The wife of the ‘heretic’ king Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti is today one of the most iconic of all ancient Egyptians, thanks to her painted bust revealed to the world in 1923. Aidan Dodson charts the career of this remarkable queen, a hard-headed pragmatist who became a forgotten – and possibly murdered – king.


Nefertiti lived during the 14th century BC, but soon after her death she was written out of Egyptian history. Although a faint remembrance of her can be found in the work of the 3rd-century BC Egyptian chronicler Manetho, she was completely forgotten until the middle of the 19th century AD, when early Egyptologists re-identified her name and figure. She nevertheless remained a marginal figure in histories of her time until 1923, when a remarkable painted bust, originally found in 1912, was finally put on display and catapulted Nefertiti to international stardom. The bust has been reproduced in two and three dimensions innumerable times, and in many different modes. Media hyperbole has on the basis of the bust proclaimed her a famous beauty whose looks had never been forgotten – readily ignoring Nefertiti’s millennia of utter oblivion. But what is really known – or can at least be reasonably hypothesised – of the woman whose face has become so ubiquitous?

The painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, now one of the world’s most iconic artworks and in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin; from the workshop of Thutmose at Amarna. IMAGE: © Wrangel |

It seems clear that Nefertiti became the King’s Great Wife a short time after Amenhotep IV’s accession to the throne during the second half of 14th century BC. Within a year of the marriage, their eldest daughter, Meryetaten, had been born. In her role as queen, Nefertiti appeared in the decoration of the temple-complex that the king erected to the god Aten at Karnak, on the east bank of the Nile at modern Luxor. The Aten, a new divine manifestation of the sun, had emerged as a god during the time of the king’s father, Amenhotep III, but would soon become the sole god acknowledged by Amenhotep IV. The king accordingly renamed himself Akhenaten, while the queen added the name Neferneferuaten to her birth name, Nefertiti, in her cartouche (the oval enclosure that surrounded the names of kings and many queens).

A scene from the Aten temple at Karnak, showing the king in the full ‘Amarna’ style, but Nefertiti in a transitional one (State Museum of Egyptian Art, Munich).

As well as simply accompanying the king in scenes of worship, Nefertiti also appeared in colossal statue form, and as a sphinx, at Karnak and, accompanied only by her daughter, as the sole officiant in the reliefs adorning the colonnade that surrounded the obelisk that seems to have acted as the focus of the solar cult. A queen acting in this way without the presence of the king is quite exceptional, but, for Nefertiti, this merely marked the beginning of a career of exceptions. Within a few years she had become the only Egyptian royal wife known to have been shown in the iconic pharaonic pose of smiting an enemy, and also – while still alive – the protectress of the dead. Under Akhenaten’s religious revolution, the traditional goddesses of the dead – Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selqet – had been abolished, and on the king’s sarcophagus their places are taken by images of Nefertiti in raised relief, embracing each of its four corners.

The queen’s origins have been much debated, with no definitive evidence available, other than that she lacked the title of ‘King’s Daughter’, which is always found where a queen was also an Egyptian royal princess. Although Nefertiti has sometimes been posited as a foreign princess, it seems far more likely that, like many other Egyptian queens, she was the daughter of Egyptian nobility. The best candidate for her father seems to be the General Ay, who held the title of ‘God’s Father’. This designation appears to denote a king’s father-in-law during the Eighteenth Dynasty, in which Nefertiti lived. In addition, Ay’s wife Tey was ‘Nurse of the King’s Great Wife, Nefertiti’, probably best interpreted as the queen’s stepmother, following the death of her actual mother – perhaps in childbirth. We know that Ay had for certain at least one wife other than Tey – Iuy, the mother of his son Nakhtmin. One potential interpretation of the raw DNA data obtained from a number of royal mummies of the period is that Nefertiti was the offspring of Ay and an otherwise-unknown sister of Amenhotep III, and thus a cousin of her husband Akhenaten.

Relief of Nefertiti smiting an enemy, originally from Amarna. As in all representations of the king and queen, the abstract globe of the Aten and its rays shine down on her (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters, born during the first decade of their marriage. It seems likely on both textual and genetic grounds that the future King Tutankhamun (originally Tutankhaten) was their son, born as perhaps their fourth or fifth child. He is never shown with his sisters in the family groups that appear on many tomb and temple walls, but this is wholly in keeping with the decorum of Egyptian art down to this time. In no case since the beginning of history had a royal prince been shown in a family group in a tomb or temple, including during the reign of Amenhotep III. Thus, in the latter’s temple at Soleb in present-day Sudan, Amenhotep III is shown with his wife and daughters, but his two known sons – Akhenaten, and his prematurely deceased elder brother Thutmose – are nowhere to be seen. It was not until the reigns of Sethy I and Rameses II, some decades later, that royal sons first start to appear regularly on royal monuments. From late in Akhenaten’s reign, however, come a pair of blocks from an otherwise-vanished wall-tableau at Amarna that originally showed Prince Tutankhaten (as he then was) in the company of his sister Ankhesenpaaten, both presumably in the company of their parents. This image would represent the first ever depiction of a royal prince on a temple wall.

