Her name translates to “A beautiful woman has come,” but Nefertiti would’ve been more appropriately named “A beautiful woman comes and goes.” She bursts onto the historical scene only to mysteriously disappear. Even her resting place is unknown (though they’ve got ideas). Nefertiti was the powerful wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten who helped helm a religious revolution, personally smited the enemies of Egypt, became a living sex goddess, the most beautiful woman in the land, and may have ruled herself under a new name.
You’ve seen her bust even if you didn’t realize it: she’s one of the most famous pieces of ancient Egyptian art, but we know virtually nothing about her parents or her young life. She was born probably around 1370 BCE, living in Malkata as a part of the harem (the women’s quarters– it’s not a sexual thing) of Amenhotep III. Some speculate Nefertiti was actually from present day Syria, but most scholars accept she was Egyptian, likely the daughter of a prominent advisor to the pharaoh, Ay. Ay was the brother of Akhenaten’s mother, Tiy, who probably picked Nefertiti as her son’s bride. (Side note: we’ll use the name Akhenaten consistently for clarity, though this is the name he later adopted. He starts out in the pharaoh game as Amenhotep IV).
A Queen in More Than Name
Nefertiti reigned in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period, which is an era jam packed with famous pharaohs: you’ve got Nefertiti’s stepson, the boy king of bling Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, the longest-reigning woman, and four, count ‘em four Thutmosis-es. It also includes Nefertiti’s husband Akhenaten. Sadly, the historical record for Nefertiti in particular is fairly spotty. Many depictions of Nefertiti and her cartouche were desecrated, as if someone were trying to erase her from the record. Let’s find out why… She helped revolutionize Egyptian culture and religion. That’s why.
There’s a lot to suggest the marriage of Nefertiti and Akhenaten was a happy one based on love, a rare thing for any ruling family. Together they had six daughters and reliefs show a blissful family life, a statue even shows the two dynastic love birds kissing. However, there are skeptics who suggest this was a strategic PR campaign to combat Akhenaten’s growing unpopularity. The art from their reign also shows Nefertiti in equal size to Akhenaten: this is a strong suggestion she was viewed as his equal because size denotes importance in ancient Egyptian art. She’s also seen driving her own chariot, sometimes racing the pharaoh. All of this would’ve been groundbreaking female roles.
Losing Their Religion
When Nefertiti and Akhenaten took the throne, priests wielded incredible power, basically rivaling the pharaoh. Now, we can’t have that… The first steps Nefertiti and Akhenaten took to deal with this problem was refusing to add temples to the massive complex at Karnak, the priests’ seat of power. Offering a temple was a long standing pharaonic tradition and to not do it was shocking to say the least.
Then, in the fourth year of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign, these two crazy kids decided they were going to make Egypt henotheistic (believing there are lots of gods but worshiping a head honcho), which is a fairly bold move for just four years in. It’s also what inspired Akhenaten’s name change: Aten was their chosen head honcho. Very long and complex story condensed down into no nuance, Aten is the sun disc you might’ve seen: it’s got the arms extending out of it. Aten doesn’t have an origin story like most gods, but the idea of it (Aten is both masculine and feminine) had been around a long time and is in the Book of the Dead. Apparently, Aten had to be worshiped in the direct sun, conveniently forcing the closure of temples. Nefertiti and Akhenaten had strict rules about how Aten could be depicted, they changed burial rituals, smashed idols, and would you believe it, but turns out Aten would only commune with Akhenaten, Nefertiti or their direct line. Weird. This forced, rapid religious and political change went about as well as you’re imagining: despite all the catchy hymns written for Aten, some by the Pharaoh himself, everyone hated it. It eventually became a monotheistic religion in all but name.
Sacrilege! Heresy! The suddenly-out-of-work-and-powerless priests cried. But really quietly. Like a breathy but passionate whisper. Because it was never cool to talk shit about a pharaoh but now it was seriously not cool. After learning some priests were plotting against them, Nefertiti and co. further changed Egypt by uprooting the capital from its ancient seat at Thebes to a new city they had to build. Akhenaten chose a spot around 200 miles away in a dry, terribly hot spit of land called Akhetaten (modern day Tell el-Amarna). There they built the first planned city in history that was essentially a carefully controlled citadel. In addition to the 50,000 citizens shipped in, they crammed it with an uncharacteristically vast army that suggests to some scholars they were aware of their unpopularity and feared civil unrest.
Sculptors highlighted Nefertiti’s curves, which was in keeping with the sense that the pharaoh’s wives were usually associated with fertility gods like Ma’at and Hathor– goddesses that maintained the order of the universe, sexuality, rebirth, and fertility. It was through their demi-god queens that pharaohs were able to be reborn after death. Nefertiti, however, took this a step further, cementing her power and status and went full-on goddess. She decided to wear Hathor’s crown, which according to Egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson, made her “…as a sex goddess, able to manifest the regenerative power of sexual rejuvenation.” Not bad, Nefertiti, not bad.
