Egypt’s Golden Couple: when Akhenaten and Nefertiti were Gods on Earth

Review by Sarah Griffiths

This new exploration of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s unique vision for Egypt and their rise to divine status is presented in an unusual format, with each chapter headed by a short dramatic reconstruction. Such vignettes are perhaps more in keeping with a historical novel, but here are based on facts from multiple sources (which are detailed in bibliographic essays at the end of the book). The authors use this technique to reimagine a short scene in a particular character’s life, sometimes offering two different versions of what may have happened. For example, Akhenaten is described as reaching his religious epiphany through a sudden flash of divine inspiration, or through his scholarly research of ancient texts and visits to the solar cults of the Old Kingdom pyramids (their large open spaces contrasting with the dark secretive sanctuaries associated with Amun).

The vignettes are then followed by a narrative that is part travelogue (the authors taking us with them on their trips to the various sites and collections), and part historical discourse presented through the lens of the Darnells’ distinctive interpretation of the sources. The authors point out that there was no inevitability that Amenhotep IV would become Akhenaten, and so Akhenaten’s early years at Waset (Thebes) are explored in parallel to the last decade of the reign of his father (Amenhotep III) and mother (Tiye); the period at Akhet-Aten (Amarna) only begins in Chapter 15. There is particular focus on the princesses of each generation in their roles as agents raising their parents to the status of gods on Earth. The family tree created by the authors places Nefertiti as the daughter of Ay and mother of Tutankhamun (contradicting the 2010 DNA conclusions), with a chapter devoted to the possible identities of Smenkhara and the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten who preceded Tutankhamun.

Throughout the discussion, the Darnells offer new interpretations of the unique Amarna art style. The strange appearance of the couple, with their androgynous body shapes, was a form of religious and political expression: artistic transformation aligned to the couple’s physical metamorphosis into divinities. The Hymn to the Aten is studied in one chapter, with a full translation presented in the appendix, and an epilogue describes John Darnell’s discovery of the earliest known monumental hieroglyphic inscription (at el-Khawy), suggesting that however innovative Akhenaten‘s religion appears to be, the concept behind it had already given rise to this inscription thousands of years earlier.

Illustrated with several black-and-white photographs and line drawings of scenes from the Amarna tombs, Egypt’s Golden Couple is an enjoyable read that will interest anyone with an interest in this unique period of ancient Egyptian history.

You can read an article about the ‘Golden Couple’ by John and Colleen Darnell here.

Egypt’s Golden Couple: when Akhenaten and Nefertiti were Gods on Earth
by John Darnell and Colleen Darnell
The History Press, 2022
ISBN 978-1-2502-7287-4
Hardback, £25