Nefertiti was more than just a pretty face

Great royal wife to Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti has long been celebrated for her beauty, but today's Egyptologists are exploring another dimension of her life: her role as powerbroker.

Published 3 Mar 2022, 13:51 GMT
Mystery woman
This stunning bust of Nefertiti is perhaps the most famous image of the ancient queen, whom some scholars believe ruled as pharaoh after her husband's death.
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence

Nefertiti, great royal wife of Amenhotep IV (better known by the name he adopted later in life, Akhenaten), is one of history's most recognised mysterious figures. Glowing passages describe her radiance, like the one found engraved on a stela  at Amarna, Egypt, that said: "The leading woman of all the nobles, great in the palace, perfect of appearance, beautiful in the double plume, the mistress of joy who is united with favor, whose voice people rejoice to hear, great wife of the king, his beloved, the great mistress of the two lands— Neferneferuaten, Nefertiti, granted life for ever, and for eternity!"

Her husband radically changed Egypt, transforming its polytheistic state religion to the worship of one deity, the solar disk Aten. He also moved the Egyptian capital to a new city he built named Akhetaten, meaning “horizon of the god Aten.” Akhenaten’s revolution was short-lived: Egypt would return to its old faith after his reign. His successors tried to erase his name and legacy. His capital was abandoned, and artworks featuring his likeness and name—and that of his family, including Nefertiti—were defaced. Their legacy would stay buried for millennia.

Dedicated to the solar god Aten, the ruins of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s capital city, known today as Amarna, sit on the eastern bank of the Nile. The Egyptian capital returned south to Thebes (modern Luxor) after his death.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Although the description of Queen Nefertiti is no doubt embellished, the claim that she was beautiful, “perfect of appearance,” seems to be borne out by the depictions of her that have survived to today. One work of art in particular has become emblematic of female beauty. After more than three millennia in obscurity, its discovery, in the early 20th century, brought Nefertiti world renown.

(Should women rule the world? The Queens of ancient Egypt say yes.)

Famous face

Nefertiti’s glory resurfaced on December 6, 1912, when German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt uncovered her now iconic bust among the ruins at Amarna. Considered the most stunning depiction of a woman from the ancient world, the bust seems the material embodiment of the queen’s name, which means “the beautiful one has come.”

Men present the Nefertiti bust in Amarna in 1912. The bust is now at the Neues Museum in Berlin
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence
First glimpses of Nefertiti are seen in Bochardt's notebook from 1912, which is now in the Neues Museum in Berlin.
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence

Borchardt discovered the bust while excavating inside the workshop of a court sculptor. The masterpiece had been extraordinarily well preserved during its 3,000-year burial. As Borchardt wrote in his excavation diary: “Colours as if paint was just applied. Work absolutely exceptional. Description is useless, must be seen.” The high cheekbones, slender neck, and the vivid expression of a woman who seems almost to live and breathe has become an icon of beauty and Egyptian artistry.

Despite the discovery of the Amarna bust in 1912, Nefertiti’s name is barely mentioned in many histories of Egypt written by 20th-century Western scholars such as Arthur Weigall and Will Durant. For many of their contemporaries, Akhenaten’s sweeping religious and political reform takes centre stage, while Nefertiti plays a supportive role of the beautiful great royal wife and mother. Recent scholarship is revealing her role to be far more complex, involving her in affairs of state, especially in establishing the monotheistic worship of Aten.

Who was Nefertiti?

Detailed documentation of Nefertiti’s life is fragmented at best. Both the dates of her birth and death are unknown. Historians have been able to establish that Nefertiti was raised in the Egyptian royal court of unheralded parentage. She lived a privileged life as a child, surrounded by the splendour and ritual of Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s long reign. Egypt was wealthy and secure during his rule. She married the heir to the throne in her teens, although some believe she may have been younger. Amenhotep IV succeeded his father sometime in his mid-20s or early 30s. During the fourth year of his reign, Nefertiti became his great royal wife.

