I know that the King of Egypt, Akhenaten, AKA Amenhotep IV, died around 1336 B.C.E., at about 50 years of age, in the 17th year of his reign, possibly of a heart attack. It is hard to speak with certainty after 4, 000 years, and until 2010 the only evidence we had were faint hints carved on the walls of ancient monuments and tombs. But using DNA his mummy has been identified with a “distinctive, egg-shaped skull, slight spinal scoliosis, impacted wisdom teeth... (and a) cleft palate”. These physical characteristics hint at Homocystinuria, an inherited disorder which also often produces glaucoma, which blinds its sufferers. This is what comes from sleeping with your siblings, as the gene causing this disorder is recessive and develops only when you inherit two copies. But intermarriage was something the Ancient Egyptian nobility often did, keeping the crown and their property in the family, along with other things.
If Akhenaten's son had been his co-ruler, then the boy's mother would have been the regent, ruling the nation until the new Pharaoh grew. But his son (by a “lesser” wife) was not the co-ruler, Nefertiti was. So on the death of the King, the Queen became the Pharaoh, playing her new role under the name Smenkhkare and/or Neferneferuaten. She was even depicted in the very un-Queenly activity of wield a killing mallet (above), dispatching prisoners under the rays of Aten, as other Pharaohs were. This had happened before, when the queen Hatsheput had put on a fake beard and governed for 22 years. But her Egypt had been unified, while Nefertiti's was a land divided by religion.
Three of her daughters were dead, killed by a plague that had ravaged Egypt for three years. The followers of Amun Ra saw this as divine punishment for the Aten heresy, but Nefertiti had been devoted to her husband, and was determined to protect his legacy, her family and his faith. Her problem was she had few allies in Egypt. And so she appealed to the only other power that could resist the nobility and the Priesthoods, the mortal enemies of the Egyptian Empire, the Hittites.
The only copy we have of the this extraordinary appeal appears in the history compiled by the Hittite King Mursili II. He says the Egyptian Queen dispatched an ambassador to his father, King Suppiluliuma I, with the following plea. “My husband is dead and I have no son. People say that you have many grown sons. If you send me one of your sons he will become my husband for it is repugnant to me to take one of my subjects as a husband.” The letter did not suggest the Hittite Prince would become Pharaoh, but the offer was unique in history. It would have been as if, during the Cold War, the American President had offered to appoint a Soviet diplomat as Vice President. The ruling Hittite Council was suspicious and sent the chamberlain Hattu-Zittish to see of it was a trap.
Neffertiti's response to this envoy was almost frantic. “Why do you say 'They are trying to deceive me?' If I had a son, should I write to a foreign country in a manner humiliating to me and to my country? You do not believe me and you even say so to me!...I have written to no other country, I have written to you. They say that you have many sons. Give me one of your sons and he will be my husband and lord of the land of Egypt.” There it was, the offer to make a Hittite prince the King of Egypt. And that clinched the deal. Mursili II records, “Because my father was generous, he granted the lady's request and decided to send his son.” What a nice guy.
However, the transaction was never consummated. Shortly after arriving on Egyptian soil the Hittite Prince, Zannanza, was murdered. Suppililiuma I demanded an explanation. “What have you done with my son?...the blood spilled between us is not right.” But the new Egyptian King could give no explanation. It appears another revolution had occurred in Egypt.
During this counter revolution, Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Lady of Grace, She Who Comes With Beauty, Great King's Wife, His Beloved, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Pharaoh of Egypt, simply disappeared. Her tomb was never occupied. Her mummy, if she ever had one, has never been found. Her name was scratched off almost all of the temples and her legend was systematically smashed. It appears they even broke into the workshop of Thutmose the Royal Sculptor, to smash and destroy all images of this woman. After even the bricks from the walls of Aketaten were scavenged, the broken images of Nefertiti were left behind, to be swallowed by the desert sands.
Her death was just the beginning. Nefertiti's record as a ruler was wiped clean, almost impossible to reconstruct. Some Egyptologists are still arguing about whether she had died years before. But she did not. The effort to abolish her memory seems too complete to have been merely punishment for a despot. Even a Stalin is remembered with reverence by some. But Queen Nefertiti, Pharaoh Neferneferuaten, seems to have committed a crime far worse than mere tyranny. She was a traitor, to the faith of her people, to the land of her people, to her role which was to produce sons for her King.
The casket of Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who betrayed the faith, was defaced (above). But it was also persevered, probably by his son, the boy King Tutankhamen .Some of the grave goods prepared for Nefertit's tomb were re-gifted and found in Tutankhamen tomb instead. But the woman Akhenaten loved more than any other, she received no casket, she received no monument, her memory was scratched off, discarded, condemning her to three thousand years of silent death.
And then, out of the darkness of seemingly endless time came a wonk, a German nerd, a Teutonic bookworm, to rescue Nefertiti from obscurity. And for this he was branded a thief.
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