I warn you that meeting an icon in the flesh is almost always disappointing. Kings and queens, gods and saints, zealot and demagogue are really just stone cold reflections of their acolytes' vision. Real heroes have feet of clay, and it is the clay that is usually the interesting part. With clay you can shape mountains, build palaces, sculpt river valleys, hold warm food or a cold drink, even record legends. But what are you to do when you meet an icon that is both stone and clay? What are we to make of Nefertiti?
At first glance she is a contradiction, the definition of feminine beauty and royal imperiousness, at once immediate and distant, warm and lifeless. She is iconically Egyptian, and yet she now sits alone in a room in Berlin, Germany. She is a Mona Lisa in sandstone, and clay and plaster, powdered glass and arsenic sulfide, coal and beeswax. And so lifelike you might expect her to suddenly rise and walk out of the room, except she is 4,300 years old. And she has no legs. She is the illusion of a genius, a display of talent and skill that humans would not achieve again until Michelangelo turned stone into an apprehensive David. And yet she was abandoned, discarded as sacrilegious trash, forgotten in the ruins, not worth picking up or going back for. And we are forever in the debt of the fools who wanted her forgotten forever.
The real woman was bred to be a ruler, bred to be a breeder of rulers, who only produced six girls for her husband. Because of that it was the men in her lives who defined Nefertiti. Her father Ay was ambitious, and used her beauty to grasp for power. Her husband, a scarecrow of a misshapen prince who became the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV was one of the most powerful and extraordinary mad men in history. And likely her brother. She was immortalized by the artist Thutmose, a bureaucrat, the Chief of Works for the Pharaoh, but who was artist enough to dare capture her honest humanity in plaster. And she was saved from obscurity by a Prussian academic, Ludwig Borchardt, an overachiever, a dedicated student of ancient Egypt, a savvy horse trader, and a fervent German nationalist. And to her list of admirers and fans we have to add Adolf Hitler and George Patton and an arrogant Egyptian archaeologist. Consider all of that and you might begin to understand the difficulty in finding the real woman behind the statue.
The dominance of those men might explain why we do not know her real name. History records her as Nefertiti (above), which translates as “The Beauty Has Come”. And that she was. But that name was bestowed by her husband, and royal Egyptians changed their names every time they changed their roles in life. Her younger sister's name was Mutbenret, a common girl's name meaning “Sweet one of Mut”. Mut was the mother goddess of Egypt. Unless they had a different father (which was certainly possible) Nefertiti's original name was probably closer to her sister. As a queen of the Nile, Nefertiti was also known as the Great Royal Wife, Lady of Grace, Sweet Love, Lady of all Women, Lady of the Two Lands, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. And Egypt was the stage upon which she performed all of her roles, those of the living breathing woman, and those of a stone and plaster icon, missing an eye to keep her a icon soulless.
An ancient Egyptian proverb says “Help yourself and the Nile will help you.” Egypt has been defined by the river for 12,000 years, since the sluggish White and pulsing Blue Nile's first joined and began chasing the retreating Mediterranean Sea northward. From their junction just above the 5th cataract (modern day Khartoum), the Nile traverses 1,200 miles of desert in a great S curve. Then, at Aswan and the first cataract, the placid river heads due north for another 930 miles, a mile wide moving oasis dividing lifeless sands, to modern day Cairo. Over its final 100 miles above Cairo the river divides into two again, the Damietta and the Rosetta channels, before reaching the sea. And it was here, in the 150 mile wide Nile Delta that Lower Egypt was born first. Later, three hundred miles lower on the river, Upper Egypt formed around the city of Abydos. About 3150 B.C.E. (5,000 years ago), the two kingdoms were united when Namer, ruler of Lower Egypt took as his bride the Upper Egyptian princess Neithhotep, meaning “loved of Neith”.
At the end of 1350 B.C.E., when Amenhotep III died after 38 years on the throne, the capital of Egypt was Thebes. Egypt had reached its pinnacle – of wealth and power and influence and art. But the 45 year old man who wore the twin crowns had grown timid and fat, racked by debilitating arthritis and that most Egyptian of ailments, dental abscesses – developed by a life time of grinding sand grains in every mouthful of food. Amenhotep III's devotions to the minor god Aten, the sun disk, grew to match his agonies. His great wife, Tyie, had assumed many of his duties, as he prepared to enter the city of the dead. Only near the end was the Pharaoh's eldest surviving son, who had been schooled away from Thebes, finally brought back to the palace. His absence had kept him safe but woefully inexperienced in politics.
The term Pharaoh began as the name of the King's “Great House” - his palace. But it had come to refer not only to the god-man on the throne, but to the palace servants, the bureaucrats and functionaries, much as the term “White House” is used today. This institutionalized Pharaoh was supported by two pillars of power, the army which obeyed only the King's commands and the priesthood of the god Amun-Re (pronounced Amun-Ra). The god Amun had started as a local deity of Thebes, but through centuries of donations by wealthy nobility and even Pharaohs, the god Amun-Re had grown to ultimate power, co-opting many of the old gods into an all encompassing triad deity, the father, son and holy ghost. According to an Egyptian proverb, “All gods are three... He who hides his name as Amun (the invisible father), he appears to the face as Re (the sun), whose body is Ptah.(the creator). By 1350 B.C.E. the priesthood of Amun-Re controlled up to 30% of all land in Egypt, vast wealth and estates, armies of slaves and fleets of ships; even more numerous than the Pharaoh's.
The man who placed the twin crowns of Egypt on Amenhotep IV's head was the High Priest Amenhotep-Huy (above). He had also been the previous Pharaoh's Vizier, or chief of staff, and his “Director of Works for Upper and Lower Egypt”, Superintendent of the Harem; Overseer of the Double Treasury of the Great Royal Wife, and Steward of Queen Tiji. And he continued in those posts under the new Pharaoh, because Huy had allies in both the government and the faith, making him the second most powerful man in Egypt. In some ways, the most powerful. In addition Huy was a wealthy man in his own right, from a powerful delta family. He personally owned large estates and an exclusive resort on the “Reed Sea” where he rewarded his supporters with lavish vacations. He had even dared to dictate to the old and weak previous Pharaoh.
The new young ruler (above) waited, squirming against the restraints placed on him by Huy. At first he went about his duties, dedicating several new temples in Thebes and its religious suburb of Karnak, including one close to his father's heart, the Gempaaten (“the Aten is found in the estate of the Aten”). Most of these temples had been started by his father, and built by his chief architect Bek. But it seems Amenhotep had begun to feel out those around him. We know he encouraged Bek to turn away from the standardized art of his father - and Huy. Amenhotep urged Bek to draw and sculpt more closely from life. The young king and his beautiful wife spreading such revolutionary messages must have set off sparks of support among the young artisans in his service.
After two years Amenhotep and Nefertiti had two daughters (above), Meritaten (she who is loved of Aten) and Meketaten (she who is protected by Aten). As their names indicated, the Pharaoh had begun to turn his private face away from Amun- Re. He was growing more determined that when he finally had a son, the boy should never be forced to kowtow before a mere functionary, a priest like Huy. An idea was forming in Amenhotep's mind, a way to freedom, a sweeping away of the old way of doing things, breathing new life into his Kingdom, and using some of that great wealth his father had guarded to restrain the smothering Priesthood of Amun-Re.
In the third year of his reign, Amenhotep IV ordered Bek to dispatch royal engineers up the Nile, looking for a spot away from Thebes where a new city could be established, a new city dedicated to the god Aten. What he did not tell anyone yet, was that he intended this new city be the new capital of Egypt; to be named Akhetaten