Has the World Been Blinded by Ne­fer­titi’s Beauty?

Ne­fer­titi’s be­guil­ing bust has to­day made her one of the most widely recog­nised fig­ures of the an­cient world. But, asks Joyce Tyldes­ley, do this Egyp­tian queen’s ac­com­plish­ments 3,000 years ago re­ally merit her mod­ern-day ac­claim?

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - Joyce Tyldes­ley teaches on­line Egyp­tol­ogy courses at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. Her book Ne­fer­titi’s Face: The Cre­ation of an Icon is pub­lished this month by Pro­file

Was there true merit to this Egyp­tian queen’s ac­com­plish­ments 3000 years ago? Joyce Tyldes­ley ex­plores Ger­man bomb­ing of Bri­tain from 1940-45


In 1333 BC the young Egyp­tian king Tu­tankhamun de­cided to aban­don the royal city of Amarna. The sculp­tor Thut­mose, su­per­vi­sor of a large work­shop spe­cial­is­ing in the pro­duc­tion of royal images, was a man en­tirely de­pen­dent on royal pa­tron­age. He had lit­tle choice but to pack up his tools and fol­low his king. Thut­mose sailed away from Amarna, leav­ing be­hind a city filled with royal sculp­tures and a store­room crammed with un­wanted works of art.

Not long after his de­par­ture, the city’s sculp­tures were vi­ciously at­tacked by those op­posed to the Amarna regime, and many of the stat­ues were re­duced to frag­ments. The store­room, how­ever, re­mained un­touched. Here, on 6 and 7 De­cem­ber 1912, a Ger­man ar­chae­o­log­i­cal team led by Lud­wig Bor­chardt dis­cov­ered more than 50 pieces, in­clud­ing a star­tlingly life­like bust of a queen. The woman was un­la­belled, but she wore the unique flat-topped blue crown that iden­ti­fied her as Ne­fer­titi, con­sort to Tu­tankhamun’s pre­de­ces­sor, Akhen­aten.

Ne­fer­titi’s bust had been carved from lime­stone, then cov­ered with a layer of gyp­sum plas­ter, which al­lowed Thut­mose or one of his work­men to cre­ate the fine def­i­ni­tion of the mus­cles and ten­dons in her neck, to add creases around her mouth and un­der the eyes, and to em­pha­sise her cheek­bones. Paint then gave Ne­fer­titi a smooth pink-brown skin, deeper red-brown lips, arched black brows and a colour­ful flo­ral col­lar en­cir­cling her slen­der neck. Her right eye was cre­ated from rock crys­tal; her left eye is miss­ing.


As beau­ti­ful as it un­doubt­edly was, Ne­fer­titi’s bust wasn’t the most sig­nif­i­cant dis­cov­ery made by an Egyp­tol­o­gist in the early 20th cen­tury. That ac­co­lade must go to Howard Carter who, in Novem­ber 1922, un­earthed the burial place of Tu­tankhamun. This was the only near-in­tact tomb to have been found in the Val­ley of the Kings, and it was packed with pre­cious grave goods. Carter’s spec­tac­u­lar dis­cov­ery came at a time when the western world was still reel­ing from the First World War and the flu pan­demic that fol­lowed it. A de­sire for fun and dis­trac­tion ex­isted along­side an in­creased in­ter­est in re­li­gion and the oc­cult, and Egyp­tol­ogy was sud­denly the height of fash­ion. ‘Tut-ma­nia’ had been born.

Within months of the dis­cov­ery of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb, Ne­fer­titi’s bust (which had been moved to Ger­many in 1912) went on dis­play in Ber­lin’s Neues Mu­seum. The bust fit­ted per­fectly with the art deco style that was start­ing to em­body post­war op­u­lence and glam­our. Ne­fer­titi had a dis­con­cert­ingly mod­ern ap­pear­ance, yet she was the cre­ation of a sculp­tor who had lived and died more than 3,000 years ago. Am­ple pub­lic­ity en­sured that long queues of ad­mir­ers ar­rived daily at the mu­seum. This, of course, re­sulted in yet more pub­lic­ity and even longer queues. As Tu­tankhamun re­mained frus­trat­ingly in­vis­i­ble, sealed in his coffins in the Val­ley of the Kings, replica Ne­fer­ti­tis left Ber­lin to travel the western world. Soon, Ne­fer­titi had be­come Egypt’s most fa­mil­iar queen: an ac­knowl­edged an­cient world beauty.

Why does Ne­fer­titi’s bust ap­peal to so many of us? Is it sim­ply be­cause, after a cen­tury of be­ing told that it is beau­ti­ful, we ex­pect to find it so? Or is there a more sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion? Many of us find sym­met­ri­cal faces at­trac­tive – and Ne­fer­titi’s is cer­tainly that.

