Lady of Interest: Nefertiti Was no Pharaoh, Says Renowned Egyptologist
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
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.
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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.”
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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.”
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Nefertiti and Akhenaten 1345 BC – a less highly crafted likeness, perhaps. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Elevated Through Art
The Egyptologist thinks that the beauty of the bust is what has led to Nefertiti being elevated to such a high status today. She explains, “it’s a beautiful work of art which seems to cast its spell on anyone who looks at it.”
Regarding the issue of whether the original piece is genuine she fervently rejects claims of forgery. “Some have claimed it’s a fake but they are completely wrong. I have no doubt the object on display in Germany is the real thing; it’s truly remarkable.”
“Soon after it went on display in 1923, replica busts were made and circulated, in a sophisticated PR operation that has been going on ever since, helping to establish today’s cult.”
And part of the beauty of the piece is put down to its universal appeal. “The sculpture’s admirers tend to see their own cultures and interests reflected in her image; Hitler, for example, presumably saw her as Aryan.
Perhaps Not Quite an Average Egyptian Queen
Current perceptions of the queen are not completely dependent on the most famous sculpture of the queen, although this extra-ordinary artifact is what has elevated her status today. There are many other representations that seem to indicate her power. Both the size in relation to other figures and the way in which she is depicted points to higher than average status. And there are alsp the instances of her actually wearing the pharaoh crown. Such issues are presumably considered in the book and hopefully some of the many questions that surround this lady of interest will be answered.
The Wilbour Plaque, Brooklyn Museum. Nefertiti is shown nearly as large as her husband, indicating her importance. Image: Brooklyn Museum .
Ultimately, Dr Tyldesley seems to indicate that we might need to check our own prejudices in this instance.
“But just because she is Egypt’s most famous and powerful queen in our world does not mean she was Egypt’s famous and powerful queen in her world.”
Dr Tyldesley will be giving a free talk and launching the book on Thursday 25 January, 6pm at Manchester Museum. For more details, click here.
Top image: Bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC), the Great Royal Wife (chief consort) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. ( CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )
Source: University of Manchester. ‘ Nefertiti was no pharaoh, says renowned Egyptologist’ . University of Manchester Release . University of Manchester , 22 January 2018.
By Gary Manners