In ancient Egyptian royal iconography, the pharaoh most often appears alone as he offers to the gods, drives his chariot triumphantly against his enemies, or enters the afterlife to join Ra’s unending journey. One king is a dramatic exception to this overarching principle of lonely pharaonic glory: Akhenaten, who began his rule as Amenhotep, the fourth king of that name during the Eighteenth Dynasty. This king not only dispensed with the rich pantheon of gods in his worship of the unique solar god Aten, but also elevated his chief wife, Nefertiti, and their daughters to be essential participants in all aspects of his innovative religious practices.
Who was Nefertiti?
A stela carved in the massive sandstone quarries of Kheny (modern Gebel el-Silsila) during the earliest years of the reign of Amenhotep IV provides the first evidence of the king’s intense focus on the sun god. He commands the construction of a great monument for the god ‘Ra-Horakhty, who rejoices in the horizon in his name of light which is in the sun disc’. This ‘name of light’ is first applied to a falcon-headed solar deity, and later to a divine form that has shed nearly all human features: a disc with multiple rays, each of which ends in a hand. A shortened name for the divine disc is Aten, and about the same time as the god’s transition in imagery, and enclosure of his name in two cartouches, a powerful queen bursts on to the scene: Nefertiti.
This woman, whose family origins remain uncertain, may not have been named Nefertiti at birth. Meaning ‘the beautiful one has returned’, the queen’s name alludes to the annual return of the far-wandering solar eye of the cosmic creator. Nefertiti’s royal name may have mirrored her husband’s transformation from Amenhotep (‘Amun is content’) to Akhenaten (‘He who is effective for Aten’). It is likely that Nefertiti was related to Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye, and genetic evidence from royal mummies suggests that she may even have been her husband’s first cousin on both the maternal and paternal sides. From around Year 4 to the end of Akhenaten’s 17-year reign, Nefertiti appears alongside her husband in nearly every two- and three-dimensional work of art.
Building at Karnak
The fourth and fifth regnal years of Amenhotep IV, when he still ruled from Waset (modern Luxor), witnessed a building boom in east Karnak. The priests and priestesses of Amun might have expressed consternation that the king was not contributing new pylons or augmenting the god’s barque, ‘Amun-mighty-of-prow’, but the eastern portion of the Karnak complex – the site of Thutmose IV’s sole obelisk – had always been closely associated with the solar nature of Amun-Ra. Already during the reign of Senusret I, Karnak had been theologically linked with Iunu (Greek Heliopolis), and by the New Kingdom Waset could be called ‘Southern Iunu’.
The new constructions at Karnak also emphasised Nefertiti’s role as Aten’s high priestess. One of the four temples that Amenhotep IV had erected before the end of Year 5 was a temple called the Mansion of the Benben. The Benben-stone was the most sacred monument within the Temple of Ra-Atum at Iunu, and while its original shape remains uncertain, the ancient Egyptians stylised it as an obelisk. Amenhotep IV appropriately situated the Mansion of the Benben close to the sole obelisk of Thutmose IV, enhancing the monolith’s solar status.
Although the Mansion of the Benben, like all of Amenhotep IV’s constructions at Karnak, was dismantled after his reign, the surviving blocks from that temple – the small talatat that enabled rapid construction (and equally rapid deconstruction) – never show the king. Instead, Nefertiti appears alone, worshipping Aten directly, an expression of religious authority (and the queen’s literacy) not attested outside of Hatshepsut’s remarkable tenure as God’s Wife of Amun (which was, of course, continued during Hatshepsut’s assumption of male, pharaonic titles). The only other person who appears in the Mansion of the Benben is Meritaten, Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s eldest daughter.
From this point on, Meritaten trails behind, or stands next to, her parents in nearly every image of the royal couple, from the boundary stelae demarcating the new capital city of Akhet-Aten (modern Amarna), to scenes of the royal commute in the tombs of high officials, to reliefs of the king and queen offering to Aten.
Soon Meritaten is joined by a bevy of sisters, as Nefertiti gives birth to five additional princesses during the next eight years: Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten-tasherit, Neferneferura, and Setepenra. The constant presence of so many royal females, including the king’s mother Tiye, and Akhenaten’s second wife Kiye, was not simply an expression of domestic bliss, but a key to how Akhenaten and Nefertiti became gods on earth.
Although so many of the features of Akhenaten’s 17-year reign are seemingly bizarre, making rulership a family affair had some key precedents, especially when royal daughters enacted rituals that enhanced the divinity of their parents.
In The Story of Sinuhe, the classic of Middle Kingdom literature which both Akhenaten and Nefertiti had probably read during their schooling, Sinuhe somewhat mysteriously flees Egypt on the death of Amenemhat I. After adventures in the lands to the north-east of Egypt, he returns to Egypt. When he enters the palace, the royal family is shocked at the sight of the Egyptian-turned-Asiatic chief. After giving lusty voice to their surprise, the royal children fetch musical instruments, including sistra.