A lotus-shaped goblet created early in Amenhotep IV’s reign, circa 1353-1336 B.C., bears his name and Nefertiti’s. It's housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten (“he who is beneficial to the Aten”) sometime after the fifth year of his reign. Nefertiti enjoyed status and visibility unlike any woman in Egyptian history had enjoyed, including her images in art, in statuary, and on buildings. Above all, she became what Egyptologist Kara Cooney calls his “chief priestess and ideological muse.” As part of the religious shift, she received a new name as well: Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, which means “the beauty of the beautiful ones of the Aten, the beauty has come.”

(The 3,400-year-old lost Egyptian city of Luxor was abandoned by Akhenaten.)

To make his new religion succeed, Akhenaten needed Nefertiti. She was elevated as co-equal in status in the worship of Aten the sun god, granted honours greater than any Egyptian queen before her, and even given her own temple. The first of their daughters, Meritaten, was born early in the marriage, and would be followed by five sisters. Their children were popular subjects with the court artists for they were the corporeal manifestations of their sacred union, blessed by the sun god Aten that Egypt would come to worship exclusively. In works of art depicting the royal family together, the solar disk of Aten shines its rays down upon them all.

As Aten shines upon them, Pharaoh and Nefertiti play with three of their daughters. Prior to Akhenaten’s reign, it was unusual to portray royal families’ intimate moments, unlike in this 14th-century B.C. image.
Photograph by Erich Lessing, Album

The partnership of Akhenaten and Nefertiti heralded a series of great changes that their rule brought to Egypt—including the relocation of the capital city. The previous one was Thebes (now Luxor), a city closely linked to the ancient polytheistic divinities. In a bid to escape the old order, Akhenaten moved to virgin territory some 250 miles north on the eastern bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt. There he erected his completely new capital, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna), as the center of his mold-breaking monotheism.

Evolving canons of beauty

The artwork from the so-called Amarna period (1349-1336 B.C.) revealed the importance of Nefertiti in her husband’s reign. Amarna’s impact was revolutionary. During this brief time, the classical canons of art were torn up and replaced. Before the Amarna period, both male and female figures tended to be highly stylized, depicted by a rigid set of standards that were thousands of years old. People, both men and women, were slim and streamlined, rendered in a flat, two-dimensional style with face and body in profile and eyes and shoulders facing front.

This canon of beauty changed dramatically when Nefertiti reigned. Lines that were previously rigid and straight became fluid, curved, and more natural. Both Akhenaten and Nefertiti were drawn using more sinuous curves; both had luscious lips, long faces and noses, elongated bodies, protruding bellies, and wide hips. In the Amarna style, both male and female figures were rendered similarly, with both male and female traits. Scholars believe this emphasised Aten as being both father and mother to the Egyptian people. The pharaoh, like Aten, needed to embody both parental roles to create an indissoluble unity that would give blessings to Egypt. Artists seemed to delight in creating family portraits of the royal parents and their children, showing them in both moments of happiness and grief. The fullness of their lives is shown, providing an intimate look at the royal family.

Akhenaten's face stares out from a plaster bust found in Amarna, dated circa 1353-1336 B.C.
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence

The shift in artistic style happened fast, and the rapid pace is linked to Akhenaten’s desire for change. Within the context of Egyptian art, representations conveyed a message. When Akhenaten and Nefertiti introduced the worship of a sole god, they used art to preach their new ideology. Art became a tool to underline radical reforms: All previous aesthetic canons had to be eliminated for this new beginning. With the new cult of Aten established, Egyptian art abruptly looked different, the rigid forms of the past giving way to a more fluid aesthetic.

The sculptor Thutmose then began producing unparalleled masterpieces in his Amarna workshop with Nefertiti as one of his popular subjects. Although Egyptian art was changing, its ideals remained the same. 

