Nefertiti and the Heretic Pharaoh

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Our subject for today was called a historical hottie by People magazine, which, of course, is the most reliable of all celebrity magazines, so it must be true. But her name, Nefertiti, means "the beautiful one has come" or "a beautiful woman has come." She was also honored with a variety of very lovely titles, "Sweet of Love," "Lady of Grace," and some people have also called her the most powerful woman in the world, so not just a pretty face.

Sarah Dowdey: I've long loved Nefertiti. I actually was her for Halloween. I think I've mentioned it before. It was probably my best Halloween costume when I was about nine years old. She's also a magnet - at least according to Molly from Stuff Mom Never Told You -

Katie Lambert: On Molly's fridge. A good way to get Egyptologists into a fight, which who wouldn't want to do that, is to debate Nefertiti. Despite the famous bust of her that we've all seen that's in the Berlin museum, that inspires all sorts of tales, we don't know much about her at all. Let's start with the basics, the things we do know. Nefertiti was married to the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaton, who ruled in the 18th dynasty from 1353 to 1336 B.C., so not all that long, actually.

Sarah Dowdey: He's a bit of an enigma to us too. one thing we do know, Akhenaton's father was Amenhotep the third, whose reign was known for being very peaceful and prosperous, and for producing tons of buildings and statues, things you'd go to Egypt and see.

Katie Lambert: And Akhenaton's name was actually Amenhotep the fourth until he came into power. He didn't keep that name for too long. He changed it to Akhenaton, which means "one who is effective" in honor of the new religion he was about to bring the people. Before we talk too much about that, we want to talk about our girl, Nefertiti.

Sarah Dowdey: Because of that name we mentioned earlier, the beautiful one has come, there's a lot of speculation that Nefertiti was actually foreign, maybe from what is today Syria. Others think she wasn't foreign, she was born Egyptian royalty. Maybe she was even related to Akhenaton's mother, Queen Tiye.

Katie Lambert: Or perhaps she was the daughter of Ay who was an influential courtier and may have been involved in King Tut's death. He definitely succeeded him.

Sarah Dowdey: He must have been really old, too.

Katie Lambert: Grandfatherly age, yes.

Sarah Dowdey: All of this really goes to show how much of an enigma she was. We're talking about her parentage and where she's from - pretty basic facts that are really fuzzy. It's just part of all the fascination around her. It's kind of like the Mona Lisa. There is a great work of art, we're all really interested in it, and the woman who it's based on, but we don't know much.

Katie Lambert: We're always looking for her. So what we do know about Nefertiti comes from tomb scenes, inscriptions, temple scenes at Karnack, excavations at Amarna. We do know, again, that she had six daughters with her husband in the first ten years of their marriage, one of whom married King Tut.

Sarah Dowdey: We also know she wasn't Akhenaton's only wife. Notably, there was another woman named Kiya who was described as being Akhenaton's greatly beloved. She may have been King Tut's mom, although some people say Nefertiti was his mom, so more confusion. Confusion about the parents and the kids!

Katie Lambert: And where she's from. But Nefertiti had an important role in Akhenaton's new religion, which we're going to talk about now. When I think religion in ancient Egypt, I think of Bastet and Isis and Horace, but there were many gods, including solar ones like Amun and Ra, who would later become simply Amunra together.

Sarah Dowdey: But there's an important shift when Akhenaton's dad declares that he was Amun's son, and that he himself was actually Ra. Akhenaton's goes even further when he declares that there's only one god, Aten, who is the sun disk. I'm sure you've seen pictures of this god. It's usually pictured just as a circle with rays, kind of like you'd draw a sun when you were a kid, expect that the rays are hands shooting out.

Katie Lambert: Lots of art shows Akhenaton and Nefertiti worshipping it, or just being engaged in daily family activities.

Sarah Dowdey: Hanging out with their sun god.

Katie Lambert: Yes, under their benevolent sun god. This was a huge change, though. You have to picture the dominant religion of the time, and all of its gods were worshipped in these dark temples, but now everything's in open air, the better to see the sun.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, with the sun god, you've got to go outside.

Katie Lambert: So Akhenaton needed to build a bunch of new temples, and he wanted to do it quickly. This meant a whole new way of constructing buildings, so instead of those giant blocks you think of when you think of, say, the Egyptian pyramids, they had little blocks that could be carried.

