What do we know about Nefertiti?

In this piece, we’d like to explore what’s known about Nefertiti's life, how she changed Egypt and why is she so famous at all?

What do we know about Nefertiti?

In the history of Ancient Egypt, we know about only a few female rulers. One of them was Nefertiti, who lived in the 14th century BC. She is a mysterious figure known for her beauty and for being a co-Pharo of Ancient Egypt. Nefertiti lived between circa 1370 and 1330 BC, married around the age of 15, gave birth to at least 6 children, and maybe was a sole ruler after her husband, Pharaon Amenhotep IV’s death. 

Forty years of life 3000 years ago seem not so much, right? Plus, there are more questions about her person than answers. So, why is she so famous?

In this piece, we’d like to explore what’s known about Nefertiti’s life, how she changed Egypt, and why people hated her.

What do we know about Nefertiti?

The story of Nefertiti is 3000 years old and thus lacks certainty. Even her provenance isn’t clear. Basically, the most evidence about Nefertiti’s life comes from images and inscriptions from steles found in the ancient city of Thebes, then in Amarna (otherwise known as Akhetaton). While these written sources give important information, they are scarce and often vague in description, which gives a lot of space for interpretations and speculations. 

An early image of Nefertiti, c. 1352-1347 BC. Brooklin Museum

The name Nefertiti means “the beautiful one has come,” which might indicate her foreign origin, maybe from Mitanni (now North Syria). Another theory suggests that Nefertiti was a local and a sister of her future husband, Pharaon Amenhotep IV. This kind of alliance was typical for the royals, and not only in Egypt. Less ordinary was the couple’s collaboration in ruling the country.

The tombs and temples from Amenhotep IV’s reign revealed Nefertiti alongside her husband, sometimes even looking much like him. Moreover, some wall pictures show them holding their kids and even kissing. Images like these weren’t usual for the time, and this show of affection suggests that the couple was really in love. That said, Amenhotep had two wives – Nefertiti and Kiya. He is also believed to be the father of the famous Tutankhamun (probably with Kiya).  

Nefertiti wasn’t simply a wife but a consort (a co-Pharaon) of Amenhotep. It meant that she took an active part in politics and religion. That said, their joint ruling of the country wasn’t successful regarding people’s love and devotion.

Statue of Nefertiti © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß

In c. 1348-1346 BC, Amenhotep decided to execute a religious reform. Before, the Egyptians worshiped different gods, much like Ancient Greeks with their Olympic gods. For example, Amon was the god of the Sun; Osiris was a god of the underworld, and Isis, was a goddess who could heal, mourn and set an example of motherhood. This polytheistic religion was a centuries-long tradition, but the new rulers decided to switch to monotheism. Amenhotep and Nefertiti chose one god – Aten, an embodiment of the Sun, as the one and only god. Usually, Aten was depicted as a solar disk with rays ending with hands.

Amenhotep and Nefertiti with the god Aten

This drastic shift came as a shock to the people, but there was more. The king&queen banned any depiction of the old gods and religious ceremonies of worshiping them. They ordered to destroy all the temples and shrines and built new ones instead. Finally, they found a new city of Akhetaton (now Tell el-Amarna), which became a religious center of Aton’s cult, and moved the capital there from Thebes.

In Ancient Egypt, religion and royal power were closely linked, so the reigning couple held central positions in religious practice.

Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten (www.thearchaeologist.org)

Nefertiti held an unparalleled power, indicated in her titles: The Great Wife of the King and The Lady of the Two Lands. Moreover, Nefertiti was proclaimed the high priestess and “worked” as a medium between people and god Aten. Before, the priests held almost as much power as the pharaoh, but the reform fully restored the authority of the rulers. In other words, Nefertiti substituted all priests and thus fired them from their jobs. Soon, the royals proclaimed themselves gods and demanded to worship them accordingly. Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, while Nefertiti took the name of Nefernefruaten, which means “beautiful in beauty is Aten.”

Nefertiti making offerings to the Aten

The country spent countless funds to implement the reform, tore down temples, and built new ones exclusively for Aten. They started headhunting of old-believers, trying to erase old religious practices. The elite resisted these changes, and people hated Pharo and his wife. In 1336 BC or 1334 BC, Amenhotep died, and the previous order was soon restituted. From then on, we have nearly zero evidence of Nefertiti’s life. Many archeologists suggested that Nefertiti died earlier and thus disappeared from history. But in 2012, the researchers found a limestone inscription mentioning Nefertiti’s name. This finding shows that Nefertiti was still alive near the end of Pharo’s rule. 

Other theories suggest that Nefertiti did reign solo under different names. For instance, a leading Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, believes that Nefertiti ruled Egypt for three years after Amenhotep’s death under the name of Smenkhkare. There was already a precedent when a female disguised under a man’s personality to get power. But there needs to be more evidence to support this theory. All in all, Nefertiti disappeared from history for good 2200 years.

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