Meticulously crafted, a statue from the Amarna period depicts a woman wearing a close-fitting, pleated linen dress. It is believed to represent Nefertiti or perhaps one of her daughters.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

A headless red quartzite sculpture in the Louvre Museum, Paris, encapsulates these ideals. It represents a young woman wearing a linen garment, showing her high, narrow waist, pert breasts, and rounded lower body. The model’s identity is unknown. It may be Nefertiti herself or one of her daughters, but this ideal image is altogether new, an icon for Aten.

The queen’s fate

While Nefertiti’s family appeared to live in harmony, Egyptian culture, religion, politics, and economy were greatly disrupted, a marked shift from the stability of Akhenaten’s father. In 1349 B.C. building a new city far away was a herculean and extremely expensive task, and establishing this capital threw all of Egypt into disarray. The new religion unsettled an entire culture based on polytheism, with an extensive network of priests, temples, and worshippers. The cost in taxes and to the Egyptian treasury was enormous. Thousands of Egyptians, many of them children, were forced into building Aten’s new city, monuments, and temples. 

A gold ring, from circa 1353-1336 B.C., features likenesses of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

Meanwhile, the peace and prosperity of Egypt was waning. Rumbling threats from foreign lands meant that the people needed protection. Egypt, in arguably the wealthiest era in its history, went broke through extravagant spending on the new city, the new religion, and their support system during Akhenaten’s rule.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled for about 17 years, and the pharaoh’s reign ended with his death around age 40. Egypt would eventually return to its old ways, and Akhenaten would be written out of pharaonic history in Egypt. His monuments and statues were destroyed or dismantled. Worship of Aten ceased, and polytheism was restored, as taxation returned to uphold the ancient (and previously lucrative) traditions. Perhaps above all, the Egyptian capital returned to Thebes. Akhenaten’s new capital was abandoned, and it languished in ruined obscurity for more than 3,000 years.

Nefertiti’s life after the death of her husband is a subject of great debate among Egyptologists. They agree that she did outlive her husband, but the nature of her role in this time of volcanic change in Egyptian history is undetermined. Perhaps she faded away, or she could have taken on a more prominent role.

The royal tomb of the heretic pharaoh was built east of his capital city, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Depictions of Nefertiti appear on its walls along with representations of the god Aten.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
In February 2018 research teams used ground-penetrating radar to scan King Tut’s burial chamber in the hopes of finding Nefertiti’s tomb behind the brightly painted walls. The results indicated that her final resting place is not there.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Some 21st-century scholars believe that about five years before his death, Akhenaten elevated his great royal wife to co-king and gave her a new name: Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten. According to this theory, after Akhenaten died, Nefertiti took the throne, ruling under the name Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare and guiding her country into the reign of the next male pharaoh, her stepson Tutankhamun. Cooney writes: “Nefertiti would receive no credit for this political leadership, even though it was she who started the restoration of a country turned upside down.”

Nefertiti’s final resting place has yet to be found. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten, a group of royal monument inscriptions, indicates that she was to be buried in the Royal Tomb of Akhenaten in Amarna, but her tomb is not there. Scholars have begun looking in the Valley of the Kings and even in the tomb of her stepson. Noninvasive radar scans within Tutankhamun’s tomb have detected anomalies, and some speculate these spaces could be Nefertiti’s final resting place. Recent searches have found no evidence, but the search continues.

Nefertiti’s timeless allure is sustained by much more than her physical beauty. The 1912 discovery of the Amarna bust helped spark interest in her, but only more recently have Egyptologists focused on a fuller understanding of her life, including examination of her roles as co-pharaoh and regent. Speculation about her influence in restoring polytheism, financial, and political stability, and cultural traditions to Egypt after Akhenaten’s death has never been more intense. Archaeologists are on the hunt for her tomb, and new technologies and heightened interest worldwide make it more likely than ever that it will be found at last. There are so many more questions to be answered about the enduring enigma that was Nefertiti.

Learn more When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt. Kara Cooney, National Geographic Books, 2018

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