Sarah Dowdey: More like little bricks.

Katie Lambert: Um hm.

Sarah Dowdey: It's oversimplifying things, though, to just say that we're going from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic religion because Akhenaton and Nefertiti are still depicted as godlike themselves.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, and like a triad with Aten.

Sarah Dowdey: They're not going to give up their own divinity just because they proclaim this sun god.

Katie Lambert: The other religious cults never really went away, even though Akhenaton tried to erase them, and even moved the capital from Thebes to build a new one to get away from all of the old ways.

Sarah Dowdey: It's not surprising, too. You're moving capitals.

Katie Lambert: Changing religions.

Sarah Dowdey: That suggests this is not received universally. The reforms aren't really popular, and he and Nefertiti are definitely enemies of the priests. The people probably want to keep their own religion, especially because it's something so radically different from what they're used to.

Katie Lambert: As we will see later. Going to Nefertiti's power, she may have been a sort of living fertility goddess according to Britannica. Based on depictions of her at the time, she's always dressed really gorgeously and fine linens and fancy headdresses, because she's supposed to be this alluring figure.

Sarah Dowdey: And she has her little egg-shaped babies, too. Eggheads!

Katie Lambert: The temple in Thebe's art suggests she may have acted as a priest of Aten, and on blocks from Karnack, she's shown actually smiting enemies in that fabulous blue headdress we all know her for, which was unheard of for anyone but a king.

Sarah Dowdey: This really suggests the influence she had in Egypt at the time.

Katie Lambert: Unprecedented.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. She was considered divine, as we mentioned, but on her husband's sarcophagus, she's actually pictured on each of the four corners, and that's a big deal. It's her pictured instead of the sun god or - if it had been an older time - different gods.

Katie Lambert: You'll see her twice as often in art as you'll see Akhenaton. Some people think she may have acted as co-ruler with him, but at the very least, she's credited with making this new religion seem a little more warm fuzzy to the people, and that would be part of the reason why she's pictured with her daughters as this model of fertility and in lots of happy family portraits, which is always a good ploy for public sympathy. Just ask Marie Antoinette.

Sarah Dowdey: So what happens to Nefertiti? That's our question. We have these murky beginnings.

Katie Lambert: We have the middle, too, with all of her influence and power, but at a certain point, she kind of disappears.

Sarah Dowdey: So Akhenaton dies after 17 years of rule, and none of the religious stuff really lasts very long after him. He has a co-regent named Smenkhkare who keeps the throne until Tut. From there, things are a little strange.

Katie Lambert: In Akhenaton's 12th year of rule, one princess dies and three just disappear from the records. It's possible they died of plague. Kiya disappears as well. Some people thing Nefertiti might have gotten jealous and killed her.

Sarah Dowdey: Kiya is one of Akhenaton's other wives.

Katie Lambert: Then Nefertiti disappears from the records as well. Did she die? Was she killed? Was she buried in the royal tomb at Amarna?

Sarah Dowdey: It's possible that she was Smenkhkare, this ruler, and she's even more powerful than ever now.

Katie Lambert: We mentioned that there was this co-regent after Akhenaton died, and this ruler had a throne name that was different from the birth name, which I can't pronounce, so I'm not even going to try. Some say there were two rulers under that name and that Nefertiti was one of them. To go even further, some say she became a female king, the new pharaoh, and some pictures do show a very feminine-looking pharaoh.

Sarah Dowdey: While we may never know what exactly Nefertiti's role was, if she was a female king, or if she was a co-regent, or maybe just the wife of the pharaoh, or maybe even dead earlier than we thought, by not too long after the time she does die, her pictures are being defaced because she is so unpopular with the priests.

Katie Lambert: Akhenaton's buildings were largely destroyed. His name is completely erased from the king's list, so we didn't know anything about him until we found him. It's not until 1912 when she surfaces again. That's when a bust of her was found at Amarna and dated to 1345 B.C., and of course, it's very beautiful. Ever since then, we've been looking for her.

