Nefertiti (c. 1375–1336 BCE)
Nefertiti (c. 1375–1336 bce)
Ancient Egyptian queen who appears to have ruled with her husband (and if so was the only queen of the pharaonic period known to have done this) and may have even ruled independently for a short time following her husband's death. Name variations: Nefertiit, Nefretiti, Nofretete or Nofretiti. Born around 1375 bce; died in 1336 bce; parents unknown; probably the daughter of the sun-king Amenhotep III (known as The Magnificent) and one of his many wives; sister of Mutnedjnet (c. 1360–1326 bce); married Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten (c. 1385–1350 bce), pharoah of Egypt; children: six daughters, Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenpaten), Neferneferuaten minor, Neferneferure, and Satepenre.
Although Nefertiti is perhaps the most famous woman from the land of the Pharaohs, she remains an enigma. No one is so much a symbol of ancient Egypt, yet so imperfectly understood. Her parents are unknown, but she was married to the most powerful monarch in the world of her time. The date of her marriage and that of her death are unknown. Whether the period of her greatest power and influence was early in her husband's reign (c. 1348 bce) or at its end (c. 1338 bce) is debatable. What is known is that she was extraordinarily beautiful and enjoyed great prominence and power during her adulthood and, after her death, her memory was hated and the object of a systematic persecution.
During the winter of 1912–13, German archaeologists working at the site of the ancient city at Tell el-Amarna discovered Queen Nefertiti's now-famous painted portrait bust toppled over on the floor in the ruins of the studio of an ancient sculptor named Thutmose. Ever since its display and publication in 1923, this image of Nefertiti has been universally adored, and the sculpture—the long graceful neck supporting the lovely and serene face under the soaring conical crown (which was hers alone)—has been constantly reproduced around the world on everything from jewelry to postage stamps. She and her family have captured the imagination of many and been the subject of novels, films, and an opera.
Nefertiti's name meant "The beautiful one has come" and would seem to suggest she arrived from elsewhere, but no one knows this for certain. Most likely, she was not foreign, but an Egyptian by birth and probably the daughter of the sun-king Amenhotep III (known as The Magnificent) by one of his many wives. Nefertiti is not believed to have been born to his first wife and consort Queen Tiy , however, whose four daughters are known.
Amenhotep III, who was the mightiest king of the world in his time, was granted the princesses of several foreign nations in marriage, and these royal women came from Syria, Mitanni, Babylon, and Anatolia to seal friendly diplomatic relations between their countries and Egypt. Nefertiti could well have been the issue of any such union with a foreign princess, as no monument contains the name of her parents. The most important of the foreign princesses to marry Amenhotep III was surely Gilukhepa , daughter of the king of Mitanni, then Egypt's chief rival for power in the Middle East. Amenhotep had to ask Gilukhepa's father at least five times for her hand in marriage. He finally relented and the Mitannian princess journeyed to Egypt escorted by a retinue of over 300 women of her country. There is a slight chance that Gilukhepa maintained an important position at the Egyptian court, having assumed an Egyptian name, perhaps even Nefertiti, but this is speculative.
Raised in the palace, probably the royal residence in the fertile Fayum depression where the Egyptian queens had for generations owned land and factories and resided in independent splendor, Nefertiti had a "great nurse and governess" named Teye who was the sister-in-law of the Great Queen Tiy. The term nurse is loosely applied in Egyptian, given even to men who were tutors, and thus the sister-in-law of the queen
need not have been a wet-nurse, but could have been a teacher to a foreign princess who would have needed to learn the language and customs of the Egyptians. At any rate, Nefertiti may well have learned to read the difficult hieroglyphic script, and she also learned to drive a pair of horses from a chariot single-handed.
