Your guide to Egypt’s sun queen Nefertiti

Most people around the world are familiar with the Egyptian queen Nefertiti thanks to the discovery of her remarkable bust in 1912. But how much do you know about the wife of King Amenhotep IV, a pharaoh also known as Akhenaten? Rachel Dinning talks to Egyptologist Aidan Dodson about some of the theories surrounding Nefertiti’s life, death and achievements – including the key question: was she a pharaoh?

A bust of Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt. (Photo by Oliver Lang/AFP/Getty Images)

Thanks to the discovery of her remarkable bust in 1912, Nefertiti is one of the most recognised figures from ancient Egypt. But how much is known about Egypt’s sun queen?

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Was she a pharaoh? Was she the mother of Tutankhamun? And when and how was her bust discovered?

This interview is taken from an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast and has been edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview here


Rachel Dinning: What do we know about Nefertiti with certainty?

Aidan Dodson: The only thing we know about Nefertiti with certainty is that she was the pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife. Beyond that, we can only say what Nefertiti wasn’t. She wasn’t a royal princess, because among her many titles, there isn’t the one of ‘king’s daughter’ (which would be there if she was indeed a princess). We also know she wasn’t Akhenaten’s sister, although a number of Egyptian pharaohs did marry their sisters.

There are various possibilities, and the one that I tend to favour is that she was a first cousin of the king. On his mother’s side, there is a whole dynasty of military officials who seem to have married regularly into the royal family.

RD: What was happening in Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti?

AD: The late 14th century BC was a very interesting time, both in Egypt and more widely across the ancient world. Nefertiti’s husband, Akhenaten, decides to completely throw Egyptian religion up in the air and start again, effectively building belief around a single Sun God known as the Aten (who had been around for a while, but never as a major deity). It’s a Year Zero – or, in modern terms, a cultural revolution.

RD: What are some misconceptions Egyptologists have had about Nefertiti over the years that have been largely disproved?

AD: There are various myths around, some of which surrounded her origins. Some have insisted that she was a royal princess, or they have tried to make her a foreign princess because her name does mean ‘the beautiful woman has arrived’. Some have made too much of that, when actually it’s a perfectly common Egyptian name of that period.

Beyond that, until fairly recently, Nefertiti has been regarded almost as a cypher. The beautiful bust of her, which was found in 1912, has made her an international ‘glamour puss’ rather than actually a person who had thoughts and influence. It’s not really until the past few years that we’ve started to realise there was rather more to her – and also how her career actually went beyond being simply a king’s wife.

 

RD: Nefertiti was held in extremely high regard. But was she a pharaoh?

AD: During her period as Akhenaten’s wife, we find Nefertiti depicted smiting Egypt’s enemies, which is something which is never found for any other queen of Egypt. We also find Nefertiti on the corners of her husband’s sarcophagus, rather than the figures of the traditional goddesses of the dead, who you normally find in that position. Even in life, she becomes goddess of the dead. So she was held in enormously high regard.

Beyond this, it’s become pretty clear that rather than dying as Akhenaten’s queen, as it used to be thought, Nefertiti actually survived him as a fully-fledged female pharaoh, one of the tiny number of such women who have existed over the years.

RD: Was it unprecedented for a woman to be elevated to a position of this status? Is there any other evidence of female pharaohs or female kings?

AD: We have a few. The first one is a few centuries earlier on, a lady called Sobekneferu. She seems to be the daughter of King Amenemhet III, of the 12th Egyptian dynasty, who seems not to have had any sons. Sobekneferu becomes the first female pharaoh on the basis that there is no male heir left.

Later on, during the 18th Dynasty, there was a woman called Hatshepsut, who had been the regent for the young King Thutmose III. About seven years into Thutmose III’s reign, and probably just at the point he’s about to become old enough to rule alone, she promotes herself to female pharaoh and rules alongside him for a period of time.

In my view, the only other female pharaoh we have is some centuries after Nefertiti, a lady called Tausret, who is initially a regent for a young king. When the young king dies suddenly, possibly even suspiciously, she carries on ruling as female pharaoh, carrying on his regnal years.]

RD: What sort of role would Nefertiti have undertaken as pharaoh?