Rarely does a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti appear without a sistrum, the growing ensemble of daughters making musical accompaniment to their parents’ actions. In The Story of Sinuhe, the daughters of Senusret I sing: ‘the Gold [Hathor] gives life to your nose that the lady of stars might unite with you’. As the song continues, to the accompaniment of costly and bejewelled instruments, the royal daughters transform their parents into cosmic beings – Atum and Tefnut – and soften the perhaps stern royal heart. Just as the royal children in the tale take part in a ritual transformation of the ruler into a divinity, so the performances of the royal Amarna children during the jubilee celebrations of Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV have a similar transformative effect. At Akhet-Aten, the royal children and the queen always seem prepared to elevate an event into one of ritual significance.
Royal offspring participating in transformative musical performances for the king did not begin with the reign of Akhenaten, nor did they end with Akhenaten. A particularly informative record comes from the Mortuary Temple of the Twentieth Dynasty king Ramesses III. In the upper chambers of the Eastern High Gate at Medinet Habu are reliefs showing Ramesses III in the company of a number of females, called ‘royal children’, represented on a smaller scale and nude apart from their jewellery. These royal females play senet with the ruler, present him with broad collars, and chant a hymn in which they liken portions of the body of the king to precious stones. Broad collars of stones and metals were elaborate versions of more impermanent collars made of real plants. The children sing the words: ‘Receive the broad collars – your [hair] is lapis lazuli; your eyebrows are black haematite[?]; your eyes are green malachite; your mouth is [red jasper]…’. Apparently, as the king accepts the broad collars from his children, they in turn work on the royal body and transform it into mineral elements from which a statue might be made and embellished. The king becomes the elements through which an artist might represent the royal body in a cult object. Yet again, princesses are essential to making their parent divine.
Family scenes and symbolism
Even when Akhenaten and Nefertiti are consuming meals (as depicted in a private tomb at Akhet-Aten) or are shown caressing their daughters (as in votive stelae in the homes of the city’s elite), the very presence of the princesses transforms a time of domestic calm into an event of religious significance.
On one stela, currently in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Akhenaten kisses one daughter, while Nefertiti allows another to sit in her lap, and the youngest plays with an ornament attached to her mother’s crown. Perhaps Akhenaten and Nefertiti were particularly devoted parents, but as these scenes appear on objects of private devotion, the intimate gestures actually highlight the divinity of the royal family. Aligned to either side of Aten, the seated images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti facing one another form a representation of the horizon which replaces the hills used in the hieroglyph that writes akhet (‘horizon’). The king holds Meritaten close to him, and the closeness of their mouths suggests that he is granting to her the breath of life that originates in their heavenly father – the shining sun disc at the top of the scene. This has parallels with Spell 81 of the Coffin Texts, which appears to say of Shu, the son of the creator Atum: ‘It is with his nose that he bore me, and it is from his nostril that I came forth. That he might kiss me has he placed me at his neck’. Ankhesenpaaten clings to Nefertiti’s shoulder and reaches toward the uraeus that hangs from the queen’s crown. The ancient Egyptians closely associated rearing cobras with the fiery power of the sun; the uraei on Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s crowns show that they share in Aten’s own luminosity.
The second-eldest daughter Meketaten sits on Nefertiti’s knee, looking back at her little sister, and pointing to her elder sister. Meketaten appears to be drawing the viewer’s attention to the symbolic similarity of her sisters’ actions. While Meritaten receives life-giving breath from her father, Ankhesenpaaten plays with a solar image that her mother wears. Meketaten points at Meritaten, and the eldest sister points back towards their mother. The eyes of the viewer (in antiquity those eyes belonged to members of one of Akhet-Aten’s elite families) follow a cyclical movement from one side of the stela to the next. Each element of this votive stela equates the royal family with their divine father, and the entire scene represents an eternal recurrence, like Aten’s endless journeys through the sky.
Encoded within representations of Aten with the royal family is yet another reason why Akhenaten surrounds himself with Nefertiti and the princesses. In his non-anthropomorphic form, the sun disc of Aten has an abundance of feminine manifestations: sunrays and hands, both of which are grammatically feminine words in ancient Egyptian. The constant presence of Nefertiti and the princesses transforms Akhenaten into an earthly version of the divine solar disc. The solar deity may be called ‘rich in uraei’, and the royal women of Akhenaten’s family symbolically are the female light-powers of Akhet-Aten.
The complete decoding of the innovative art of Akhenaten and Nefertiti requires that we cast our scholarly net wide. The ritual role of royal daughters in The Story of Sinuhe helps explain how sistrum-wielding princesses at Akhet-Aten elevate their parent’s day-to-day actions to those of a divinity. A century later, daughters of Ramesses III sing a hymn about jewellery, which shows another route to royal divinisation: the giving and receiving of jewellery that is a common motif on votive stelae from Akhet-Aten. Akhenaten could only accomplish his earthly divinity through the simultaneous elevation of Nefertiti to the role of goddess. Add a bevy of princesses, and all aspects of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s lives, and their artistic representations, become yet more opportunities to express their identity as the son and daughter of Aten: gods on earth.
John Coleman and Colleen Darnell are a husband and wife Egyptologist team. John is Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, Connecticut. In 2017, his Eastern Desert expedition discovered the earliest monumental hieroglyphic inscription. Colleen teaches art history at the Naugatuck Valley Community College and has curated a major exhibition on Egyptian revival art and design at the Yale Peabody Museum. They have appeared in many television documentaries and their latest book, Egypt’s Golden Couple: when Akhenaten and Nefertiti were gods on earth, is reviewed here.