Whether because she was a foreigner or the daughter of a lesser queen of the pharaoh, Nefertiti was not married to the heir to the throne, but to a sickly prince, named Amenhotep (IV) after his father. The heir apparent also may not have been robust, as this Prince Thutmose died long before his father. This unexpected turn of events thus propelled the younger Amenhotep and Nefertiti to the throne and rulership of the Egyptian empire. The prince Amenhotep IV had spent much of his formative years as a priest in the temple of the sun god, Re-Harakhty, in ancient On, east of the capital city of Memphis. He exhibited true religious devotion and scholarship, as well as a talent for poetry. The traditional ways of viewing the deity and viewing mankind and the world around him—all were pondered by this thoughtful, introspective man. He was not the type of person interested in the hands-on running of a vast empire, but fate had placed him in such a role.
Whereas princes of his dynasty had always been trained as warriors and sportsmen (Amenhotep III had bagged over 100 lions in one hunt) and had traditionally been portrayed in art as perfect physical specimens, this earnest and sickly young man could not support falsehood. Thus when his father died after a long reign of 38 years, Amenhotep IV not only became ruler over the Egyptian empire, but began to declare new policies that would rock the tradition-bound homeland. The most apparent of these was the immediate change in artistic styles. Royal artists were taught, by the king himself one informs us, to depict him as he really appeared, scrawny of neck, haggard of face, with an overgrown jaw, prominent breasts and belly, fat thighs on spindly legs—not at all a healthy athletic figure.
Unfortunately the artists in their enthusiasm to please their young king began to portray everyone with similar characteristics, as if anxious to flatter their sovereign by imitation. Thus colossal statues of Amenhotep IV and his chief queen, now in the Cairo Museum, present grotesque forms and caricatures for faces and have even been termed "disturbing." If the beautiful portrait bust of Nefertiti, which dates to many years later, had not been discovered, the world would never have known how attractive the young queen of Egypt truly was.
It was Nefertiti's prime duty to bear the next heir to the throne, which tradition decreed should be a son. Instead her first born was a daughter (Meritaten ), as was the next (Meketaten ), and the next (Ankhesenpaaten ), and the next (Neferneferuaten minor ), and the next (Neferneferure ), and the next (Satepenre ), until six little princesses filled the palace. Due to the odd appearance of Amenhotep IV, it is sometimes written that he must have suffered from Froelich's syndrome (an endocrinal disorder that affects sexual maturation) and should not have been able to father children at all. If so, another mystery concerning Nefertiti appears. Who would have fathered these daughters? The first three were certainly born while the old king Amenhotep III still lived, and his name even appears on the stone sarcophagus of the second daughter who died young. However, he could not have been the progenitor of the last three, unless there was a long co-regency between Amenhotep III and IV, which is not impossible but doubted by many scholars. It is also possible that the speculation about his son's health may be overblown. Indeed, the young king also had secondary wives, and one of these, named Kiya , may well have borne him a son or two, although this is not certain either. On the other hand, numerous progeny must have been born to Amenhotep III by his many wives and concubines, and his son's famous successor King Tutankhamun could have been one of Amenhotep III's sons.
Nefertiti, however, was not discarded for her failure to bear a male heir and remained the Great Royal Wife. Indeed, very early in the reign she was allowed unusual prominence, which should indicate her husband's high regard, indeed, dependence upon her.
His religious meditations had led him to advance the worship of the sun disk and its light, as the giver of all life and thus worthy of the highest devotion. Bestowing most of his royal patronage on the Aten, as the disk was called, Amenhotep IV had built several new temples to his god in the midst of the great religious center in ancient Thebes, home of the King of the Gods, Amun-Re. His temples to the Aten not only were dedicated to a newly promoted deity, but exhibited innovative designs, truly new styles in architecture: soaring piers and open courts and larger-than-life images carved on their walls.
Significantly, it is Nefertiti the queen who is portrayed as chief celebrant of this cult of the sun's disk on a majority of the walls so far recovered at Karnak. It is the queen's image which is cast several meters high on the walls, standing alone before the altar with its tower of offerings, or accompanied by her first born, singing the god's praises. Some have questioned whether the queen's ubiquitous presence in the cult place is indicative of her role in founding this "new religion," which has been termed the first monotheism. In promoting the "new" cult of the Aten, the king and queen were deliberately ignoring the cults of the huge pantheon of Egyptian deities. Withdrawal of royal support meant temples of other gods throughout the land were closed and their lands and personnel either confiscated for the Aten cult or left to flounder on their own.