Akhenaten’s religious revolution was accompanied by radical changes in modes of artistic depiction. These initially focussed on the king only, who began to be depicted with a long, haggard face, swelling breasts, wide hips and thighs, and spindly calves. For a short time, others, including the queen, continued to be shown as ‘normal’, but the distortions were soon applied universally, to create what is known today as the ‘Amarna’ artistic style.

This style is named for the modern designation of the site adopted by Akhenaten for a new capital city, whose construction began during his fifth regnal year. Amarna (Akhet-Aten in ancient Egyptian) was built on a virgin site, and was intended both as the principal cult centre of the Aten and as the royal residence and political capital. Accordingly, it incorporated two major temples of the god, government offices, and a ceremonial palace in the central city, with a royal residential complex some 4 km to the north, and suburbs of private residences directly north and south of the central city. In the cliffs to the east of the city, the decorated tomb-chapels of its notables were cut; while deeper into the desert, a desolate valley was to house the burial places of the king and his family. Provision of royal tombs for Akhenaten (whose assumption of this name coincided with the foundation of the city), Nefertiti, and Meryetaten was specifically decreed in the proclamation founding the new metropolis. A second daughter, Meketaten, was born shortly before the foundation of Amarna, with Ankhesenpaaten arriving perhaps a year later.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their eldest three daughters. The rays of the god Aten hold hieroglyphic signs of ‘life’ (ankh) to the nostrils of the king and queen (Egyptian Museum, Berlin).

The building of the city was accompanied by the manufacture of numerous statues of members of the royal family to adorn its temples and palaces. These were produced at a number of workshops in the southern part of the city, one of which preserved what seems to have been a ‘master-portrait’ of Nefertiti. This is the remarkable painted limestone bust that has done so much to give the queen her modern status. Excavation of the same workshop revealed many other important works. From a nearby workshop came an unfinished head of Nefertiti that has often been proclaimed as one of the supreme masterpieces of the period.

In Akhenaten’s 12th regnal year, delegations from much of the known world came to Amarna, bringing gifts for the king. The two known representations of this event say nothing as to why this event occurred, but various suggestions have been made. One is that the occasion marked the completion of the major buildings of the city and formal international recognition that it had now become Egypt’s capital. But as well as gifts, it is possible that some of the delegates also brought a virulent disease.

Within a relatively short time, three of Nefertiti’s daughters were dead, as was her mother-in-law, the dowager Queen Tiye; all were buried in the Royal Tomb at Amarna. Probably in reaction to the crisis, Princess Meryetaten was married to a certain Smenkhkare, most likely a younger brother of Akhenaten, who was made co-ruler. This elevation may have been to provide not only support for the king, but also adult rule in the event of Akhenaten’s own premature death, since Prince Tutankhaten was at the time only about five years old.

Nefertiti’s possible father Ay and stepmother Tey, as shown in their tomb-chapel at Amarna. They would become king and queen of Egypt following the death of Tutankhamun.

However, Smenkhkare’s reign as co-ruler was short, and within a year or two at most he too was dead, barely into his mid 20s. In the wake of this further tragedy, Nefertiti was promoted to ‘crowned queen’. Although she still had the title King’s Great Wife and only a single cartouche (kings had an extra cartouche, the prenomen), she was now wearing the Blue Crown, one of the items of headgear specific to a king of Egypt. As crowned queen, she acted as her husband’s deputy until a year or less before his death in his 17th regnal year, when she was promoted to the full status of a king of Egypt, with the appropriate titles and a second cartouche. In addition, her other cartouche was reduced from ‘Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti’ to a core-form of ‘Neferneferuaten’, plus an epithet relating her to her husband, either as ‘beloved of’ or as ‘effective for’ him.

The added second cartouche had the same core-element as that of Smenkhkare, leading to many years of confusion in Egyptology. As a result of this shared core-element, it was long believed that Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten were the same person, who had changed their name in the same way that Amenhotep IV had become Akhenaten. Initially this individual was assumed to be a man, possibly even involved in a homosexual relationship with Akhenaten. Then, when evidence was detected that showed Neferneferuaten to have been female (the feminine ending ‘t’ in some examples of her prenomen, and epithet ‘beneficial for her husband’ in some versions of her nomen-cartouche), the proposed ‘single individual’ behind the name followed suit – in spite of clear evidence showing that as Smenkhkare ‘she’ would have had a wife in the form of Meryetaten.

It was only when detailed analyses showed that there was actually no overlap between the complete ‘Smenkhkare’ and ‘Neferneferuaten’ titularies that it became possible to cut the gordian knot and recognise them as respectively a male king and a female king (the titles conventionally translated from the Egyptian as ‘queen’ refer specifically to a royal wife; those applied to Neferneferuaten – and other Egyptian ruling women – were simply those applicable to a male king, on occasion with a feminine suffix added). Doubt remained in some quarters as to the identity of Neferneferuaten, but the fact that the name had belonged to Nefertiti for over a decade, combined with the historical context, makes it difficult to dispute that King Neferneferuaten was simply the promoted Queen Nefertiti.

