Queen Nefertiti (c. 1370-1330 BC) was uniquely influential as both a wife and queen during one of the most contentious yet wealthy periods of ancient Egyptian history. A key catalyst for ancient Egypt’s conversion to worshipping just one god, the sun god Aten, Nefertiti was both loved and loathed for her policies. Universally acknowledged, however, was her beauty, which was considered to be a feminine ideal and meant that she was regarded as a living fertility goddess.
Significant questions about Nefertiti still remain. For example, where was she from? Where is her tomb? Despite these enduring uncertainties, Nefertiti remains one of the most iconic figures of ancient Egypt. Today, a famous limestone bust of Nefertiti is a hugely popular attraction at the Neues Museum in Berlin, and as such has helped immortalise the legacy of the extraordinary ruler.
So, who was Queen Nefertiti?
1. It is unclear where Nefertiti came from
Nefertiti’s parentage is unknown. However, her name is Egyptian and translates to ‘A Beautiful Woman Has Come’, meaning that some Egyptologists believe she was a princess from Mitanni (Syria). However, there is also evidence to suggest that she was the Egyptian-born daughter of the high court official Ay, brother of Akhenaton’s mother, Tiy.
2. She was probably married aged 15
It is unclear when Nefertiti married Amenhotep III’s son, the future pharaoh Amenhotep IV. However, it is believed that she was 15 when she was married. The couple went on to rule together from 1353 to 1336 BC. Reliefs depict Nefertiti and Amenhotep IV as inseparable and on equal footing, riding chariots together and even kissing in public. By all accounts, the couple had a genuine romantic connection which was very unusual for ancient pharaohs and their wives.
3. Nefertiti had at least 6 daughters
Nefertiti and Akhenaten are known to have had at least 6 daughters together – the first three being born at Thebes, and the younger three being born at Akhetaton (Amarna). Two of Nefertiti’s daughters became queen of Egypt. At one time, it was theorised that Nefertiti was Tutankhamun’s mother; however, a genetic study on unearthed mummies has since indicated that she was not.
4. Nefertiti and her husband enacted a religious revolution
Nefertiti and the pharaoh played a large part in establishing the Aten cult, a religious mythology which defined the sun god, Aten, as the most important god and the only one to be worshipped in Egypt’s polytheistic canon. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and Nefertiti to ‘Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti’, meaning ‘beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a beautiful woman has come’, to honour the god. Nefertiti and Akhenaten were probably also priests.
The family lived in a city called Akhetaton (now known as el-Amarna) meant to honour their new god. There were several open-air temples in the city, and the palace stood in the middle.
5. Nefertiti was regarded as a living fertility goddess
Nefertiti’s sexuality, which was emphasised by her exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ body shape and fine linen garments, as well as her six daughters being emblems of her fertility, indicate that she was considered to be a living fertility goddess. Artistic depictions of Nefertiti as a highly sexualised figure support this.
6. Nefertiti may have co-ruled with her husband
Based upon reliefs and statues, some historians believe that Nefertiti may have acted as queen regnant, her husband’s co-ruler rather than his consort, after he had reigned for 12 years. Her husband went to great lengths to have her depicted as an equal, and Nefertiti is often depicted as wearing the pharaoh’s crown or smiting enemies in battle. However there is no written evidence to confirm her political status.
7. Nefertiti ruled over ancient Egypt’s wealthiest period
Nefertiti and Akhenaten ruled over what was quite possibly the wealthiest period in ancient Egyptian history. During their reign, the new capital Amarna also achieved an artistic boom which was distinct from any other period in Egypt. The style showed movement and figures of more exaggerated proportions with elongated hands and feet, while depictions of Akhenaten assign him feminine attributes such as prominent breasts and wide hips.
8. It is unclear how Nefertiti died
Before 2012, it was believed that Nefertiti vanished from the historical record in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign. It was suggested that she might have died from injury, a plague or a natural cause. However, in 2012, an inscription from year 16 of Akhenaten’s reign was discovered that bore Nefertiti’s name and demonstrated that she was still alive. Nonetheless, the circumstances of her death remain unknown.
9. The location of Nefertiti’s tomb remains a mystery
Nefertiti’s body has never been discovered. If she had died at Amarna, she would have been buried in the Amarna royal tomb; however, no body has been found. Speculation that she was one of the bodies recovered in the Valley of the Kings also later proved to be unfounded.
In 2015, British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves discovered that there were some small markings in Tutankhamun’s tomb that could indicate a hidden doorway. He theorised that it could be Nefertiti’s tomb. However, radar scans showed that there were no chambers.
10. Nefertiti’s bust is one of the most copied works of art in history
The bust of Nefertiti is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. It is widely thought to have been made in around 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose, since it was discovered in his workshop in 1912 by a German archaeological group. The bust went on display at the Neues Museum in the 1920s and immediately attracted international attention. Today, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful depictions of a female figure from the ancient world.