How Nefertiti, Ancient Egypt's Revolutionary Queen, Became a Global Icon
Now known for her beauty, in ancient times, Nefertiti kickstarted religious reform, presided over a cultural revolution, and may well have ruled Egypt in her own right.
Beyonce in Lemonade (L); the bust of Nefertiti,
It was a sunny afternoon in December, 1912, and a team of archaeologists from the German Oriental Company was excavating Amarna, a long-forgotten Egyptian city on the banks of the Nile river. The team was in pursuit of hidden treasures beneath the hot desert sands. But none of them, not least the supervisor in charge of the dig, Ludwig Borchardt, could have anticipated the wonders that awaited.
From the depths of the 3000-year-old ghost town came the ruins of a structure. It was the workshop of the celebrated court sculptor Thutmose, who was charged with producing official royal images around 1350 BC. As the team sifted and sieved, an astounding artifact came into view. After centuries of darkness, an 18th dynasty queen emerged.
Carved from limestone and colored with a layer of gypsum plaster, the life-sized bust was rendered with exquisite precision: high cheekbones, distinguished nose, and one rock crystal eye. Around the statue, a finely-detailed headdress in shades of red, green, blue and gold; technicolor bright despite the dirt. There could be no mistaking the face of the woman with the flat-topped crown sitting above her brow: Queen Nefertiti had risen.
The significance of the find was not lost on Borchardt. "Suddenly, we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork,” he enthused in his diary. “You cannot describe it with words. You must see it." When he met with Egyptian officials in 1913 to discuss the division of the artifacts from the dig, some say he intentionally downplayed the value of the bust. Whether through deception or negligence, Nefertiti passed out of Egypt and into Germany, where Borchardt ensured she was kept secret for the next ten years, as not to garner further attention from the Egyptians.
After centuries of solitude, Nefertiti was finally unveiled to the public in the Berlin Museum in 1924. The timing was right: the golden splendor of Tutankhamun’s tomb had captured the world’s imagination two years earlier, and western public interest in Egyptology was at its peak. With the advent of mass media, Nefertiti emerged in the flashbulbs like a film star. The “Mona Lisa of the ancient world" enchanted the crowds with her serene smile, stunning symmetry and refined proportions. Joyce Tyldesley, a leading authority on the ancient queen, observes in her book Nefertiti's Face: The Creation of An Icon, that she “fitted perfectly with the colourful, geometric art deco style that was starting to represent post-war opulence and glamour.” But as Nefertiti gained fame as a symbol of feminine perfection, her real narrative faded into the background.
As Tyldesley asserts, the modern obsession with Nefertiti’s beauty has the “power to distort our understanding of the past.” While the origins of the ancient queen are unknown, we do know that Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful one has come," was principal queen and consort to Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who ruled Egypt in the 14th century BC. When Amenhotep IV came to power, the young couple relocated the capital from Thebes to Tell el-Amarna, building a brand-new city from scratch. That wasn’t the only major change ahead. In his fifth year, the Pharaoh took a controversial ideological turn, introducing a new religion that would replace two thousand years of theology.
Using his great wealth and power, Amenhotep IV abandoned the worship of the traditional animal-headed deities in favor of a single solar god, the Aten. It was represented as a sun disk, surrounded by rays of light, through which Amenhotep, Nefertiti, and their daughters offered life to the world. Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, and entrusted Nefertiti, with tremendous power in reinforcing the revolution. Their court became known far and wide for its radical ways.
The evidence of Nefertiti’s unique queenship is literally carved into Amarna artwork, which is considered to be as revolutionary as their new religion. It’s in these ancient inscriptions, filled with movement and imperfection, that Nefertiti comes to life. One depiction shows the royal couple riding a horse-drawn chariot, embracing as the rays of Aten shine overhead. In others, Nefertiti drives her own horses during a ceremonial procession. There are intimate scenes of family affection, too, with Akhenaten and Nefertiti bouncing their baby daughters on their knees. But it wasn’t all domestic bliss; Nefertiti also enforced law and order. In one image found on blocks at Hermopolis, Nefertiti is cast on an equal footing with that of a male conqueror, smiting the enemies of Egypt with a mace. There’s little doubt that as the king’s deputy, Nefertiti could have taken to the throne with ease.
It’s in the religious iconography of the period that Nefertiti’s status as the Great Royal Wife really shines. The queen is frequently shown worshipping Aten alone, making offerings in female-only temples. In this regard, Nefertiti wasn’t just a link between mankind and their deity—she was divine by association. In one decorative relief believed to be from the Aten structures that Amenhotep IV built at Karnak, Nefertiti is depicted with her arms raised directly to Aten. Such a role was traditionally reserved for kings, and the fact that she stood front and center in such rituals is a testament to her power.
Given the vivid representations of Nefertiti that have survived from the period, it seems ironic that we know barely anything about what happened to her after Akhenaten’s death. Did she rule Egypt in her own right? Did she fall out of favor? Above all, where was she buried? To this day, no tomb, temple, or memorial has ever been discovered; a fitting plot twist, some say, for the enigmatic queen. The conclusion of her life is a source of everlasting debate, and scholarly theories differ vastly. What we do know is that Egypt returned to its original beliefs during the reign of Tutankhamun, while the capital city and its modern sun-god were abandoned. Vengeful successors destroyed much of the artwork and vandalism claimed a good deal more. Thirty years on, the city had disappeared back into the sands.
Yet Nefertiti refused to go quietly. In her afterlife, the discovery of her bust heralded a queenly renaissance, albeit one characterized by controversy. Ever since the unveiling in 1923, Egypt has repeatedly campaigned for the artifact’s return. Germany, which maintains that it acquired the bust legally, has repeatedly refused. During the Nazi regime, Hermann Goering proposed returning Nefertiti to Egypt, but Hitler had other plans: “I will never relinquish the head of the queen,” he declared in a letter to the authorities.
Beyond museum walls, Nefertiti has as an icon has resonated far beyond both Egypt and Germany. “You can't match this rapper slash actress/more powerful than two Cleopatras/bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti” rapped Lauryn Hill in the Nineties, while Iman took a turn as the Pharaoh's bored queen in Michael Jackson’s music video for “Remember the Time.” Meanwhile in 2012, Isa Genzken exhibited plaster reproductions of Nefertiti’s bust, accessorized with sunglasses.
Other depictions call upon Nefertiti’s influence in the political sphere. Egyptian street artist El Zeft’s stencil of a Nefertiti bust wearing a gas mask became an iconic feminist image during the 2012 revolution. Then there’s Beyoncé, another queen in kind, who donned a bejeweled headdress and cape reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian in her history-making 2018 Coachella sets, performances that heralded Nefertiti as a symbol of Black female empowerment. And last year, Rihanna payed homage to the legendary queen as Vogue Arabia’s November cover star, a move apparently made by editor-in-chief Manuel Arnaut in an attempt to promote diversity.
It seems unlikely that we will tire of contemplating Nefertiti’s aesthetic value any time soon. As far as archaeological discoveries go, she’s timeless. But if we look beyond her beauty, we find a story that is equally as fascinating: a queen that kickstarted religious reform, presided over a cultural revolution, and may well have ruled Egypt in her own right.