The fundamental information of Nefertiti's status in the realm and in the religion was not discovered until the 1960s when the wall scenes from these demolished temples were recovered and studied. They had been carved on walls built quickly from small-sized stones which, in the years following her dynasty, had been pulled down and recycled as stuffing for pyloned gates built by later pharaohs. Nefertiti's portrayal, alone without the king, officiating in the state cult is startling and unprecedented. Nefertiti is also shown at Karnak with a throne dais decorated with images of bound female captives placed so she would stand on them. Her performance of rituals without the king is taken by scholars as a testament to her powerful position in the realm, probably co-regent. Perhaps her gifted but introspective husband, whether due to ill health or personal preference, opted to concentrate on his religious writings and teachings and left the day-to-day government of Egypt to Nefertiti. The royal couple did share scenes of cultic service as well as regal audiences and award ceremonies.
Rather than crowd the Aten's shrines into the confines of Karnak, the not so hospitable home of Amun-Re, it was deemed desirable to grant Aten a city of his own, where numerous temples might be built and all inhabitants could serve the true god. Soon the young royal couple was looking at real estate and in the Fourth Year of the reign, a site was located in middle Egypt, half-way along the Nile between Thebes and Memphis, a wide plain whose aridity had discouraged settlers previously. Because it had never been associated with any other deity or ruler, Amenhotep thought it the perfect place to build the city for the Aten and stated on its boundary markers that he would not allow his queen or anyone else to dissuade him from the selection. This statement indicates the queen was given to making her opinion known and perhaps had indeed argued against the choice of so poorly watered a wilderness. Nonetheless, here in the Fifth Year, a vast new capital was laid out—it would come to have 45,000 inhabitants, large for an ancient city. The royal inscription mentioned above also stated that besides several temples to the Aten, there would be built separate palaces for the queen and the king. Also a royal family tomb would be hewn in the eastern hills, so that the king, queen, and their children could all be interred together, another departure from the usual arrangements of the royal family, but an indication that they were close. Indeed, the surviving artistic monuments of this new city are replete with unprecedented scenes of royal family togetherness, intimacy, and informality: the royal family at dinner; the royal couple kissing each other while out riding in their chariot; their young daughters clambering for attention and being embraced by the doting parents. No other children of the king appear in the art. Perhaps in an attempt to make up for the loss of familiar old goddesses and favorite divine triads, which featured a god, his goddess consort, and their son, the Aten religion substituted an earthly royal family that was intimately involved with the sun god and would receive the prayers of their subjects and convey their gratitude and petitions on high. Indeed, it has been suggested by scholars that the king and queen took the place of the primeval couple Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture), first "beings" created by the androgynous creator god Atum, whose role the Aten now assumed. Certainly much indicates Nefertiti was revered like a goddess in the Aten cult and, indeed, her lofty headdress imitates that in which Tefnut is usually shown. Prayers carved on the aristocracy's tomb walls are addressed to the Aten, the king and the queen, and the image of Nefertiti replaced those of the traditional four protective goddesses on the corners of her husband's sarcophagus.
Once the royal family settled in the new capital, their names were changed to further emphasize their close relationship to and adoration of the sun disk. Amenhotep IV was now known as Akhenaten (or Akhaniaty) and his wife appended to her flattering name Neferneferuaten ("Perfect are the beauties of the Aten"). The poet-king composed lengthy paeans to his god; at the beginning of some hymns to the Aten, he referred to the worship of the disk as well as of the king and Nefertiti. No distinction seems to have been made among these three in the early years of the reign; they were all meant to be worshipped as a triad.