De­fined by her flat-topped crown, Ne­fer­titi quickly passed into pop­u­lar cul­ture as an ex­otic and pow­er­ful woman. Her image, of­ten re­duced to a sil­hou­ette, has been used to sell a wide range of luxurious prod­ucts, while her crown has as­sumed a rich cul­tural after­life of its very own. In the 1935 film The Bride of Franken­stein, Elsa Lanch­ester’s hair was sub­jected to the highly fash­ion­able Mar­cel wave, then stretched over a wire frame to cre­ate a mod­ern ver­sion of the crown, with a white light­en­ing bolt on each side. This hairstyle was later copied by Ma­genta the cas­tle maid, in the 1975 film ver­sion of the

Rocky Hor­ror Show. By the end of the

20th cen­tury, Ne­fer­titi had made a con­sid­er­able cul­tural im­pact.

But there’s a down­side to our mod­ern ob­ses­sion with Ne­fer­titi’s bust – and that’s its power to dis­tort our un­der­stand­ing of the past. Thut­mose’s be­guil­ing work of art has made Ne­fer­titi a ma­jor player in our mod­ern per­cep­tion of an­cient Egypt. But does that mean that she ac­tu­ally was a ma­jor player as a flesh-and-blood hu­man be­ing 3,000 years ago?

We have more images of Ne­fer­titi than any other Egyp­tian queen-con­sort, which sug­gests, to some peo­ple, that the an­swer to the ques­tion is yes. Surely, they ar­gue, this proves that there was some­thing ex­cep­tional about her. Oth­ers have coun­tered that the abun­dance of images is sim­ply a re­sult of large quan­ti­ties of Amarna art be­ing pre­served in the aban­doned royal city.

Nei­ther ar­gu­ment wins the day de­ci­sively. For me, it seems that the only way we can estab­lish if there truly was some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary about Ne­fer­titi is to re­con­sider what we know about her life.

Un­for­tu­nately, most of that life re­mains shrouded in dark­ness. What we do know is that Ne­fer­titi was the chief wife of the ‘heretic king’ Akhen­aten, and that she bore him six daugh­ters. Akhen­aten ruled Egypt at a time of un­prece­dented wealth and power from ap­prox­i­mately 1353–1336 BC. He built the city of Amarna, and ded­i­cated it to the wor­ship of one so­lar god, the Aten.


Like all of Egypt’s con­sorts, Ne­fer­titi was ef­fec­tively the king’s deputy. We have images of her ‘smit­ing’ or ex­e­cut­ing the en­e­mies of Egypt, a role nor­mally re­served for kings.

Her re­li­gious role is less easy to de­fine, but we know that she played a prom­i­nent part in the cult of Aten. It is rare to see a woman act­ing as the pri­mary con­tact with a god, yet Ne­fer­titi is shown mak­ing of­fer­ings in a fe­male-only tem­ple. It seems likely that she was more than a con­duit be­tween mankind and the divine. As Akhen­aten’s so­lar re­li­gion elim­i­nated Egypt’s tra­di­tional gods, it al­lowed the king and queen to take their place. To all in­tents and pur­poses, Akhen­aten and Ne­fer­titi be­came the divine chil­dren of the Aten.

Can we con­clude from this that Ne­fer­titi was in­deed ex­cep­tional among Egypt’s con­sorts? First we need to con­sider the role played by her for­mi­da­ble mother-in-law, and wife of Amen­hotep III, Queen Tiy. At the turn of the last cen­tury, be­fore the dis­cov­ery of her bust, Ne­fer­titi was com­pletely over­shad­owed by her for­mi­da­ble pre­de­ces­sor. Tiy, it was ac­cepted, de­vel­oped the role of the po­lit­i­cally ac­tive con­sort and queen mother. Ne­fer­titi merely fol­lowed her lead.

Tiy, like Ne­fer­titi, main­tained a high public pro­file through­out her mar­riage. She was de­picted along­side her hus­band on public mon­u­ments and in pri­vate tombs, and her name was linked with his on in­scrip­tions and in diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dence. Tiy was closely iden­ti­fied with the so­lar god­desses Maat and Hathor. In the The­ban tomb of the courtier Kheruef, we can see Tiy sail­ing, god­like, along­side the so­lar god Re, and we can see her sit­ting on a throne that bears an image of the queen as a hu­man-headed sphinx, tram­pling two fe­male pris­on­ers. Out­side Egypt, at the Nu­bian tem­ple of Sedeinga, Tiy was wor­shipped as a form of the god­dess Hathor-Tefnut.

Clearly, both Tiy and Ne­fer­titi were al­lo­cated re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal power, with Tiy (who was men­tioned in diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dence) per­haps more prom­i­nent in the po­lit­i­cal sphere, and Ne­fer­titi (who made of­fer­ings in tem­ples) win­ning in the realm of re­li­gion. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – nei­ther woman ever demon­strated a power that was equal to, or higher than, their king. Can we re­ally state that Ne­fer­titi was uniquely pow­er­ful? On this ev­i­dence, no.


