BBC History Magazine

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?

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

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.

The birth of Tut-mania

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.

Divine children

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

Nefertiti’s bust fitted perfectly with the art deco style that had come to embody postwar opulence and glamour

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.

The vanishing queen

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.

Breasts and wide hips

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 queen-consort, 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.

Could Nefertiti have ruled Egypt either as a solo king or as a regent, before Tutankhamu­n came to the throne?

 ??  ?? She’s got the look Ever since Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in a workshop in the royal city of Amarna 106 years ago, Egyptologi­sts have been trying to unravel the mystery of the real woman behind the hauntingly beautiful portrayal
She’s got the look Ever since Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in a workshop in the royal city of Amarna 106 years ago, Egyptologi­sts have been trying to unravel the mystery of the real woman behind the hauntingly beautiful portrayal
 ??  ?? 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
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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