Bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC), the Great Royal Wife (chief consort) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Lady of Interest: Nefertiti Was no Pharaoh, Says Renowned Egyptologist

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The bust of Nefertiti is one of the most iconic artifacts from ancient Egypt and the lady herself probably ranks second only to Cleopatra among the most famous queens of the Nile. As such she is often believed to have been one of the most powerful queens, perhaps even holding the position of pharaoh for a time. However, contrary to popular opinion, one of the most famous women in ancient history did not rule Egypt, according to a new book.

The Plaster Face of Egypt

Dr Joyce Tyldesley , an Egyptologist from The University of Manchester, says Queen Nefertiti was just one of a series of powerful queens who played an influential role in Egyptian history.

It was, argues Dr Tyldesley, the beauty of her famous limestone and plaster sculpture - reportedly Hitler’s favorite piece of ancient art - which propelled her into the public spotlight after it was put on public display in 1923.

Iconic Nefertiti bust in Berlin.

Iconic Nefertiti bust in Berlin. ( CC BY 2.0 )

It was then that Egyptologists began – wrongly says Dr Tyldesley - to argue that she was unusually powerful, and maybe even that she ruled Egypt.

The book - Nefertiti's Face: the Creation of an Icon , published by Profile Books this week (25 January) – tells the story of the famous sculpture from its creation to its display today in Berlin.

The Enchanting Nefertiti Bust

The bust of the Queen – who was married to the Pharaoh king Akhenaten – was found in 1912 by German excavator Ludwig Borchardt in an ancient workshop which was once part of a house and studio complex belonging to the sculptor Thutmose.

It is now kept at the Neues Museum in Berlin, though Egypt has requested its return.

The missing left eye probably fell out while Borchardt’s team was excavating it, says Dr Tyldesley in a University of Manchester press release .

But Dr Tyldesley has not fallen for the tarnished charms of this splendid representation.

“Though most people and many Egyptologists believe Nefertiti was an unusually powerful royal woman, and possibly even a pharaoh, I believe this was not the case.”

A house altar showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten.

A house altar showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten. ( Public Domain )

Despite the doubts of Dr Tyldesley, at least one of Nefertiti’s contemporaries seemed to hold her as a special lady above all others. According to a previous Ancient Origins article , her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, bestowed her with many titles, including: Great Royal Wife,  Hereditary Princess, Great of Praises, Lady of Grace, Sweet of Love, Lady of The Two Lands, Great King’s Wife, Lady of all Women, and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Nefertiti was known for being very beautiful, and her name means “the beautiful one has come.” The article goes on to claim, “Akhenaten considered her to be an equal counterpart, and went to great lengths to ensure that others saw her as such. She is shown in reliefs smiting her enemies in battle, or wearing the pharaoh crown.”

But however highly regarded she was by her husband or others, Tyldesley does not accept that she could properly have held the status of pharaoh, due to her ancestry which is believed to be far from royal class. Although the details are uncertain, she is thought to have originated from an Egyptian town called Akhmim, with her highest status relative being a high official called Ay. This fact would preclude her from being kinged, Tyldesley contests.

“She wasn’t born a royal, and for a non-royal woman to become king would have been unprecedented. Her daughter Meritaten, however, was indeed born a royal – and so is a more likely candidate for pharaoh, if anyone is.”

Dr Tyldesley went on to describe how limited the opportunity for the queen to rule in her own right was in the recorded historical timeline:

“Her husband Akhenaten died around 1336 BC; Tutankhamun - who was possibly Nefertiti’s son - became pharaoh in approximately 1336 BC. It has been argued that Nefertiti ruled Egypt, filling in this gap and perhaps influencing the early reign of Tutankhamen.”


I'm surprised that the Queen's appearance has not been commented on more, in that her face seems to me to be Asiatic. Her delicate beauty would not be out of place in the Forbidden City, or is that just me?

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