Has the world been blinded by Nefertiti’s beauty?

Nefertiti’s beguiling bust has today made her one of the most widely recognised figures of the ancient world. But, asks Joyce Tyldesley, do this Egyptian queen’s accomplishments 3,000 years ago really merit her modern-day acclaim?

Nefertiti

In 1333 BC the young Egyptian king Tutankhamun decided to abandon the royal city of Amarna. The sculptor Thutmose, supervisor of a large workshop specialising in the production of royal images, was a man entirely dependent on royal patronage. He had little choice but to pack up his tools and follow his king. Thutmose sailed away from Amarna, leaving behind a city filled with royal sculptures and a storeroom crammed with unwanted works of art.

Advertisement

Not long after his departure, the city’s sculptures were viciously attacked by those opposed to the Amarna regime, and many of the statues were reduced to fragments. The storeroom, however, remained untouched. Here, on 6 and 7 December 1912, a German archaeological team led by Ludwig Borchardt discovered more than 50 pieces, including a startlingly lifelike bust of a queen. The woman was unlabelled, but she wore the unique flat-topped blue crown that identified her as Nefertiti, consort to Tutankhamun’s predecessor, Akhenaten.

Nefertiti’s bust had been carved from limestone, then covered with a layer of gypsum plaster, which allowed Thutmose or one of his workmen to create the fine definition of the muscles and tendons in her neck, to add creases around her mouth and under the eyes, and to emphasise her cheekbones. Paint then gave Nefertiti a smooth pink-brown skin, deeper red-brown lips, arched black brows and a colourful floral collar encircling her slender neck. Her right eye was created from rock crystal; her left eye is missing.

The birth of Tut-mania

As beautiful as it undoubtedly was, Nefertiti’s bust wasn’t the most significant discovery made by an Egyptologist in the early 20th century. That accolade must go to Howard Carter who, in November 1922, unearthed the burial place of Tutankhamun. This was the only near-intact tomb to have been found in the Valley of the Kings, and it was packed with precious grave goods. Carter’s spectacular discovery came at a time when the western world was still reeling from the First World War and the flu pandemic that followed it. A desire for fun and distraction existed alongside an increased interest in religion and the occult, and Egyptology was suddenly the height of fashion. ‘Tut-mania’ had been born.

Within months of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Nefertiti’s bust (which had been moved to Germany in 1912) went on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum. The bust fitted perfectly with the art deco style that was starting to embody postwar opulence and glamour. Nefertiti had a disconcertingly modern appearance, yet she was the creation of a sculptor who had lived and died more than 3,000 years ago. Ample publicity ensured that long queues of admirers arrived daily at the museum. This, of course, resulted in yet more publicity and even longer queues. As Tutankhamun remained frustratingly invisible, sealed in his coffins in the Valley of the Kings, replica Nefertitis left Berlin to travel the western world. Soon, Nefertiti had become Egypt’s most familiar queen: an acknowledged ancient world beauty.

Why does Nefertiti’s bust appeal to so many of us? Is it simply because, after a century of being told that it is beautiful, we expect to find it so? Or is there a more scientific explanation? Many of us find symmetrical faces attractive – and Nefertiti’s is certainly that.

Defined by her flat-topped crown, Nefertiti quickly passed into popular culture as an exotic and powerful woman. Her image, often reduced to a silhouette, has been used to sell a wide range of luxurious products, while her crown has assumed a rich cultural afterlife of its very own. In the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester’s hair was subjected to the highly fashionable Marcel wave, then stretched over a wire frame to create a modern version of the crown, with a white lightening bolt on each side. This hairstyle was later copied by Magenta the castle maid, in the 1975 film version of the Rocky Horror Show. By the end of the 20th century, Nefertiti had made a considerable cultural impact.

But there’s a downside to our modern obsession with Nefertiti’s bust – and that’s its power to distort our understanding of the past. Thutmose’s beguiling work of art has made Nefertiti a major player in our modern perception of ancient Egypt. But does that mean that she actually was a major player as a flesh-and-blood human being 3,000 years ago?

We have more images of Nefertiti than any other Egyptian queen-consort, which suggests, to some people, that the answer to the question is yes. Surely, they argue, this proves that there was something exceptional about her. Others have countered that the abundance of images is simply a result of large quantities of Amarna art being preserved in the abandoned royal city.

Neither argument wins the day decisively. For me, it seems that the only way we can establish if there truly was something extraordinary about Nefertiti is to reconsider what we know about her life.

Unfortunately, most of that life remains shrouded in darkness. What we do know is that Nefertiti was the chief wife of the ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten, and that she bore him six daughters. Akhenaten ruled Egypt at a time of unprecedented wealth and power from approximately 1353–1336 BC. He built the city of Amarna, and dedicated it to the worship of one solar god, the Aten.

Divine children

Like all of Egypt’s consorts, Nefertiti was effectively the king’s deputy. We have images of her ‘smiting’ or executing the enemies of Egypt, a role normally reserved for kings.