But she wasn’t just a beautiful sex goddess redefining Egypt’s religious landscape. She was reigning. Art shows Nefertiti was allowed to “smite the enemies of Egypt” where she personally executed people, an act reserved for pharaohs only. She also replaced Isis, the goddess traditionally carved into the corners of a sarcophagus, when Akhenaten died.
Suddenly, in Akhenaten’s 12th year as pharaoh, Nefertiti disappears. Completely. She died, you might say. Could be! But scholars and archaeologists can find no record confirming it and nothing to suggest she was buried in a properly-royal tomb at Amarna. A fun, somewhat accepted theory is she outlived Akhenaten and assumed the throne in her own right, taking on the name Smenkhare until King Tut was old enough to king properly. If this is the case, she went about dismantling the religious changes made under her husband’s reign, something Tutankhamen would continue to do. Two of her daughters would go on to be queens of Egypt.
No matter when she died, her body has never been found. She almost vanished from memory except that a German archaeologist discovered her now-famous bust in the ruins of a workshop in Amarna. Her beautiful face brought her back to life in the 20th century.
There are numerous theories about where Nefertiti might rest: she could be an anonymous mummy in the Egyptian Museum (not likely), she might be in a secret chamber in King Tut’s tomb (not likely), or she may be the mysterious “Younger Lady,” a mummy found sealed away in KV35, originally Amenhotep II’s tomb and later a location priests used for mummies whose own tombs had been looted in the Valley of the Kings. As of this publication, we still don’t know conclusively where she is.
As for now, Nefertiti appeared and disappeared as fast as a flash of sunlight, transforming into a goddess, smiting, changing a nation’s religious and political landscape, and ruling over a vast, glittering empire.
So, what was the Sun Queen, “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a beautiful woman has come” drinking?
Wine. Beer was incredibly common in Egypt, often used as wages, but the elite got to drink wine. It was part of burials, religious rituals, festivals, and feasts.
Egypt started out importing wine: Scorpion I had a massive cache of wine in his tomb, suggesting he started importing it roughly around 3150 BCE from The Levant (aka Canaan), a broad term for the area in the eastern Mediterranean. Scorpion I was probably importing wine from places like the Jordanian valleys, Jezreel (an ancient city in Kingdom of Israel), Transjordan (southern Levant on the east side of the Jordan River; it’s the area that’s mostly modern-day Jordan), Gaza, even places like Petra.
Flash forward about 1500 years and the now-unified Egyptians are making their own damn wine. And they quickly developed a wildly sophisticated system. The Nile Delta turned out to be a great place for viniculture once the imported Canaanite (Levant) winemakers brought over some vines and their centuries of expertise. To combat the harsh sun, they developed a pergola to provide shade, created irrigation systems, and possibly even potted vines. A lot of this would look quite at home at modern vineyards. Turns out the soil is shockingly similar to soils found in Bordeaux. The western Nile delta became famed as the best region, at places like Sile, Behbeit, and Memphis. It wasn’t until the Ptolemaic rule (305 BCE – 30 BCE) that they started planting vines in Upper Egypt.
The black grapes would’ve been completely ripened on the vine before harvesting them, meaning they would’ve been very sweet. They’d stomp them in open-air pits with handles overhead to keep their balance and it’s probable the fermentation process began in this pit. Nothing suggests they were super hot on keeping the wine cool as it fermented like the Armenians did. That’s a dangerous game since wine can very quickly become vinegar, but it seems they must’ve been making a wine with a high alcohol content because of this heat. It’s likely they also flavored it with herbs, spices, honey, and fruit like whole figs, and tree resin (acting as a preservative).
Egyptians were also on the forefront of classifying and labelling wines, marking the clay jars with pertinent information about the wine. The regnal year produced, the name of the estate, the head vintner there, and often its quality. They had red, white, and even blended wines.
The Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century CE crippled the ancient tradition of Egyptian wine making, and while it still exists, it’s nowhere near what it was in Nefertiti’s time. A Greek gentleman helped revive it in the late 1800s. We can’t say for sure that anything today would taste exactly like what Nefertiti would’ve had. Partly because we don’t know exactly what grape varietals they used and they cultivation methods have changed.
Still, some exciting things are happening in Egyptian wine making. Award-winning Kouroum of the Nile is an organic winery. They use a Bannati grape, a grape that’s evolved to be very much Egyptian, to make Beausoleil, (“beautiful sun” which feels fitting) a white wine. It’s 12.5% alcohol by volume and apparently has very sweet, honey, melon and vanilla flavors. They produce other wines, but their Bannati Beausoleil is by far the coolest and probably the closest you’ll get to a Nefertiti tibble.
If you can get your hands on a bottle, drink from a straw, and toast to your beauty and power. And start a new religion if you’re feeling up to it.