AD: As someone ruling alongside and for an under-age king, she would have been being carrying out the full role of pharaoh. I should point out that the theory that Nefertiti and Tutankhamun are ruling together is not a universally held one; some people hold that she was female pharaoh on her own for some years, before Tutankhamun came into his own.

But I think it makes far more sense to see it as a co-rule. In this sense, she’s doing the full range of what pharaohs do – everything from foreign policy to home policy.

RD: Was Nefertiti Tutankhamun’s mother?

AD: We are pretty certain that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten. There is an inscription of Tutankhamun as a prince calling himself a king’s son, in a context where he can’t really be the son of anybody else (although, of course, there are Egyptologists who would differ). But I think the majority of us are happy that he was.

We know Akhenaten has two wives: Nefertiti and a lady called Kiya. We have lots of depictions of Nefertiti with up to six daughters, but no sons. On that basis, people said, “Kiya must be his mother.” That’s been made a fact in many books and TV programmes.

But the problem is that we have pictures of Kiya with her child who is a girl. There are no signs of her with anybody other than one single daughter. So if you’re denying the possibility that Nefertiti is Tutankhamun’s mother on the basis he’s never shown with her, you can’t then use the logic for Kiya.

 

RD: Could you tell us the story of the discovery of Nefertiti’s renown bust?

AD: In the years from 1905 until 1914, there was a German archaeological team working at Amarna (the capital city that Akhenaten built specifically during his reign). It was a city built in the middle of nowhere from scratch, and among the various buildings excavated there was the house and workshop of a sculptor. The city was abandoned when Tutankhaten became Tutankhamun; everybody appeared to have moved out. And the sculptor left this workshop full of sculptures, which clearly were of people who were now dead or had been discredited.

This workshop wasn’t seen again until 1912. A huge amount of material and art was found there, but the most amazing find was the bust of Nefertiti. It was clearly intended to be the master portrait of the queen for use in this particular workshop because it wasn’t part of a statue.

It actually was a freestanding bust, which is something that isn’t normally found in Egyptian art. Also in the same room – but broken because it had fallen off a shelf – was a similar bust of Akhenaten.

 

RD: You haven’t always subscribed to the belief that Nefertiti was a pharaoh in her own right. At what point did your opinion on this subject change and why?

It’s worth bearing in mind is a lot of what we think we know about Egyptian history is wild guesswork based on a couple of little bits of information. One little discovery can make a huge difference.

We knew that there was a ruler who had ruled alongside Akhenaten and then had continued on after his death. But all the evidence seemed to suggest that this was a male individual. As time went by, hints that this might not be the case started emerging. One depiction showed Akhenaten and this co-ruler in a fairly intimate context, so it was thought by some that they might actually be a gay couple.

Finally, a few years ago, a French colleague was looking very closely at some jewellery which had been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and had been originally made for Akhenaten’s co-ruler. He realised that their name, which had been overwritten by Tutankhamun’s but still could be seen, included an epithet that was “Beneficial for her Husband”. The moment you associate this epithet with Akhenaten’s co-ruler, it becomes quite clear that this must be a woman.

We finally realised the problem was there was a male co-ruler called Smenkhkare and there was a female co-ruler called Neferneferuaten. And that Neferneferuaten seems 99 per cent certain to be Nefertiti, who has shortened her name when she became a female king from Neferneferuaten Nefertiti. It was when this new reading of the name, with the epithet, was read out in a conference that my views changed immediately.

 

RD: What do we know about Nefertiti’s death and the end of her life?

AD: If some of us are right in identifying the mummy of Nefertiti as the so-called Younger Lady found in tomb KV35 – and this is a big point of debate – then she died a horrible death.

It appears she received a massive blow to the face, smashing many of the bones. This kind of massive trauma would have resulted in huge loss of blood and death would have occurred very rapidly.

On the basis of that – plus the fact that she was denied burial as a female pharaoh – suggests that Nefertiti’s attempts to square the circle between the reform initiated by her husband and an ensuing revolution failed. It’s possible, I suppose, that her death was simply an accident. But it all seems rather too unlikely.

Aidan Dodson was talking to HistoryExtra section editor Rachel Dinning on the HistoryExtra podcast. He is author of Nefertiti: Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt: Her Life and Afterlife (The American University in Cairo Press, 2020)

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