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The queen

The queen who was equal to her king

When Egyptologist Dr Joann Fletcher went in search of one of Egypt’s most elusive tombs, she thought she’d found it, only to learn that she hadn’t. However, the trail led her to discover some of the most compelling historical insights. The tomb she’d been chasing was that of a 14th century BC queen, whose bust became one of the most iconic figurines in Egyptian history.

‘Nefertiti’, the queen was called. Her name literally announced, ‘A beautiful woman has come’. It must have mirrored the thoughts of the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt who dug her bust up from the sands of Egypt in the 1900s. And ever since, her tomb has been one of the most searched for. Why? She wore something that was exclusively the prerogative of the ancient Egyptian kings—the khepresh, a blue headdress worn for battles and on ceremonial occasions.

Nefertiti’s crown told historians and archaeologists a crucial piece of information—she was as powerful as a king! That an Egyptian queen could have been equal to her king is a notion that many Egyptologists are still debating over. However, more and more pieces of evidences show that may well have been the case with Queen Nefertiti and her pharaoh-husband King Akhenaten.

There’s a temple complex in Egypt called Karnak, where a structure named ‘Mansion of Benben’ is dedicated to Akhenaten’s favourite wife Nefertiti. The relics there depict Nefertiti performing rituals that were only reserved for the kings. The relics show more of Nefertiti as the sole ruler than as Akhenaten’s queen! In fact, Dr Joann Fletcher writes of these relics in her book The Search for Nefertiti: “She rewards her officials with gold collars, just like a king, and is shown sitting alone on the royal throne decorated with heraldic plant designs; one example even shows Nefertiti on the royal throne while Akhenaten perches on a stool.”

Dr Fletcher’s findings certainly make for a strong case for Queen Nefertiti being just as powerful as an Egyptian king, if not more. According to her, it shouldn’t come as a surprise because the ancient Egyptian culture was known to believe in the male-female duality of the universe. She even points out that the very symbol of cosmic order was the female deity Maat, and that Pharaoh Akhenaten often described himself as ‘living by Maat’, despite his monotheistic devotion to the Sun’s disk Aten. So, his co-regency alongside his favourite wife and queen—Nefertiti—is probably neither as shocking nor impossible as some scholars argue. Exactly when he made her his coregent is not known, but going by what the relics depict, it certainly does seem like this king-queen couple were equals.

That she ruled like a Pharaoh—be it as coregent or as the sole ruler—is undeniable, for her bust and all the relics in Egypt make it very evident.

However, there might be another more important reason Nefertiti gained the coregent status with Akhenaten. She shared a vision with him—one of mediating between Aten, the solar deity, and the subjects. Together, they intended to bring about a religious revolution, one where Aten would be the ultimate (not necessarily the only) god, themselves his primeval ‘first couple’, and their children their divine offspring. Needless to say, many of their subjects, heirs-in-line and neighbouring kingdoms viewed them as power-hungry tyrants, but none could deny their status as a power couple. Together, Nefertiti and Akhenaten even managed to move the entire kingdom from Thebes to Amarna, a new capital city they built by the Nile River, in honour of Aten.

The couple’s vision probably provides some explanation for the historians who’ve long wondered why Akhenaten chose Nefertiti as his queen rather than one of his sister-wives, as was customary of Egyptian royalty. Some believe that Nefertiti’s name might hold the clue. Given that it means ‘A beautiful woman has come’, some historians suppose she might have been a foreigner, and hence, her foreign beliefs might have swayed the king to a new religious vision, hence bringing about a revolution in her wake.

However, both the revolution and the couple’s vision came to an abrupt end with Akhenaten’s death around 1336 BC. What’s strange is Nefertiti disappears off the records right after Akhenaten’s death. Some speculate that she might have died in Amarna with Akhenaten, while others believe that she returned to Thebes and continued to rule, disguised as the male Pharaoh Smenkhkare or Pharaoh Neferneferuaten, with one of her daughters Meritaten as coregent.

If this is true, it only goes to prove Nefertiti’s political acumen. She would have known it wouldn’t be easy to convince a kingdom rife with religious turmoil to obey her as the sole ruler, not when she and Akhenaten had caused it in the first place. So, it’s very plausible that the queen saw it fit to take after another Egyptian queen who ruled as ‘king’—Pharaoh Hatshepsuh and return to Thebes with the subjects. In fact, the National Geographic documentary Nefertiti’s Odyssey reveals that in many Egyptian archaeological sites, she’s depicted as riding a chariot, smiting Egypt’s enemies, and worshipping Aten, as if she were the sole Pharaoh.

Whatever be the real story, we can only speculate as to where Nefertiti came from and why she disappeared. To this day, her tomb continues to elude archaeologists and any relatives she might have had remain unearthed. But that she ruled like a Pharaoh—be it as coregent or as the sole ruler—is undeniable, for her bust and all the relics in Egypt make it very evident. Queen or pharaoh, Nefertiti remains a mysterious ruler in the pages of Egyptian history, one who wielded tremendous power, even in the wake of her king.

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