Nefertiti is one of the most fascinating Egyptian rulers in history. She was a queen, but also a priestess - and might have even been a pharaoh. She and her husband, Amenhotep IV (AKA Akhenaten), tossed out the old gods and set up the sun as god in the form of Aten. This didn’t go over well with everyone, but it did give the couple absolute power over their subjects.
In her 14 years of rule, Queen Nefertiti was held in high regard by her husband, her royal subjects, and Thutmose, the sculptor who famously captured her face. Nefertiti was depicted as wearing the crown of a pharaoh, and may have ruled as one after her husband’s death while King Tut was preparing to rule.
When she vanishes from scrolls, inscriptions, and other depictions, historians have varying views on what happened to Queen Nefertiti. Did she change her name and become the mysterious Smenkhare, a co-regent ruling singularly or alongside King Tut? Or did she simply die? History was erased in part due to the angry successors to Akhenaten’s reign. And artifacts may have been looted or moved.
Archeologists have been searching for Nefertiti’s tomb for decades, and may have discovered her mummy. After more than three thousand years, Queen Nefertiti still holds historians and history buffs spellbound. Who was Nefertiti? Wife, mother, queen, beauty icon, punisher, pharaoh? There's plenty to learn about this fascinating Egyptian female leader.
Because Nefertiti is depicted with a pharaoh’s crown, some archeologists believe she was seen as Akhenaten’s equal and had the powers of a pharaoh. She may have even ruled as a pharaoh after the death of her husband and before the reign of King Tutankhamun, under the name Djeserkheperure Smenkhare.
In any case, inscriptions depict a queen who is both involved in and in charge of the royal court. She was also considered a high priestess, allowing the faithful access to the god Aten through her.
One of the most famous depictions of Nefertiti shows her with one blank eye, considered a blight on an otherwise beautiful face. There exists varying speculation about the circumstances that led to the blank eye, which include the theory that the queen possessed a natural fold of skin over the eye (not uncommon in the region). The blank eye could also be designed as a insult, or could simply be the result of damage that occurred over the years.
By far the most entertaining theory, however, is that Thutmose, the artist who made the bust, fell in love with Nefertiti. After his advances were rebuffed, the theory goes, he left the eye blank as a symbol of her inability to see the true nature of the artist's love.
Nefertiti married Amenhotep IV when she was 15 years old. They had six daughters and possibly one son, and ruled Egypt as equals in the mid 1300s BC.
The power couple changed Egypt drastically by designating the sun itself as the new god, and making it the center of political and religious structure, replacing the god Amen with Aten. They created a new capital, Akhet-Aten, over 200 miles north of Thebes. This didn’t sit well with all the people, but they didn’t have much of a choice. Defying the pharaoh could result in death, and the couple made themselves the only priests through which citizens could access Aten.
The couple eventually changed their names. Amenhotep became Akhenaten and Nefertiti (whose original name meant “a beautiful woman has come”) became Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti or "beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a beautiful woman has come." Both names helped solidify Aten as the new principal god.
In 2015, archeologist Dr. Nicholas Reeves believed he discovered a secret, larger room behind Tutankhamun’s smaller tomb. Using scans, what seemed to be a hidden tomb was revealed, prompting Reeves to posit it belonged to Nefertiti.
The discovery could have confirmed theories about Nefertiti’s true place within Egyptian history - like her being Tut’s mother and even the royal with the higher pedigree. Perhaps Nefertiti ruled as the boy king’s co-regent after the death of Akhenaten. Reeves suggests that Nefertiti may have been interred first, with the door to her chamber plastered and painted over.
"If I'm wrong, I'm wrong," Reeves said. "But if I'm right, the prospects are frankly staggering.” Some historians suggest that Nefertiti’s tomb and trappings were used for the burial of King Tut or that she was hidden in Tut’s tomb so that enemies of her husband, Akhenaten, wouldn’t find her.
Regardless of what may have occurred during Nefertiti's lifetime, her death did not see her placed in a secret tomb behind Tut's. In 2018, researchers confirmed that not only was Nefertiti not buried behind King Tut's tomb, but that Reeves's theoretical room didn't even exist.