Historical Figure of the Day- Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt : Mar 30, 2012
After Cleopatra, Nefertiti is Egypt’s most famous queen. Her remarkable beauty and the mystery of her sudden disappearance have captivated people for centuries. But for nearly 3500 years she was invisible. Contemporary Egyptian historians obliterated her name from the list of kings, and her city of Amarna was swallowed by the desert. Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten were branded heretics for their abandonment of Egypt’s pantheon of gods in favour of only one- the Aten, or sun god. Nefertiti, one of the most influential women in the ancient world and revered for most of her married life as a goddess, was sentenced to the most dreadful fate Egyptians could imagine: not to be remembered by posterity.
Nefertiti (literally, ‘a beautiful one is come’) was a daughter of the Egyptian elite. She lived during the late 18th dynasty and was born into the world’s sole superpower at that time. Egypt- vast, wealthy, and unchallenged, with its borders stretching from Nubia to Syria- was ruled by a strong, traditional pharaoh, Amenhotep III. The sophisticated court at Thebes attracted artisans, musicians, scribes, and intellectuals from all over the empire; Egypt, with its population of 4 million, was an empire at its zenith.
Nefertiti was still only in her early teens when she married the pharaoh’s second son, Amenhotep. By marrying her, the young prince Amenhotep followed the example set by his father. Rather than wed one of his numerous sisters or half-sisters (which was common practice in Egypt, to maintain the purity of the line) he chose instead, like his father, to marry a commoner.
Amenhotep never expected to inherit the throne, but when his older brother, Tuthmosis, died, he became his father’s heir. During the last years of his reign the elderly and now feeble pharaoh handed government over to his wife, Tiy. It was interesting for her son to observe the “King’s Great Wife” emerging from the shadows to exercise unlimited power. Did she set a precedent for her daughter-in-law, Nefertiti? When the pharaoh died in about 1353 BC, Amenhotep took the throne as Amenhotep IV. His 17-year reign was to be the most controversial in Egypt’s history.
A Single God
At his accession, Egyptians worshipped a pantheon of Gods. Amen, or Amen-Re, was chief among them and the numerous gods and goddesses offered solace and spiritual relief. In the fifth year of his reign Amenhotep broke with 20 centuries of tradition. He abandoned the pantheon of gods in favour of one obscure god, the Aten, or sun god. Amenhotep took the name Akhenaten, meaning ‘ one useful to Aten’, and abandoned Thebes for a glorious new city dedicated to the worship of his god. Traditional gods such as Amen, Mut and Khonsu were replaced by the triumvirate of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and the Aten. All references to Amen were ruthlessly obliterated. Scholars have ceaselessly debated Akhenaten’s motives. Some see him as self-serving, using his new religion to divert funds from the old priesthood to finance his new city, while others see him instead as a great visionary- the world’s first monotheist.
Akhenaten’s new capital, Akhetaten-“Horizon of the Aten”- is today known as Tell el-Amarna(or Amarna for short). Situated in the middle of Egypt on the banks of the River Nile, the site was not ideal, but for Akhenaten it was perfect because it was virgin land. This new city, ‘ the seat of the First Occasion’, was to be Aten’s city, dedicated to the new state religion. Did Nefertiti doubt the suitability of the site because of its distance from Egypt’s major cities? A tomb inscription shows Akhenaten making a rare complaint about his wife: “Neither shall the queen say unto me “behold there is a goodly place for Akhetaten in another place”… I will not say “I will abandon Akhetaten, I will hasten away and make Akhetaten in this other goodly place”.’
Despite Nefertiti’s protests, when the construction of Amarna finally came to an end after five years, the result was magnificent. Its palaces, great houses, fragrant gardens and rich tombs reflected the wealth of the empire, and by the ninth year of the reign it had become Egypt’s new capital. Resistance to the new religion was minimal, perhaps because of Akhenaten’s firm control over the military. He is shown everywhere surrounded by soldiers sworn to protect the new religion and its ‘high priest’- the pharaoh himself.
Akhenaten, who adored his wife, gave her the soubriquet Neferneferwaten, meaning ‘Exquisite Beauty of the Sun Disc’. Nefertiti became the embodiment of Egypt’s abandoned goddesses. In the monuments at Amarna we see her and her husband benefited equally from the light of the Aten. In her flimsy, transparent robe with exaggerated hips and stomach, she is the personification of fecundity. The ‘Great Royal Wife’ had become semi-divine. The Pharaoh’s boundless love for both his wife and the royal city he had built emerge clearly from a famous inscription on one of the boundary stelae at Amarna:
“A tomb shall be made for me in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten, and my burial shall be performed in it with a multitude of festivals which the Aten has ordered for me. If the Great Queen Nefertiti who lives, would die in any town of north, south, west or east, she shall be brought and buried at Akhetaten.”
