Who was Queen Nefertiti?

Since our recent article on the discovery of the Pharaoh King Tutankhamen’s tomb, there has been news of another potentially huge find, in a previously undiscovered adjoining chamber.

Over recent months, the British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves has been studying scans of the tomb of Tutankhamen, and by chance, in so doing may also have solved some of the mysteries of the Pharaoh Queen, Nefertiti. He has proposed that the new chamber, which his scanning revealed, could be the missing tomb of Nefertiti. If this proves to be true, it would be the most astounding archaeological find since Howard Carter uncovered Tutankhamen in 1922.

Queen Nefertiti was the wife of King Akhenaton, also known as Pharaoh Amenhotep IV. Akhenaton ruled Egypt between 1353–36 BC, with Nefertiti at his side. They had six daughters, one of whom, Ankhesenpaaten, became the Queen of Tutankhamen.

Nefertiti, whose name means “a beautiful woman has come,” played a major role in the religious beliefs of the time, and helped her husband establish the cult of Aten, the sun god. This religious mythology defined Aten, the sun, as the only god worthy of worship in Egypt’s polytheistic society. Historians believe that Nefertiti and her husband established themselves as the cult’s priests, and that it was only through them that ordinary citizens could obtain access to Aten.

The royal family lived in the specially built city of Akhetaton (modern el-Amarna), in honour of their god. The city held many open-air temples, with the palace at the very centre. Nefertiti promoted a style of Egyptian artwork in her city that was radically different from its predecessors.

Nefertiti was perhaps one of the most powerful women ever to have ruled. Unusually, her husband considered her his equal. In several works of art, Nefertiti is wearing the crown of a pharaoh or smiting her enemies in battle. The bust of Nefertiti is one of the most iconic symbols of Egypt.

Even though she wielded great power, Queen Nefertiti disappeared from all works of art and wall painting depictions after only 12 years. The reason for her disappearance has been a matter of debate for a long time. Some scholars believe she died, while others speculate she was elevated to the status of co-regent, with a power equal to the pharaoh, and consequently began to dress as a man. Other historians suggest that Nefertiti became known as Pharaoh Smenkhkare, who governed Egypt after her husband’s death, or that perhaps she was exiled when the worship of Aten became less popular than the veneration of the god Amen-Ra.

Perhaps, if this truly is the Queen’s final resting place, we will soon be able to see some physical evidence that tells us what became of her.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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