About 3,500 years ago, Egypt was undergoing radical social and religious changes fueled by one of the most influential women ever — Queen Nefertiti.
Nefertiti positioned herself to be Queen when she married Amenhotep IV before he assumed Egypt’s throne. Unlike most marriages that had to do with royal power in that time period, Nefertiti and Amenhotep were actually in love. Amenhotep wanted Nefertiti to be his equal when it came to ruling Egypt, which gave Nefertiti more power than any woman in Egypt had ever possessed. Their love and public display of affection was also something new to the Egyptians, as most Kings and Queens usually married for political reasons.
But Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten, as he would later be known after his fifth year of rule, wasn’t exactly a genius for being all about Nefertiti; she had quite the captivating presence. Her name literally means, “the beautiful one has come.”
Let’s learn more about one of the world’s first true power couples.
1. Divine Royalty with a Twist
When Nefertiti became the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep IV (whom would later be known as Akhenaten after his fifth year of rule), she oversaw arguably the wealthiest period of Ancient Egyptian history. When the royal couple decided to start their own religion to worship the sun-disk Aten, they built the city of Akhetaten, demanding the faithful move there to stay in their good standing.
Under Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Egypt’s long-standing polytheistic religious structure had been turned on its head. Instead, a monolatry religion was instituted in which many gods were recognized but only one—Aten—was worshipped. In the practice of Atenism, the rays of the sun disk only offer life to the royal family; the rest of society then receives life from Akhenaten and Nefertiti in exchange for loyalty. At face value, it seems that the pair did whatever they wanted with their power. According to experts, it’s likely that the royal couple’s actions threw Egypt’s power structure between the pharaoh’s court and head temple priests into disarray. But at least publicly, there are no records to suggest Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s rule over society ever wavered.
2. King Tut’s Stepmother
King Akhenaten wanted a son to take over his seat on the throne, but Nefertiti instead had six daughters. This led to Akhenaten going outside of his marriage to father a son. He was the King, so whether or not he had a hall pass from Nefertiti is a moot point, but he certainly made the most of his efforts to father a son. His son and Nefertiti’s step-son was a baby boy named Tutankhamun or better known as King Tut, who grew up to become one of the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history.
There was a theory in 2015 from British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves that suggested the possibility of another chamber in King Tut’s tomb for Nefertiti, though it was disproved a few years later. There are still no clear indications as to where Nefertiti’s remains could be.
3. No One Knows When or How Nefertiti Died
Right around the 12th year of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign of Egypt, Nefertiti stopped showing up in historical texts and images. Unsolved mysteries led to plenty of speculative theories. We know that Nefertiti was elevated to the status of co-regent shortly after she stopped showing up in records, meaning she would have had equal power to the pharaoh. But typically, when a person disappeared from historical documentation, that meant they died.
The plague would be the most speculated cause of death if she did die in the 12th year of their reign. However, in December 2012, a barely legible 5-line inscription from Year 16 of Akhenaten’s reign was discovered, mentioning Nefertiti as the Great Royal Wife. Her mummy has not been found, but some suggest it is the Younger Lady Mummy that was found n 1898.
4. Maybe She Changed Her Name and Dressed as a Man to Continue Ruling?
One of the more popular theories surrounding Nefertiti’s disappearance is that she began to dress as a man and continue ruling Egypt after Akhenaten’s death. This aligns with records of her disappearing after she was made a co-regent before Akhenaten’s death. Depictions in different archaeological sites represent Nefertiti in scenes that fit a pharaoh. Archaeological evidence indicates that a woman ruled as pharaoh from ca 1334 to 1332 BC.
As Nefertiti’s name vanished from historical records, the name of co-regent Neferneferuaten appeared. It is presumed by many that Nefertiti ascended the throne as Pharaoh Neferneferuaten succeeding the short-lived Pharaoh Smenkhkare in the late 18th dynasty. Other theories suggest she became known as Pharaoh Smenkhkare, ruling Egypt after her husband’s death or that she was exiled when the worship of the deity Amen-Ra made a comeback among the Egyptians.
Nefertiti was one of the first Queens to exercise her power. She was also one of the first Queens to have a husband/King who saw their Queen as an equal. Her leadership, actions and beauty give her status as one of the most revered women in history. While plenty of uncertainty surrounds her life, one thing is quite clear: she was one of the first female badasses to grace the world.