Revised, October, 2013



              We know quite a lot about Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and the age in which they lived, considering the effort made by their successors to erase all signs of their existence.  Unfortunately, there is even more that we don’t know. Each new discovery seems to raise more questions than answers. We know that Nefertiti was an active partner in her husband's religious reforms and that for this reason she was given status and power not possessed by any previous King's Great Wife, but we don't know if that included the co-regency. Such a move would not have been  without precedent as on occasion a monarch made his chosen heir a sort of associate king, perhaps to provide on  the job experience and ensures a smooth succession.

`         Uppermost in the minds of Ancient Egyptians when they paused to think about the meaning of life and the nature of the cosmos in which they lived was the vast array of polar opposites: life and death, day and night, order and chaos and, of course, male and female. Since one could not exist without the other, both were equally important.  Unlike most other civilizations in the Ancient World, Egyptian law did not distinguish between men and women. Theory and practice, of course, were not always the same, and  there is evidence to show that in many home the husband was at least shown to be in charge, but the title Mistress of the House was an honorable one and men and women socialized together. Though there was a decided preference for men, it had been decided as far back as the Old Kingdom that in special circumstances a woman could sit on the throne as king. A hereditary monarch cannot exist without a king’s mother and a king’s wife. As might be expected, then, royal women had always played an important role both at court and at the many public ceremonies.     

           There is general agreement that throughout the Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian queens acquired more and more prestige at court and this trend reached its highest level with Nefertiti. The question here is how far the process went. Did she reach the point where she was thought to be divine? Did she become co-regent and sit on the throne of Egypt beside her husband? It is now generally agreed that a woman did indeed serve as co-regent but we do not know who she was. She might or might not have been Nefertiti.

           Let us look first at whether Nefertiti was thought to be a goddess. This is a little more complicated than it might appear at first glance. According to the world view of the Ancient Egyptians it may well have been possible to be partly divine.  The pharaoh was definitely a god but he was seldom worshipped as such until after his death; divinity simply enabled the pharaoh to understand and communicate with the other gods and explain to them the needs of his people.

           Pharaohs traditionally placed the image of a goddess at each of the four corners of their sarcophagus to provide protection. Akhenaten substituted an  images of Nefertiti. The Egyptians had always worshipped many gods and goddesses and it made sense to group them together in worship.  A  common combination involved three divinities; there were many such triads. A new triad featured Akhenaten, Nefertiti and the god Aten. Are these signs of Nefertiti's perceived divinity or are they simply a monotheist's attempts to keep as much tradition as possible?

           There are more clues about Nefertiti's royal status than her divinity, but the picture remains just as murky. The “smiting scene” is a common portrayal of a pharaoh killing the enemies of Egypt.  It was a standard way to proclaim a pharaoh’s power and his kingly qualities and did not necessarily refer to any real event.  Nefertiti is unique among kings' wives in being pictured in such a way. Tradition dictated that it was the king, as chief priest of all the religious cults, who made offerings to the gods.  Women participated in worship and the Queen was an important part of any service, but it was the King who offered the sacrifices.  What then do we make of the scene painted in Karnak early in the reign showing Nefertiti making an offering to Aten?            Further, the Amarna tomb of Panehesy show Nefertiti and Akhenaten both wearing the Atef crown of kingship, though her crown is smaller and less elaborate. Are these signs she shared his throne or merely signs she was a very important King's Great Wife?

           The evidence we have looked at so far is entirely circumstantial, but the record does give us some concrete names to work with. Late in Akhenaten's reign there appear in the record the cartouches of two kings who served as Akhenaten’s co- regents: Nkhkheperure-Neferneferuaten and Ankhkheperure-Smenkhkare.  For a long time it was assumed these were variations on the name of a single monarch and the debate was whether it was a man or a women. Most scholars, though perhaps not all, now agree that they represent two different people, one man and one woman.

           Manetho, a Third Century BCE. historian, referred to a female named Akenkheres ruling Egypt at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty.  Manetho regularly transcribed Egyptian names into something that would sound better to his Greek audience and it is possible that Akenkheres is his rendering of Ankhkheprua. 

           The woman, Neferneferuaten, was on the throne for two, perhaps as many as three years, but it seems unlikely she ever ruled alone. The male co-regent may have served for as long as three years and some if not most of that may well have been after Akhenaten's death.

           The big question, then, is who was Neferneferuaten? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: Nefertiti. If Akhenaten were going to pick a woman with whom to share the throne, who else would he pick but the wife who had so clearly been an active partner in bringing about his religion revolution. She had begun life with a fairly simple name which later in the reign she changed to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. Records of Nefertiti disappear some time between Year 12 and Year 14 of Akhenaten’s reign.  For a while it was assumed she had retired in disgrace to the Northern Palace, but that idea has been discarded.  The simplest explanation would be that she died, but it is surprising that no record of such an important event has survived. Could Nefertiti have further morphed into the coregent bearing the same name? 

           While some still cling to this view, sober second thought has led others to reject it. Egyptian kings have five names. The two most important ones are the nomen and the prenomen. The nomen was the name given to the king at birth. It is equivalent to what we would today call the First Name or the Given Name. The prenomen  was assigned to the king when he first ascended the throne. We today tend to identify all of the pharaohs by their nomen, but it was the prenomen the Ancient Egyptians used for official business. If the nomen was the monarch’s given name what are we to make of Neferneferuaten? Granted, Akhenaten’s Great Wife changed her name to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti that was not the new king’s nomen either.

           Nefertiti’s  shabti (a small doll made after a person’s death and buried with the mummy to do any labor required of the deceased in the afterlife) shows her with the titles of a King’s Great Wife and not with the scepters and titles of ruling monarch. While some argue this might have been manufactured before the promotion and preserved by accident. Others say it is proof that Nefertiti was buried as a mere queen, and cannot possibly be the elusive Neferneferuaten.

           Who else could it be? Akhenaten’s secondary wife, Kiya, is generally rejected out of hand. Attempts were made in several places to erase her name. It is inconceivable that she would be elevated to the co-regency and then have her name desecrated in this way.

           Meryetaten, Akhenaten’s eldest daughter, is a valid candidate and a number of scholars feel she is indeed the one, but others point to two major problems. The first is the nomen. There is no way at all to reconcile Neferneferuaten’s nomen with Meryetaten birthname. A fragment of the top of a box found in Tutankhamun’s tomb shows the cartouches of Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten and Meryetaten. It is hard to believe that there would be separate cartouches for Neferneferuaten and Meryetaten if they were the same person.

           The last of the major contenders is Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Akhenaten’s fourth daughter. Tasherit, a word that can be translated as “the younger”, was usually used to distinguish a young girl or woman from a mother or aunt with the same name. If you drop the designation Tasherit, which was usually done once the relevant mother or aunt had died, the fourth daughter’s birth name is a perfect match for Neferneferuaten’s nomen. It would seem the mystery is solved, but there is a major problem. We do not know when Nefertiti died, but there certainly were two older daughters alive at the time Neferneferuaten ascended the throne. Why would Akhenaten bypass Meryetaten and Ankhesenpaaten to promote Neferneferuaten Tasherit to the co-regency?

           We know that Nefertiti's status was higher than that of any previous King's Great Wife, but we do not know if that included a promotion to the co-regency. We know that a woman sat briefly on the throne beside Akhenaten, but we do not know if that woman was Nefertiti or someone else.