Colossal statues from the Karnak Aten temple: Amenhotep IV is on the left and Nefertiti on the right. Both are in the most extreme version of the ‘Amarna’ style (Egyptian Museum, Cairo).

The reasons for Nefertiti’s promotion so late on, rather than after Smenkhkare’s demise, are unclear. It may have been that as a commoner by birth it was felt inappropriate to raise her to full kingship, with ‘crowned queenship’ for the time being sufficient. But then something changed, and the fact that Akhenaten was dead within a year may suggest that he was now ailing or had some other foreboding of death. With the pharaoh’s death on the horizon, the need for an adult anointed king to act as co-ruler with the still-under-age Tutankhaten was now pressing, and Nefertiti was presumably the only potential candidate. Akhenaten’s concern will have been that without such a person, any regents for Tutankhaten might use his minority as an excuse to reverse the king’s religious revolution, which seems to have been very much a ‘top-down’ movement, with little buy-in across the general population (and probably not much among the nobility either). So it would seem that after a few months ruling with her husband, on his death – natural or otherwise – Neferneferuaten transitioned to reigning alongside Tutankhaten, who had now become king, with his sister Ankhesenpaaten as his queen.

This arrangement endured for at least three years. But if Akhenaten had indeed believed that his wife would act as a guarantor of the revolution, he would have been bitterly disappointed. A key part of his revolution was the toppling of the god Amun from his status as ‘King of the Gods’ – a supremacy that Akhenaten believed belonged only to the Aten. This had culminated in the destruction of Amun’s statues and carvings in relief, and even the erasure of his name and the hated title. Yet a graffito from the tomb-chapel of Pairy at Thebes shows that by the third year of the reign of Neferneferuaten and Tutankhaten, cults of Amun were once again fully functional, and the young king is depicted on at least one stela making offerings to Amun and his consort Mut. Indeed, it is possible that Neferneferuaten was now even using ‘beloved of Amun’ as one of her epithets.

Limestone statuette of Nefertiti, generally seen as showing her as a woman who has borne a number of children; from the workshop of Thutmose at Amarna (Egyptian Museum, Berlin).

On the other hand, she was content to leave the capital at the Aten’s city of Amarna, where tombs were being prepared for both herself and the young King Tutankhaten. The equipment that was being prepared for her tomb was, however, of wholly traditional style and inscription. These various strands of evidence suggest that Neferneferuaten was attempting to triangulate between the old and the new, with both Amun and the Aten now to share divine primacy.

If that were so, King Neferneferuaten was, whatever creed she had publicly espoused as Queen Nefertiti, a hard-headed pragmatist who recognised that Akhenaten’s religious vision was unsustainable in its totality, and that the only way to retain at least some of it was to compromise with the traditional cults – in particular with that of Amun. Yet this very much depended on her being able to control events, and within a short time of the aforementioned graffito having been penned, she was almost certainly dead, and a new team was ruling in the name of the young king. His name was now changed to Tutankhamun (and that of his wife to Ankhesenamun) and a full counter-reformation instituted, as Amarna was abandoned and the dismantling of the Aten’s temples begun.

Neferneferuaten was never buried as a king: such funerary equipment as she had completed before the end of her reign was incorporated into the outfit being created for Tutankhamun, reinscribed as necessary. This hints that the end of her reign (and probably life) was not a natural one. As for her personal fate, one possible reading of DNA data suggests that a mummy found buried secondarily in the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings in 1898 is hers.

Unfinished stela, showing Nefertiti (left) and Akhenaten (right), both naked and wearing kingly crowns. Although the texts of the main part of the stela were never cut, the fact that there are only three cartouches on the right indicates that Nefertiti is only a ‘crowned queen’ (Egyptian Museum, Berlin).

If so, the death of Neferneferuaten/Nefertiti would have been horrific. Much of the left side of the mummy’s face has been smashed in, with imagery from CT scans suggesting that this damage was inflicted before mummification took place, the result of a fatal blow with a heavy object. Of course, while an accident cannot be ruled out, the posthumous denial of Neferneferuaten’s kingship and the immediate reversal of her policies after her disappearance gives rise to strong suspicions of foul play. The CT study also suggested an age at death of between 25 and 35 years, the upper end of which is consistent with Nefertiti having married Akhenaten around her mid-teens and dying almost exactly two decades later.

The denial of Neferneferuaten’s kingship was but one step in a process that wrote both her and her husband out of history, a process that would later sweep up their son Tutankhamun as well. The king-lists that appeared on the walls of temples and a tomb a few decades later omitted all three of them altogether, although, as already noted, in the 3rd century BC Manetho was aware that a woman had been amongst the kings who had reigned in the period directly following Amenhotep III. But it would not be until over 2,000 years later that the world would once again hear of Nefertiti.

ALL IMAGES: Aidan Dodson, unless otherwise stated.

Further reading
Aidan Dodson’s book, Nefertiti, Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt: her life and afterlife is published by the American University in Cairo Press (ISBN 978-9774169908, price £29.95).