Her face is one of the most well known in history and her striking beauty has been praised for thousands of years. But Queen Nefertiti was a lot more than just pretty. Together with her husband she instigated a religious revolution, founded a city, modernised Egyptian art, and may have ruled as Pharaoh herself for a time.
As is the case with many Egyptian women, little is known about Nefertiti’s life before her marriage to Amenhotep IV. What is known is that the royal couple were radicals. They put themselves at odds with the Egyptian establishment by worshipping Aten, the sun disk, over all other Gods, turning their backs on Egypt’s polytheistic religion. Five years into Amenhotep’s reign, they both changed their names becoming Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (perfect are the beauties of Aten, the beautiful one has come).
The couple were not satisfied simply changing the nations belief system. Their next move was even more unusual, as they relocated the entire royal court from Thebes to a newly built city in the desert, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Akhetaten became the centre of the cult of Aten, with several open air temples and an enormous palace, from which Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled during Egypt’s most prosperous era.
Turning a centuries old system on its head was an enormous undertaking, and Nefertiti proved herself to be an expert at PR. She left her mark everywhere. Never before had the face of a ruler been shared so widely – in fact Nefertiti appears in carvings twice as often as her own husband, the Pharaoh. In some images, Nefertiti is surrounded by her six daughters; in others she is shown smiting her enemies. She took up a string of titles including; Great of praises, Sweet of Love, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Even her distinctive tall cap-crown was designed to flatter her beauty, following the lines of her face. She was a Queen who wanted to be known to her people.
Art changed entirely during this period – the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are unlike any other ancient Egyptian portraits, in that they are a clear attempt at realism. While the tradition was to portray the royal family as tall, lean, androgynous beings, like the Gods, images of Akhenaten present an extremely unusual looking man. He has a large jaw and cleft chin, spindly arms and a pot belly. Queen Tiye, his mother, has
visible age lines on her face. Nefertiti is the most striking of all, and her angular face and cylinder crown have become iconic symbols of ancient Egypt in western consciousness.
There is strong evidence that in year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti was elevated to co-regent, ruling alongside her husband with all the power of a Pharaoh. Though Royal wives had wielded power before, Nefertiti’s rise was unprecedented. In fact, it is believed that she outlived her husband and ruled alone, as the mysterious Pharaoh Neferneferuaten (who may also be Nefertiti’s daughter, Meritaten). If this is the case, it means that Nefertiti ruled three years into her stepson, Tutankhamun’s reign.
It was during Tutankhamun’s short reign that Amarna was abandoned and Thebes reinstated as the capital. The cult of Aten was disbanded and even art reverted back to its traditional style. Akhenaten was branded ‘the Heretic King’ and the new world that he and his Queen had fought to create was abandoned in the desert.
Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley
Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley
- Nefertiti is a character in Mika Waltari’s novel The Egyptian (1945). In the 1954 film of the novel, she was played by Antira Stevens.
- Nefertiti: A Novel by Michelle Moran
- Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile is a 1961 Italian film starring Jeanne Crain in the title role.
- Allen Drury’s novels A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes chart Nefertiti and Akhenaten’s rise and fall.