Nefertiti could possibly have been the daughter of Ay, a top adviser who would become pharaoh following King Tut’s death in 1323 B.C. A different theory suggests Nefertiti was a princess from the Mittani kingdom in northern Syria. When he ascended the throne in Thebes as Amenhotep IV, Nefertiti was her husband’s Great Royal Wife (favoured consort). During the fifth year of his reign, he dislodged Egypt’s chief god Amon in favour of Aten, made the capitol Amarna in the north and changed his name to Akhenaten, with Nefertiti adopting the additional name “Neferneferuaten” – the meaning of her full name being “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a Beautiful Woman has come.”
The transformation of religion by Akhenaten brought with it progressive changes in artistic conventions. Moving from the idealized images of previous pharaohs, Akhenaten is often depicted with exaggerated features and feminine hips. Early images of Nefertiti illustrate a stereotypical young woman, but in later images she is almost a mirror image of Akhenaten. Her final images reveal a realistic but regal figure.
On the walls of temples and tombs built during Akhenaten’s rule, Nefertiti is depicted beside her husband with a frequency seen for no other queen of Egypt. In many instances she is shown in positions of authority and power – smiting an enemy, driving a chariot or leading worship of Aten.
Akhenaten started taking other wives after Nefertiti had given birth to six daughters, including his own sister, with whom he fathered the future King Tutankhamen. Ankhesenpaaten, the third daughter of Nefertiti, would eventually become Tutankhamen’s (her half-brother’s) queen.
Nefertiti as a possible ruler
Around the 12th year of Akhenaten’s 17-year rule, Nefertiti disappears from the historical record. She may have died then, but it is possible she became Akhenaten’s official co-regent under the name Neferneferuaten. As pharaoh, Akhenaten was followed by Smenkhkare, who some historians suggest could have been another name for Nefertiti. This would not have been without a prior case: The female pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt in the appearance of a man in the 15th century B.C, complete with a ceremonial false beard.
If it is true that Nefertiti held on to power during and beyond her husband’s last years, it is possible she started the reversal of Akhenaten’s religious policies that would reach fruition during King Tut’s reign. Neferneferuaten at one point employed a scribe to make divine offerings to Amon, asking for him to come back and dispel the darkness of the kingdom.
The Bust of Nefertiti
A team led by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered a sculpture on December 6, 1913, buried upside down in the sandy rubble on the sandy floor of the workshop of Thutmose – the royal sculptor – in Amarna. The painted figure had a slender neck, a curious blue cylindrical headpiece of a style only observed in images of Nefertiti, and a gracefully proportioned face. Borchadt’s team had a deal to divide its artifacts with the Egyptian government, so the bust was shipped as Germany’s portion of the artifacts. A poor, single photograph was published in an archaeological journal and the bust was given to Jacques Simon, the expedition’s funder, who displayed it for 11 years in his private residence.
Howard Carter, British Egyptologist, discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. An eruption of global attention followed, and the image of King Tut’s solid gold funerary mask was soon an international symbol of wealth, beauty and power.
The bust of Nefertiti was put on display in Berlin a year later, countering the “English” Tut with a German version of ancient glamour. The bust of Nefertiti remained in German hands throughout the 20th century’s upheavals. It was admired by Hitler, concealed from Allied bombs in a salt mine and craved by East Germany throughout the Cold War. Presently it attracts over 500,000 visitors each year to Berlin’s Neues Museum.