Please note the changed opening hours of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin since 16 April 2024. More

The Queen

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten), and lived in the 14th century BC. Written records providing concrete historical facts about her origins, her marriage, her family life, political status and death are scarce. The surviving images and texts are important sources of information, but allow for various interpretations. For this reason, there is a great deal of conjecture and various theories about Nefertiti’s life, but hardly any reliable knowledge.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten), and lived in the 14th century BC. Written records providing concrete historical facts about her origins, her marriage, her family life, political status and death are scarce. The surviving images and texts are important sources of information, but allow for various interpretations. For this reason, there is a great deal of conjecture and various theories about Nefertiti’s life, but hardly any reliable knowledge.

Marriage to Amenhotep IV

The families of Tey and Ay came from the Middle Egyptian city of Achmim, which was also home to the parents of Tiye, wife of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. The families certainly knew each other, making it unsurprising that Tiye chose Nefertiti as a wife for her second son Amenhotep (later Akhenaten).

Head of a statuette of Queen Tiye, Egypt, Medinet el-Ghurob, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1388–1351 BC; ref. no. ÄM 17852, donated by James Simon

Head of a statuette of Queen Tiye, Egypt, Medinet el-Ghurob, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1388–1351 BC; ref. no. ÄM 17852, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß

Whether the marriage took place before Amenhotep IV ascended the throne in 1351 BC, and how old Nefertiti was at the time, is not documented. Since royalty were generally married at a very young age, and Amenhotep IV was no older than 16 to 18 at his coronation, Nefertiti was probably somewhere between 12 and 16 years old.

Nefertiti’s Six Daughters

Shortly after their wedding, their first daughter, Meritaten, was born. Their second daughter, Meketaten, who died around the age of 10, was also born in Thebes, the base of the 18th dynasty. Ankhesenpaaten, the third daughter of the royal couple and later wife of Tutankhamun, may have been born there as well.

In just the fourth year of his reign Amenhotep IV decided to build a new royal residence in Middle Egypt, Akhetaten, near the present-day city of Amarna. There, together with Nefertiti, he sought to establish his new creed, the veneration of the Aten, the sun disc, as the one and only god. In the seventh year of his reign the royal family moved to Akhetaten,  where they had three more daughters, Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure, and Setepenre. In the course of the move, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Ach-n-Iten (Akhenaten = “pleasing to Aten”).

Plaster model head of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21351, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß

Plaster model head of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21351, donated by James Simon

A Family Altar From Akhetaten

The famous family altar in the collection of the Ägyptisches Museum [fig.] depicts the royal couple with their three eldest daughters, and was therefore probably made shortly after the move from Thebes to Akhetaten. It vividly illustrates the harmonious life of the royal family, protected by the rays of Aten. At the same time, it is also an eloquent witness to Nefertiti’s status. She is presented at the same scale as her husband, her name is given equal status with that of Akhenaten and the god Aten in the royal cartouche, and the hands at the ends of the rays hold the symbol of the ankh equally in front of the noses of both the king and the queen.

Film "Hingeschaut! House altar featuring Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters under the solar Aten" ©  Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Margarete Büsing

One detail from the family altar which supports the hypothesis that Nefertiti had at least the same political status as Akhenaten, if not higher, is the decoration of the chair on which she sits. It depicts what is called the “Unification of the Two Lands”, represented by a knot binding together the symbols representing Upper and Lower Egypt, the lotus and the papyrus. This symbol of unification is usually reserved for the reigning monarch alone.

The Divine Trinity

No further written sources, however, confirm that Nefertiti held a higher position than her husband. Her prominent appearance more likely derives from the new theological precept. Aten is the sole god who, while merciful to all people, only stands in direct contact with the royal couple.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Aten form a divine trinity, based on the ancient Egyptian theological principle of the creation of the world. This is comprised of the creator god (Aten) and his two children Shu (Akhenaten) and Tefnut (Nefertiti), who pass the creator god’s blessings on to humanity. On this basis Akhenaten and Nefertiti can enter into a dialogue with the Aten, either together or individually. This does not, however, imply that Nefertiti was the driving political force or perhaps even the actual ruler.

The Circumstances of Her Death Lie Hidden

Since neither Nefertiti’s mummy nor that of her husband has yet been identified, the date and cause of her death remain unknown. Up until a few years ago scholars believed that Nefertiti must have either died or been banished from the royal court shortly after the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign, as her name no longer appears in later texts.

Early in 2012, however, an inscription carved into a rock face was found in an ancient quarry 10 kilometres north of Amarna. It dates to the 16th year of Akhenaten’s reign, and mentions Nefertiti’s name and her position as Great Royal Wife. Based on this inscription it seems probable that Nefertiti survived her husband, who died in the 17th year of his reign.

Statue of Nefertiti, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21263, donated by James Simon

Statue of Nefertiti, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21263, donated by James Simon © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Sandra Steiß

Nefertiti may even have reigned herself for a short period following Akhenaten’s death. It is possible that the pharaoh Smenkhkare, named as Akhenaten’s successor, was in fact Nefertiti, although inscriptions do not confirm this. The fact that Smenkhkare is depicted together with his Great Royal Wife Meritaten, eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, in a private tomb in Amarna, speaks against such an interpretation.

The Mother of Tutankhamun?

When Nefertiti died, and what role she played after her husband’s death, remain uncertain. It seems unlikely that she may have been Tutankhamun’s mother, as is often supposed. Instead, Tutankhamun’s mother is currently identified as the “younger lady” from tomb KV 35 in the Valley of the Kings. DNA analysis supports the theory that this woman was not only Tutankhamun’s mother, but also the daughter of Amenhotep III and his principle wife Tiye, which would mean that it could not be Nefertiti.

Exhibition catalogue "In the Light of Amarna", 2012