The new city, strung out along the east bank of the Nile for eight kilometers, was named Horizon of the Aten or Akhetaten, and included one of the largest palaces known from the Middle East of any period: over 750 meters in length. The major Aten temple was actually composed of several independent shrines open to the sky. Here again the king and queen, accompanied by their eldest daughter, predominate in the decoration. By Year 12, the royal family must have felt the city was ready to be shown off, and they held a grand reception, greeting among others an array of international emissaries from African, Aegean and Asiatic lands and receiving their gifts (portrayed by the Egyptians as tribute). Both foreigners and the Egyptians were usually shown in obsequious poses. The kissing of the ground before pharaoh, the deeply bowing servants and guards, are commonplace in the art of Akhetaten, but not typical of traditional Egyptian art.
Tombs were hewn in the cliffs, just beyond the city, for the important people of the court and government. Often on the doorjambs of these tombs were engraved prayers addressed by the deceased to the king and Nefertiti, begging for benefits, such as long life. It is clear that people thought, or were taught to think, that Nefertiti had the powers of a goddess, but she is also depicted as kings traditionally were. One wall scene of a public building depicted a Nile boat with a painting on its cabin's outer wall showing Nefertiti in an aggressive pose associated with kings, smiting a foreign captive with a scimitar. This boat also has its large steering oars decorated with heads of Nefertiti. While in the previous reign her mother-in-law, Queen Tiy, had also, quite exceptionally, used some of this iconography and was, incidentally, much involved in sharing the rule of the empire with her husband, the most aggressive depictions are found only with Nefertiti. In a scene depicting her together with her husband, Nefertiti is portrayed seated on an elaborate stool, while the king sits on a plain one. On one monument from Akhetaten, she appears next to her husband wearing the kingly "blue helmet" coronation crown while Akhenaten wears the traditional double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. All such pharaonic iconography, meant to portray an invincible ruler, does not appear to have been applied to queens previously and increases the probability that Nefertiti had unprecedented powers.
Such evidence prompted J.R. Harris in 1973 to propose that Nefertiti was co-regent with her husband and then succeeded him as pharaoh. Indeed, a female ruler of the late 18th Dynasty was recalled by the historian Manetho 1,000 years later. Unfortunately, feelings ran so strongly in ancient Egypt against Akhenaten for his lack of support for the traditional pantheon of deities, that his monuments and those of his family were thoroughly attacked and pulled down during the century following his death, making research on this period extremely difficult. The scholarly speculations are based on the tantalizing evidence outlined above plus later art from this period. Increasingly, Nefertiti was shown in relief scenes wearing a helmet-like headdress rather than the Tefnut crown. There is one revealing statuette showing her alone and obviously middle-aged and wearing this crown. A silver scarab bearing only her name was found in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. Also, in the next dynasty, her image in particular was often defaced, suggesting that later generations blamed her for assuming too much power or having excessive influence in the realm.
Confusing the reconstruction of the history of the Amarna period is the appearance of other names associated with the name Nefertiti but also with her second name Neferneferuaten. The name Ankhkheperure is found with Neferneferuaten, but also in company with the eldest daughter's name and also used as a pre-nomen for Smenkhkare. It has been assumed that this last name fits the supposedly male remains buried in Tomb 55 of the Valley of the Kings (where the name itself does not appear). This, however, would mean that there were two distinct people, one man and one woman, sharing the same name. This would be, if true, a very strange and unprecedented occurrence.
Nefertiti's name Neferneferuaten appears in inscriptions a few times linked with Akhenaten and also with their daughter Meritaten who is described as a "chief queen." That the daughter could be a "queen" to her mother's "king" has at least one historical precedent earlier in this same dynasty, when Hatshepsut took her daughter Neferure as her queen for ritual purposes. Careful scholarly detective work of recent years has found no evidence of the name Smenkhkare linked to Akhenaten, suggesting that the name appeared in use only after the king's death. This does not mean such a person did not play a royal role at the close of this family's history, but indicates an appearance of the name after the Akhenaten-Nefertiti co-regency and before Tutankhamun's reign.
