attempt to understand the process involved. When the German princely family arrived at the dig, he just couldn’t explain to them that the bust was fake, fearing that he might commit the crime of disrespecting the royalty and be prosecuted for it. As a matter of fact, he did not allow the sculpture to be displayed publicly for almost 10 years after it was found. As for now, it is difficult to be sure as to what exactly underwent on the 6th of December, 1912.
Although Nefertiti’s importance in the modern perception of ancient history is highly limited, it is undeniable that Nefertiti, in fact, commanded immense power and was incredibly important in her time. She quickly rose to the post of a co-regent; a position equivalent to that of a Pharaoh himself. In most paintings, she is shown to be of equal size as her husband. This is rather rare because size was often used as a metaphor for power. In a relic from a temple in Tell-el Amarna, dating back to Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti is even seen smiting a foreign enemy with a mace. She is often depicted wearing the regal crown. Such depictions were usually reserved for the Pharaoh alone. She did have a title that declared her as the Ruler of the Nile and the Daughter of Gods. But, the question is, was she more than that? Perhaps, she might even have ruled as a Pharaoh for a while?
Questions like these are very difficult to answer, especially when it comes to the Amarna period (approximately 1353 to 1336 BCE- Akhenaten’s reign). A lot of events distinguish this particular period in Egyptian history from others. It all starts with Akhenaten’s decision to shift the capital to Tell-el Amarna, in the middle of the desert, in the second year of his roughly 17 year reign. Very soon, Amarna became a modern (for ancient times) city with 50,000 residents. Akhenaten and Nefertiti also started advocating a new monotheistic religion, Atenism. It is the worship of the Sun disc. Monotheism indeed sounds like an Anno Dominic concept. In fact, priests of the time weren’t very happy as the new religion failed to answer important questions about death, something that had been central to their religion for many years. Their successor, Tutankhaten was, however, unable to carry forward the legacy and eventually gave in to the priests. Upon their advice, he changed his name to Tutankhamun and embraced the polytheistic religion that everyone was used to.
The mystery surrounding Nefertiti is not just limited to her parentage. She disappears from all records in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign and no one seems to know why. Many believe that she died at this point, victimised by a plague that had claimed several lives around that time. Some Egyptologists fail to agree to such an explanation, especially since Nefertiti’s tomb was never found. In 2015, Nicholas Reeves came up with a highly debated and popular alternative theory. While going through some high resolution pictures, he noticed cracks that looked like doors in the northern and eastern walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in the Valley of Kings. Infrared thermography revealed different temperature readings confirming two possible hidden passages. Reeves theorised that Tutankhamun inherited the tomb of Nefertiti. In fact, Tutankhamun’s tomb is rather unusual: it is small and was made in a hurry. Close examinations reveal dripping marks of the paint, impressions of hasty brush strokes and mould, proving that the tomb was closed before the paint dried. A tomb needs to be sealed within 70 days of the Pharaoh’s death. Tutankhamun was only 19 when he passed away. Usually tombs take the entire lifetime of the pharaohs to be built. But Tutankhamun’s tomb decorations couldn’t have taken more than a week to be done with.
According to Reeves, the hidden passage could lead to Nefertiti’s burial chamber. Zahi Hawas, the former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, rejected this idea stating that Nefertiti was nothing more than a wife to Pharaoh Akhenaten and thus there was no reason for the priest of Amun to honour her by putting her to rest in the Valley of Kings. He further claims that a wall sealing the Queen’s burial chamber would restrict her passage to the afterlife. I, however, find this slightly problematic as all tombs are, in fact, sealed. Recently, however, Italian geophysicists used Ground Penetrating Radar to confirm the absence of a hidden chamber, putting all speculations to rest.
One thing that surprises many is the fact that Nefertiti is portrayed guarding Akhenaten’s granite sarcophagus; a position traditionally reserved for the female deities of Egypt, Isis, Nepthys, Selket and Neith. Her influence remained strong even after her death. Or did it? Did she really die in the 10th year of her residence in Amarna? Many believe that she did not. Right after Nefertiti’s name disappears from the records, a new figure appears; a co-regent with whom Akhenaten actively shared the throne.
It is speculated that Nefertiti might even have taken the throne as a female king, following the footsteps of previous female rulers, like Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut. Two such co-regents’ names have been associated with Nefertiti; Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare. Surprisingly, the latter is male. But, then again, even Hatshepsut had to disguise as a man to rule. In fact, some even go to the extent of saying that Nefertiti took the throne for herself after Akhenaten’s death as Tutankhamun was too young to rule. Tutankhaten changed his name, capital and reverted back to the old religion only in the 3rd year of reign, around the time Nefertiti would have finally died. Nothing, however, is known with certainty.
Just like a lot of other influential female personalities of the ancient world, Nefertiti’s name and contributions have largely been whitewashed by the future and patriarchy. Not much is known of her today. In fact, what we do know and understand is very little compared to even some of the oldest (male) Pharaohs. This implies that she is unable to boast of the popularity that she deserves. Zoe Saldana once said, “I would love to play Nefertiti or Cleopatra or the Queen of Sheba. We preserve more male history than we do female. We have to preserve [female history]. No more complaining. We have to do it.” We can only hope that one day everyone understands her worth, importance and contribution to our history. A search must start for the lost histories of womankind.
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