One of the most mysterious and powerful women in ancient Egypt, Nefertiti was queen alongside Pharaoh Akhenaten from 1353 to 1336 B.C. and may have ruled the New Kingdom outright after her husband’s death. Her reign was a time of tremendous cultural upheaval, as Akhenaten reoriented Egypt’s religious and political structure around the worship of the sun god Aten. Nefertiti is best known for her painted sandstone bust, which was rediscovered in 1913 and became a global icon of feminine beauty and power.
Nefertiti may have been the daughter of Ay, a top adviser who would go on to become pharaoh after King Tut’s death in 1323 B.C. An alternate theory suggests she was a princess from the Mittani kingdom in northern Syria. She was her husband’s Great Royal Wife (favored consort) when he ascended the throne in Thebes as Amenhotep IV. In the fifth year of his reign, he displaced Egypt’s chief god Amon in favor of Aten, moved the capitol north to Amarna and changed his name to Akhenaten, with Nefertiti taking on the additional name “Neferneferuaten”—her full name meaning “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a Beautiful Woman has come.”
Akhenaten’s transformation of religion brought with it radical changes in artistic conventions. Departing from the idealized images of earlier pharaohs, Akhenaten is sometimes depicted with feminine hips and exaggerated features. Early images of Nefertiti show a stereotypical young woman, but in later ones she is a near mirror image of Akhenaten. Her final depictions reveal a regal but realistic figure.
On the walls of tombs and temples built during Akhenaten’s reign Nefertiti is depicted alongside her husband with a frequency seen for no other Egyptian queen. In many cases she is shown in positions of power and authority—leading worship of Aten, driving a chariot or smiting an enemy.
After Nefertiti had given birth to six daughters, her husband began taking other wives, including his own sister, with whom he fathered the future King Tut (Tutankhamen). Nefertiti’s third daughter Ankhesenpaaten would eventually become her half-brother Tutankhamen’s queen.
Nefertiti As a Possible Ruler
Nefertiti disappears from the historical record around the 12th year of Akhenaten’s 17-year reign. She may have died at that point, but it is possible she became her husband’s official co-regent under the name Neferneferuaten. Akhenaten was followed as pharaoh by Smenkhkare, who some historians suggest may have been another name for Nefertiti. This would not have been without precedent: In the 15th century B.C. the female pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt in the guise of a man, complete with a ceremonial false beard.
If Nefertiti kept power during and beyond Akhenaten’s last years, it is possible she began the reversal of her husband’s religious polices that would reach fruition during the reign of King Tut. At one point Neferneferuaten employed a scribe to make divine offerings to Amun, pleading for him to return and dispel the kingdom’s darkness.
The Bust of Nefertiti
On December 6, 1913, a team led by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered a sculpture buried upside-down in the sandy rubble on the floor of the excavated workshop of the royal sculptor Thutmose in Amarna. The painted figure featured a slender neck, gracefully proportioned face and a curious blue cylindrical headpiece of a style only seen in images of Nefertiti. Borchardt’s team had an agreement to split its artifacts with the Egyptian government, so the bust was shipped as part of Germany’s portion. A single, poor photograph was published in an archaeological journal and the bust was given to the expedition’s funder, Jacques Simon, who displayed it for the next 11 years in his private residence.
In 1922 British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb. A flurry of international attention followed, and the image of Tut’s solid gold funerary mask was soon a global symbol of beauty, wealth and power.
A year later the Nefertiti bust was put on display in Berlin, countering the “English” Tut with a German appropriation of ancient glamour. Throughout the 20th century’s upheavals, the bust remained in German hands. It was revered by Hitler (who said, “I will never relinquish the head of the Queen”), hidden from Allied bombs in a salt mine and coveted by East Germany throughout the Cold War. Today it draws more than 500,000 visitors annually to Berlin’s Neues Museum.