The couple had six daughters, who are shown sitting on their parents’ laps or playing together in the scenes of happy domestic life that abound in Amarna. Because Nefertiti’s daughters ensured continuance of the royal line, the queen’s status increased with each child she bore. Akhenaten himself married at least two of his own offspring in order to maintain the purity of his lineage. Nefertiti probably enjoyed an almost equal reign with Akhenaten. Her image is everywhere; in places it appears alongside that of her mother-in-law, Tiy, with the two queens often depicted as sphinxes annihilating Egypt’s foes. Yet, while daughters were prized in Egypt, Nefertiti’s lack of sons meant that she could only enjoy her power for a limited time. She would not be a queen mother and if she outlived her husband her influence would wane. Akhenaten had to look elsewhere for sons.
Concubines, Celebrations, and Tragedy
The pharaoh maintained a large harem. One of his concubines whose name has come down to us was Kiya, who bore him at least one daughter and may well have been the mother of his two sons, Tutankhaten and Smenkhkare. Presently, to showcase his new city, Akhenaten organized a huge festival at Amarna, to which ambassadors from Libya, Nubia, the Near East and Mediterranean islands were all invited. Vivid scenes of the event adorn the tomb of Nefertiti’steward, Meryre II. But this is the last time we see the family together. In the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign tragedy struck the royal family. Nefertiti’s beloved eldest daughter, Mekataten, died when she was 12 years old. She was buried in her father’s tomb, where the scenes that portray the event are laden with grief. At the same time we lose sight of Kiya, Tiy, and the three youngest royal daughters. They probably died of the plague that devastated Egypt. Nefertiti also disappeared. There is no magnificent tomb to mark her passing to the land of the dead. What happened to the ‘Great King’s Wife’, his co-regent and Aten’s goddess?
Scholars have offered numerous theories: that the queen quarreled with Akhenaten and, disgraced, disappeared into exile,; that, grief-stricken, she abandoned the Aten in favour of Egypt’s traditional gods; that Akhenaten married their daughter, Meritaten, who replaced her ageing mother as a symbol of fertility: or that Nefertiti changed her name and became an official king alongside her husband. She enjoyed unprecedented status in Egypt: never had a pharaoh’s wife been so honoured, and it is possible that she succeeded Akhenaten to rule alone as pharaoh. Glimpses of an unknown woman appear throughout the decades in stone and statuary- she may have been Nefertiti. But we will never know.
Tutankhamen and the return to Thebes
Akhenaten had built a city to last forever, but it was only to survive for 30 years. After his death, his song, Smenkhkare (some scholars actually believe this was Nefertiti who had risen to rule alone as pharaoh), briefly took the throne. But when he died his younger brother, Tutankhamen, succeeded him. If Nefertiti was still alive and living in retirement or disgrace she may have hoped her line would continue- the new pharaoh was married to her daughter and his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten.
Tutankhamen soon abandoned Amarna and threw off the worship of the Aten. He changed his name ( he had been born Tutankhaten, in honour of the Aten) and returned the court to Thebes. Ankhesenpaaten also changed her name to Ankhesenamen. In an attempt to disassociate himself from the ‘heresy’ of his father and Nefertiti, all references to the Aten were obliterated as Tutankhamen returned to the old beliefs and re-opened the temples. Tutankhamen wished to portray himself as a strong, traditional pharaoh:
‘When his majesty arose as king, the temples of the gods and goddesses, beginning from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta had fallen into decay, their shrines had fallen into desolation and become ruins overgrown with weeds, their chapels as though they had never been and their halls serving as footpaths. The land was topsy-turvy and the gods had turned their backs on the land.’
Throughout his reign he associated himself with his grandfather, Amenhotep III, in an attempt to distance himself from his now universally unpopular father.
Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen had two stillborn daughters. When the pharaoh died his elderly mentor, Ay, took the throne. Ay was succeeded by Tutankhamen’s general Horemheb. Horemheb, who married Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnodjmet, obliterated the names of Nefertiti, Akhenaten and his sons from lists of kings and wiped their names from temples and statues. It was as if ‘the heretics’ had not existed. They were forgotten for nearly 3500 years.
Nefertiti’s name first became known to modern scholars from hieroglyphic inscriptions discovered in 1824 during excavations at the lost city of Akhetaten. On a later dig at the same site, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt unearthed the famous bust of the former queen, about which the historian J. Baikie wrote in 1926:
‘ The portraits of other queens of romance, such as Cleopatra and Mary of Scotland, are apt to leave one wondering where the charm came in, about which all men raved, but no one could question for a moment the beauty of Nefertiti. Features of exquisite modeling and delicacy, the long graceful neck of an Italian princess of the Renaissance and an expression of gentleness not untouched with melancholy make up the presentation of a royal lady about whom we should like to know a great deal and actually know almost nothing.’
*Taken from Queen, Empress, Concubine by Claudia Gold.
April Issue of BBC HIST MAG OUT : Mar 28, 2012
Yes!! And the cover looks great!
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