Thus Nefertiti may well have used the name Neferneferuaten first as queen and then as ruler, when she also adopted the name of Smenkhkare. One inscription from Theban Tomb #139 would allow a three-year reign for the female pharaoh, but part, perhaps most, of this reign was probably as co-regent with her husband. It has been suggested that Nefertiti and Akhenaten shared the rule of the Egyptian empire by having Nefertiti concentrate on domestic affairs in Egypt and Akhenaten deal with foreign affairs and the military. However, significant developments in the religion of the Aten took place late in Akhenaten's reign which suggest that he was much involved in thinking through the characteristics of his god. The concept of Shu and Tefnut seems to have been dropped late in his reign in favor of a single patriarchal monotheism, which excluded Nefertiti. Whether this indicates a rupture of their personal relationship or merely a change in Akhenaten's religious thinking cannot now be known, but if Nefertiti survived, her role in the last years would have developed along political lines and lessened in its theological character. She then became Akhenaten's heir and ruled alone briefly after his death. If this reconstruction is correct, Nefertiti joins the small and select group of women who were pharaohs in ancient Egypt.
The other reconstruction of the history states that with Akhenaten's death, Nefertiti stepped aside and allowed her now mature and married daughter Meritaten to assume the rulership with her husband, Smenkhkare. If this were the case, it may mean that Nefertiti was not well, perhaps she had become blind—a liability for those who stare intently at the sun frequently—or she may have died. There was at this time a plague raging in Egypt and its Eastern territories, and possibly this was responsible for so many deaths in the royal family at one time (the younger daughters of the family are heard of no more), and both Meritaten and Smenkhkare do not seem to have ruled more than one year.
Nefertiti must have been an energetic woman who exerted a powerful influence over her husband. Whether this was for good or ill, we cannot say. She certainly was supportive of his religious ideas, but his absorption with his new religion led him to neglect his foreign policy, which at best was weak and indecisive, at worst disastrous for Egypt. The closing of the temples throughout the land undoubtedly caused economic problems as masses would have been left unemployed, although much of this would have been offset by the building of the new capital, which was achieved at phenomenal speed. The reign was marked by innovations in art, architecture, and religion, as well as in education which was eased and probably extended to more people due to the introduction into the curriculum of the spoken idiom. Previously only the defunct classical form of the language was taught in the schools.
Because Akhenaten unleashed a fanatic attack on all the graven images and names of the other gods during his last years, one must consider that he may have become increasingly mentally unstable, suggesting perhaps a reason why his queen would have had to assume more responsibilities in the rulership. Even more than being a replacement for other goddesses, a female's assumption of supreme ruling power was usually rewarded with later persecutions on the state monuments, and this could easily explain the later defacement of Nefertiti's monuments.
The pharaoh Smenkhkare (Nefertiti?) was succeeded by a mere child, Tutankhamun, whose parentage is unknown, but who was sired by either Akhenaten or Amenhotep III. Because he was so young, probably but nine years of age, when he inherited the throne, the decisions of government were made for him by the highest officials, and presumably chief of these was the brother of Queen Tiy, the aged vizier Aye. He removed both his sister's and Nefertiti's bodies to Thebes and laid them in a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings, just as Tiy's and his parents had been buried in a small tomb in the same illustrious burial place of kings some years earlier.
Until recently, the burials in Kings' Valley #55 have been responsible for a misleading reconstruction of events in the royal family. When first discovered in 1907 by the American Theodore Davis, the toppled walls of a golden shrine featuring the image and names of Tiy and her husband and an elaborate mummy case of a royal person from which the names had been removed were assumed to belong all to one and the same person. A gynecologist who viewed the body proclaimed it a woman's (due to the wide pelvis and absence of male genitals), and Davis was convinced he had both the tomb and the body of Queen Tiy. Unfortunately, soon afterward, rough handling of the mummy reduced it to dust except for a few bones. Years later, anatomists studying the jaw were so impressed with its similarity to Tutankhamun's that they pronounced the remains in Tomb #55 male and around 20 years old at death. This tied in perfectly with the theory that a young man with the name of Smenkhkare had been able to insinuate himself between Nefertiti and her husband and became Akhenaten's favorite, successor, and son-in-law.