Much of the de­bate around Ne­fer­titi’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism – or lack of it – cen­tres on her later years. What be­came of her when her hus­band, Akhen­aten, died? Did she flour­ish, or fade into ob­scu­rity?

Our last dated view of Ne­fer­titi comes from the Amarna tomb of the courtier Meryre II. Here a wall scene shows the royal fam­ily en­joy­ing a fes­ti­val dur­ing Akhen­aten’s reg­nal year 12. Our last dated ref­er­ence to Ne­fer­titi comes four years later, when a barely leg­i­ble graf­fito men­tions the “Great King’s Wife Ne­fer­titi”. As Akhen­aten’s fi­nal recorded reg­nal year is year 17, it seems that Ne­fer­titi was alive and per­form­ing the nor­mal con­sort’s du­ties shortly be­fore her hus­band’s death.

How­ever, the graf­fito was only dis­cov­ered and pub­lished in 2012. For many years prior to its pub­li­ca­tion, Egyp­tol­o­gists had be­lieved that Ne­fer­titi van­ished soon after her hus­band’s reg­nal year 12. This should not have been a prob­lem. Egyp­tian his­tory is rife with van­ish­ing queens. We don’t usu­ally seek to find these women; we as­sume that they have ei­ther died or re­tired from public life. But, such has been the im­pact of Ne­fer­titi’s bust upon our imag­i­na­tions, we have re­fused to ac­cept that she could have died or re­tired with­out any­one com­mem­o­rat­ing the fact.

Re­luc­tant to lose sight of Ne­fer­titi, Egyp­tol­o­gists de­vel­oped a com­pli­cated se­ries of sce­nar­ios based on the as­sump­tion that Ne­fer­titi had been ban­ished from Amarna. This has since been dis­proved.

The 1970s saw the de­vel­op­ment of a more plau­si­ble the­ory. Philol­o­gist John Har­ris sug­gested that Ne­fer­titi had trans­formed her­self into a fe­male king to rule along­side Akhen­aten as a co-re­gent. After Akhen­aten’s death, Har­ris pro­posed, she may have ruled Egypt ei­ther as a solo king or as a re­gent, be­fore Tu­tankhamun came to the throne.


This the­ory is sup­ported by a cer­tain amount of in­di­rect, in­con­clu­sive ev­i­dence. For ex­am­ple, a gilded stat­uette in­cluded among Tu­tankhamun’s grave goods shows a crowned royal fig­ure with breasts and wide hips. Some ex­perts have in­ter­preted this as a stat­uette orig­i­nally in­tended for a fe­male ruler: a piece cre­ated for King Ne­fer­titi, re­pur­posed by Tu­tankhamun.

It’s an al­lur­ing hy­poth­e­sis but it’s se­ri­ously flawed. And that’s be­cause it seems that

Ne­fer­titi was suc­ceeded as queen-con­sort by her el­dest daugh­ter, Mer­i­taten. If any­one was in a po­si­tion to act as Tu­tankhamun’s re­gent, it was surely the daugh­ter, not the mother whom she had re­placed.

Let’s re­turn to the Amarna tomb of Meryre II. Here an in­com­plete scene shows a king and queen il­lu­mi­nated by the rays of the god Aten. The queen is Mer­i­taten, stand­ing be­sides her hus­band, the short-lived pharaoh Smenkhkare. Fur­ther ev­i­dence of Mer­i­taten’s sta­tus is pro­vided by a car­touche, declar­ing her to be “King’s Great Wife Mer­i­taten”. So, if we are seek­ing a pow­er­ful fe­male oper­at­ing at the end of the Amarna Pe­riod – per­fectly placed to serve along­side her hus­band – it is to Mer­i­taten, not Ne­fer­titi, to whom we should look.

Ne­fer­titi is fre­quently in­cluded on the list of Egypt’s kings. Yet we don’t have a sin­gle image or frag­ment of text to prove that she was ever any­thing other than a prom­i­nent queen­con­sort, one of a line of pow­er­ful royal wives in­clud­ing her mother-in-law Tiy, and her daugh­ter Mer­i­taten. Would we have de­vel­oped our fas­ci­na­tion with Ne­fer­titi, and our de­ter­mi­na­tion to see her as some­how spe­cial, with­out the dis­cov­ery of her haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful bust? It is im­pos­si­ble to say, but it seems un­likely.


SHE’S GOT THE LOOK Ever since Ne­fer­titi’s bust was dis­cov­ered in a work­shop in the royal city of Amarna106 years ago, Egyp­tol­o­gists have been try­ing to un­ravel the mys­tery of the real woman be­hindthe haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful por­trayal

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Vis­i­tors crowd around a bust of Ne­fer­titi in Wies­baden, Ger­many, 1954. This strik­ingly mod­ern vis­age,cre­ated by a sculp­tor 3,000 years ago, cap­ti­vated peo­ple around the world

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