by Khadija Tauseef
When one thinks of love, an Egyptian couple comes to mind, one of the most controversial couples in history. The heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten, and his beautiful queen, Nefertiti. Theirs is a story filled with revolution and rebirth, as Akhenaten began a new chapter in Egyptian history, leading a revolution that shook the very foundations of his country. His reign was filled with opposition and turmoil, however, throughout this difficult time, Nefertiti stood by her husband’s side. Their story may not be like the traditional love stories that we are used to. They changed the religious landscape of Egypt, even building a new city in the desert, where the couple ruled together, equally.
Akhenaten was the youngest son of the great pharaoh, Amenhotep III. Kept in the background, his older siblings were granted titles befitting their regal status, while Akhenaten was given none. As a child, one can imagine the toll, such actions would have had on the young prince. Destiny intervened when his older brother and heir to the throne, died and he was crowned the next heir apparent. With so much to prove, he needed a wife to support him in all that he did. The woman who became the main consort of Akhenaten was Nefertiti, but the queen’s origins are shrouded in mystery.
The one with the most acceptance is the theory that suggests she was the daughter of Ay, a Noble Egyptian advisor. Ay would go on to rule Egypt after the death of the boy king, Tutankhamun. Another known theory suggests that she was either a cousin or sister of Akhenaten. Within Egyptian culture, it was common practice for siblings to wed in the Royal family. However, there is another theory that says that she may have been a Mitanni princess, named Tadukhipa. The name Nefertiti means “the beautiful one has come,” so it could be an indication that she was a foreign princess.
Whatever her origins may have been, one cannot ignore her firm presence beside her husband.
The art that depicts the couple shows them always tenderly loving one another, in some they are even shown kissing. This level of tenderness had never been seen before in Egyptian art. The Pharaoh was always shown as a strong, perfect figure, more god-like than human. Often if the wife was seen alongside the pharaoh, they were always in a very submissive position. Usually, their statues or images would be very small compared to her husband-pharaoh.
Traditionally, the Egyptian sun god had been shown with the body of a human, a falcon’s head, and a sun disc. On the walls, the sun god would always be seen from the side; therefore, only one person could face the god at any given time, traditionally it was the Egyptian pharaoh. However, during the Amarna period that changed, now the king and queen were supposed to benefit equally from the sun god. Thus, Akhenaten removed the body of the sun god, and turned it around to the front, so that both the king and the queen would benefit from the sun’s rays.
Akhenaten’s radical changes were met with strict opposition and his life may have even been threatened, due to which the couple decided to build a city away from the influences of the old religion. Brier and Hobbs explain the situation in their book, ‘Ancient Egypt’:
“Finally, in a truly revolutionary move, Akhenaten decided that his god was the only god and that he could not worship his god in a place where other, false gods were celebrated. He moved his entire court to a desolate location in the middle of Egypt…There he built a large city from scratch—Akhenaten, the “Horizon of the Aten”—complete with housing projects for workmen and government functionaries, temples, and a magnificent palace.”B. Brier and A. Hobbs
Here Akhenaten and Nefertiti were unhindered by the shackles of the past and were free to build their faith as they saw fit. When they established the city of Amarna, twelve years into his reign, he held a very public coronation. Joann Fletcher writes about this celebration:
“Since Akhenaten had already been king for twelve years, it is not unreasonable to suppose that this grand event marked Nefertiti’s elevation to full co-regent when she took the new name ‘Ankhkheperura Neferneferuaten’. She is shown in the same kingly crown and regalia as her husband, the two of them enthroned beside each other so closely that their profiles almost form a single kingly entity, their hands entwined. The vacancy of the queen was now filled by their eldest daughter, following the earlier precedent set by Hatshepsut.”Joann Fletcher
There is evidence in Amarna, that Akhenaten had commissioned a tomb to be built, which would house the remains of all his family. In 1336 B.C., with the death of Akhenaten, his revolution came to an end. But Nefertiti’s love didn’t stop, she took an active part in the burial process of her husband. As Joann Fletcher writes in her book, ‘The story of Egypt’:
“Akhenaten’s mummified body was then interred in Amarna’s Royal tomb, inside a sarcophagus carved with his names and those of the Aten, while on each corner stood Nefertiti, stretching out her arms to give maximum protection to the dead pharaoh. Nefertiti’s name is the one found most often within the tomb, suggesting that she had been responsible for her husband’s burial before embarking on a reign that may have lasted little more than a year or two.”Joann Fletcher
The fate of Queen Nefertiti remains a mystery because, after her death, every mention of the royal couple was erased from the Egyptian pantheon. They worked together to build and sustain their religion, even creating a city; that focused solely on the Aten cult. Akhenaten wasn’t shy about showing his love for his wife and daughters. Nefertiti was the only wife who shared the limelight with her husband, his other wives simply stayed in the backdrop. A power couple that tried to reshape Egypt according to their own beliefs. Their legacy lives on, as history is once more beginning to shed light on the reign.
About the Author
My name is Khadija Tauseef, I am a historian with a passion for writing. I try to make history interesting for people to read and take more interest in. After all in order to change the world we must learn from history.