Her religious role is less easy to define, but we know that she played a prominent part in the cult of Aten. It is rare to see a woman acting as the primary contact with a god, yet Nefertiti is shown making offerings in a female-only temple. It seems likely that she was more than a conduit between mankind and the divine. As Akhenaten’s solar religion eliminated Egypt’s traditional gods, it allowed the king and queen to take their place. To all intents and purposes, Akhenaten and Nefertiti became the divine children of the Aten.

Can we conclude from this that Nefertiti was indeed exceptional among Egypt’s consorts? First we need to consider the role played by her formidable mother-in-law, and wife of Amenhotep III, Queen Tiy. At the turn of the last century, before the discovery of her bust, Nefertiti was completely overshadowed by her formidable predecessor. Tiy, it was accepted, developed the role of the politically active consort and queen mother. Nefertiti merely followed her lead.

Tiy, like Nefertiti, maintained a high public profile throughout her marriage. She was depicted alongside her husband on public monuments and in private tombs, and her name was linked with his on inscriptions and in diplomatic correspondence. Tiy was closely identified with the solar goddesses Maat and Hathor. In the Theban tomb of the courtier Kheruef, we can see Tiy sailing, godlike, alongside the solar god Re, and we can see her sitting on a throne that bears an image of the queen as a human-headed sphinx, trampling two female prisoners. Outside Egypt, at the Nubian temple of Sedeinga, Tiy was worshipped as a form of the goddess Hathor-Tefnut.

Clearly, both Tiy and Nefertiti were allocated religious and political power, with Tiy (who was mentioned in diplomatic correspondence) perhaps more prominent in the political sphere, and Nefertiti (who made offerings in temples) winning in the realm of religion. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – neither woman ever demonstrated a power that was equal to, or higher than, their king. Can we really state that Nefertiti was uniquely powerful? On this evidence, no.

The vanishing queen

Much of the debate around Nefertiti’s exceptionalism – or lack of it – centres on her later years. What became of her when her husband, Akhenaten, died? Did she flourish, or fade into obscurity?

Our last dated view of Nefertiti comes from the Amarna tomb of the courtier Meryre II. Here a wall scene shows the royal family enjoying a festival during Akhenaten’s regnal year 12. Our last dated reference to Nefertiti comes four years later, when a barely legible graffito mentions the “Great King’s Wife Nefertiti”. As Akhenaten’s final recorded regnal year is year 17, it seems that Nefertiti was alive and performing the normal consort’s duties shortly before her husband’s death.

However, the graffito was only discovered and published in 2012. For many years prior to its publication, Egyptologists had believed that Nefertiti vanished soon after her husband’s regnal year 12. This should not have been a problem. Egyptian history is rife with vanishing queens. We don’t usually seek to find these women; we assume that they have either died or retired from public life. But, such has been the impact of Nefertiti’s bust upon our imaginations, we have refused to accept that she could have died or retired without anyone commemorating the fact.

Reluctant to lose sight of Nefertiti, Egyptologists developed a complicated series of scenarios based on the assumption that Nefertiti had been banished from Amarna. This has since been disproved.

The 1970s saw the development of a more plausible theory. Philologist John Harris suggested that Nefertiti had transformed herself into a female king to rule alongside Akhenaten as a co-regent. After Akhenaten’s death, Harris proposed, she may have ruled Egypt either as a solo king or as a regent, before Tutankhamun came to the throne.

Breasts and wide hips

This theory is supported by a certain amount of indirect, inconclusive evidence. For example, a gilded statuette included among Tutankhamun’s grave goods shows a crowned royal figure with breasts and wide hips. Some experts have interpreted this as a statuette originally intended for a female ruler: a piece created for King Nefertiti, repurposed by Tutankhamun.

It’s an alluring hypothesis but it’s seriously flawed. And that’s because it seems that Nefertiti was succeeded as queen-consort by her eldest daughter, Meritaten. If anyone was in a position to act as Tutankhamun’s regent, it was surely the daughter, not the mother whom she had replaced.

Let’s return to the Amarna tomb of Meryre II. Here an incomplete scene shows a king and queen illuminated by the rays of the god Aten. The queen is Meritaten, standing besides her husband, the short-lived pharaoh Smenkhkare. Further evidence of Meritaten’s status is provided by a cartouche, declaring her to be “King’s Great Wife Meritaten”. So, if we are seeking a powerful female operating at the end of the Amarna Period – perfectly placed to serve alongside her husband – it is to Meritaten, not Nefertiti, to whom we should look.

Nefertiti is frequently included on the list of Egypt’s kings. Yet we don’t have a single image or fragment of text to prove that she was ever anything other than a prominent queen-consort, one of a line of powerful royal wives including her mother-in-law Tiy, and her daughter Meritaten. Would we have developed our fascination with Nefertiti, and our determination to see her as somehow special, without the discovery of her hauntingly beautiful bust? It is impossible to say, but it seems unlikely.

Joyce Tyldesley teaches online Egyptology courses at the University of Manchester. Her book Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon is published this month by Profile

Books: Amarna Sunset by Aidan Dodson (American University in Cairo Press, 2009); Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing Story of an Egyptian King by Joyce Tyldesley (Profile Books, 2012).

Advertisement

This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine