15 minutes of fame | Joyce Tyldesley chooses Queen Tiye
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Ellie Cawthorne interviews Joyce Tyldesley about the life of Queen Tiye
Who was Queen Tiye?
Thanks to a royal proclamation from Amenhotep III himself, historians know that Queen Tiye was born to two ‘commoners’: her father Yuya and mother Thuya. Despite her humble birth, Tiye went on to be Amenhotep’s right-hand woman, ruling Egypt alongside him, and one of their children Akhenaten later succeeded the throne as Amenhotep IV.
Queen Tiye’s life
At the time of Tiye’s life, explains Tyldesley, kings had many wives, who were grouped into “secondary queens” and the queen consort. As queen consort, Tiye would have had a lot of power, because she was the queen who appeared in all official writings and art. Tiye’s importance can be seen in her appearance on important monuments and tombs, and the property that belonged to her. Tyldesley also highlights Tiye’s widespread significance in the religious and diplomatic spheres – in Egypt and beyond, Tiye was associated with a goddess, and after her husband’s death, she appears in diplomatic correspondence.
It is difficult to know if Tiye’s power was atypical for the time, Tyldesley explains, because comparative power is hard to judge due to uneven levels of evidence for each life. For example, while Tiye’s daughter-in-law Nefertiti appears unusually powerful because of a wealth of representation based on her life in a city that worshipped the royal family, Tyldesley admits explains that for Tiye, it seems that she was simply unusual because she was powerful.
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Though not to the same extent as Nefertiti, historians do have access to various depictions of Tiye – from statues, to tombs, to figurines. One is a figure of Tiye’s head that shows her as an older woman. This was unusual, Tyldesley explains, because queens were generally depicted as “eternally young and eternally slender”. This representation of Tiye shows her as a woman who had “acquired real wisdom [and was] to be respected”. This could be, Tyldesley believes, an artist’s celebration of Tiye reaching a great age at a time when many did not.
Why does Queen Tiye deserve her 15 minutes of fame?
Tyldesley believes that Queen Tiye deserves her 15 minutes of fame because she has been unfairly overshadowed by those that followed her. For those studying ancient Egypt 100 years ago, Tyldesley explains, Queen Tiye would have been seen as the dominant figure of her time. However, in more recent years, history has focused on Nefertiti, placing her as an unusually powerful woman, a living goddess.
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But all this evidence could also apply to Queen Tiye,” explains Tyldesley, “and Nefertiti is not so much as an unusually powerful woman, but she is the daughter-in-law who is following in the footsteps of the powerful Queen Tiye.”
Tiye, as a strongly influential figure in ancient Egypt who held a lot of power, “deserves to be remembered as the Egyptians would have seen her and not as we see her today”.
Professor Joyce Tyldesley was talking to Ellie Cawthorne. Tyldesley is the author of several books on ancient Egypt, including 2018’s Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon (Profile Books, 2018), and the upcoming Tutankhamun – Pharaoh, Icon, Enigma
Article compiled by Isabel King
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.