When careful reassessment of all monuments and inscriptions convinced some scholars in the last quarter of the 20th century that Smenkhkare was merely another identification for Nefertiti, they were still confronted by the problem of the burial of the "young man" in Tomb #55. However, latest scientific tests now strongly suggest this mummy was not of such a young person, but someone who had reached their late 30s. There is also, judging from what remains today, a 30% chance of the remains being female, but there is an even greater probability when the first eyewitness accounts of the discovery of the body are taken into account (as the excavators and the first medical examiner saw not only mummy wrappings, but facial and bodily remains—far more than recent researchers have been able to deal with). Thus the likelihood grows that the coffin and remains from Tomb #55, now in the Cairo Museum, are those of Nefertiti, who was returned to Thebes in a coffin once intended for the secondary wife Kiya. A more splendid coffin, canopic equipment, and gilded statuettes created for Nefertiti's pharaonic burial were appropriated for Tutankhamun when he died prematurely. The mummy of Akhenaten may then have been left behind at the capital he founded, interred in the royal tomb he had intended for his entire family. In the following 19th Dynasty, perhaps during the reign of Ramses II which saw the destruction of the Atenist capital, the tomb and the burials were vandalized. If, on the other hand, the coffin originally made for a woman was for some reason needed to replace that of the king's (who should have had his own funerary equipment assembled long before he died), it may be that Akhenaten's remains were removed to Thebes in the secondary coffin of Tomb #55. In that case the body of Nefertiti has been lost.
To later generations the names of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their immediate successors were anathema. Akhenaten had not comported himself as an ideal Egyptian king. He did not himself lead his armies on war campaigns and he had shared his rule with a woman who may have been blamed for pushing the discriminatory cult in which she originally played such a prominent role. Nefertiti had the misfortune to live her very public life during a period which experienced a devastating plague that took many lives. To ancient minds, this plague was a sign of the displeasure of the deities who had been stripped of their temples and wealth. It would have been no wonder if the terrified citizenry felt no love for this royal family. In the years following their demise, Akhenaten was referred to as "that criminal" and the monuments and burial places of his family were desecrated.
On the other hand, the sincerity of his quest for truth and the spirituality of his Aten hymns, so similar in theme and phraseology to the 104th Psalm, have won Akhenaten a place in the hearts of many in the past century who have discovered him. This, combined with Nefertiti's beauty and mystery, has caused Nefertiti and Akhenaten to be remembered and respected far beyond the imagining and the wishes of those who persecuted their children and their memory.
The famous painted bust of Nefertiti has had an interesting history itself since discovery. Hidden by the Germans in a salt mine during the Second World War, she was discovered by American troops and given back, not to Egypt, but to the Germans. However, in more recent years the Egyptian government has demanded her return. This has so far been refused as Nefertiti is the centerpiece of the large Amarna collection in Berlin and something of a cult object there as well.
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The largest assemblages of funerary equipment and sculptures of Nefertiti and her family are exhibited in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. The famous bust of Nefertiti and art from the city of Akhetaten is on exhibit at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. However, significant pieces of statuary are also owned by the Louvre in Paris. American collections, at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in particular, have mainly wall reliefs from the buildings erected at Tell el-Amarna and then torn down in the 19th Dynasty. Tens of thousands of inscribed and decorated blocks from the buildings at Karnak temple were discovered recycled as stuffing within several later pylons built there. Some of these talatat are on display at the Luxor Museum in Egypt.
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Waltari, Mika. The Egyptian (novel). Translated by Naomi Walford. NY, 1949.
Barbara S. Lesko , Department of Egyptology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island