Sarah Dowdey: One Egyptologist, Joann Fletcher, she's sure that Nefertiti is the younger woman mummy from KV35 in the Valley of the Kings. This mummy was unwrapped. You can't tell the identity of an unwrapped mummy, but she has a shaved head, and someone tore her arm off as well as ripped her mouth and bashed her chest, so really defaced the body. There were two other mummies buried in this KV35. One is known as the elder woman, and the other is known as the boy. The elder woman has red hair and manicured hands. The boy has a side lock. It's thought that the woman might be Queen Tiye, who is Nefertiti mother-in-law, and the boy might be Prince Thutmose. Here's another important thing about these mummies. All of them have really messed up feet, which in their belief system, in the afterlife, would mean they couldn't walk, and Nefertiti with this bashed-in chest - if it is Nefertiti - wouldn't even be able to have the breath of life.

Katie Lambert: According to Fletcher, since they are damaged in this way, it wouldn't have been grave robbers who did this. It must've been intentional and a calculated action by people who wanted to make sure they didn't have an afterlife.

Sarah Dowdey: To destroy their afterlife, yeah.

Katie Lambert: But Fletcher is very controversial. Some say it was grave robbers looking for amulets on the mummies. A lot of people say the mummy is too young to be Nefertiti. Perhaps she's the elder woman in the tomb, and the younger one is one of her daughters, but unless one of them sits up and tells us, we probably won't know.

Sarah Dowdey: We did get to play into that exhumation theme, though, as we always do.

Katie Lambert: And we have an art note to end. The bust of Nefertiti shows an epicanthic fold, which we associate with an east-Asian eye, but it can also be associated with several medical conditions, and her daughter had it as well. As always, people like playing posthumous medical detective and trying to figure out what genetically could have been.

Sarah Dowdey: So the epicanthic fold is based on the bust, but it's also important to note that the art changed pretty dramatically during the Amarna period. They were really exaggerated figures with these long skulls for the royals. I mentioned the egg-shaped babies earlier. I remember looking at those when I was a kid and just thinking, "What happened to their heads." They're also often depicted with big stomachs and hips and skinny little torsos. They may have been symbolic, or maybe it was just about changing everything, so you change your religion drastically.

Katie Lambert: Change your capital.

Sarah Dowdey: Maybe you change your art styles as well and just forge a new way. It's also possible that art was more accurately reflecting how people looked.

Katie Lambert: Right. Perhaps Akhenaton did have a skinny little torso, and a big stomach, and kind of womanly hips. In one statue that may or may not be Nefertiti, she's wrinkly and saggy. Again, we should note that she looks very different in a lot of portraits, and she may not have looked like that bust at all. Speaking of that bust being different from real life, a CT scan recently showed a difference between what we see of the bust and the inner facial cast. It's not as symmetrical or as unwrinkled, so perhaps was made prettier by the sculptor.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is lucky for Nefertiti? She has to have a nice bust if she's going to be making People's historical hotties list.

Katie Lambert: We should mention that the Egyptians want their bust back from the Germans from 2012, although there's a bit of a debate about that. We'd like to wrap up with a quote that's from a hymn to Aten but made us think of Nefertiti. "He has a million forms according to the time of day and from where he is seen, yet he is always the same. That brings us to our listener mail for today, which is about our Charlie Chaplin podcast.

Sarah Dowdey: This message is from Suzanne. She wrote, "I just wanted to say I loved your Charlie Chaplin podcast. I wanted to recommend you take a look at his old film studio. I've been to the Chaplin Studio a few times, although it is now the Jim Henson studio. It's a lovely Tudor-style building almost at the corner of Sunset and LeBrea in Los Angeles." She gave us some details about inside of the studio. I think our favorite point though was when she mentioned that, "It looks like an old English-style village. In the main reception area, there is a large black-and-white photograph of Charlie Chaplin at the groundbreaking of the studio. It's really cool to see what L.A. Looked like back then - nothing around for miles. They also have one of his tramp suits, with shoes, under glass hanging on the wall." I'd really like to see one of Charlie Chaplin's tramp suits.

Katie Lambert: As would I. Please feel free to send us mail at If you're not much of an emailer, you can follow us on Twitter, MissedinHistory, or join our Facebook fan page where we'll keep you updated on what we're working on. You should really read a very cool article called "Was There Really a Curse on King Tut's Tomb," written by our own lady of grace, Sarah Dowdey. You can search for that on our home page at

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