Did Nefertiti Become Pharaoh?

Nefertiti was Egypt's third female pharaoh, and the most controversial: some scholars think that she never became pharaoh at all.

After Cleopatra, Nefertiti is Egypt's most famous queen--and its most mysterious. Even her parentage is not certain, although she was probably the daughter of Ay, a royal official and brother of Queen Tiye. This would make her the first cousin of her husband Akhenaten, the infamous "heretic pharaoh."

Nefertiti probably married Akhenaten (then Amunhotep IV) in her early to mid-teens. He was probably not much older. Akhenaten was not the first choice for pharaoh. His older brother, Prince Thutmose, had been groomed for the role, but the crown prince died unexpectedly, leaving the task to his younger brother.

Like so many things about this time period, the possibility of a co-regency between Akhenaten and his father Amunhotep III is controversial. Many Egyptologists now believe that there was a co-regency of no more than five years, possibly less.

Nefertiti started out her career as a subordinate to her husband, albeit an unusually powerful and prominent queen. She was often shown worshiping alone or with her oldest daughter Meritaten.

Things changed around the fifth year of the young king's reign. He changed his name from Amunhotep ("[the god] Amun is content") to Akhenaten "he who is effective for [the god] Aten"). He decided to move the capital from Thebes to a new city he started constructing in Middle Egypt. Then it was called Akhetaten ("the horizon of the Aten"), although today we know it as Amarna. He abolished the polytheistic Egyptian religion and replaced it with the worship of one god, the sun-disc Aten.

The royal family worshiping the Aten

Nefertiti changed her name around this time as well, becoming Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. She played a steadily more prominent role in Amarna artwork, which is shockingly unconventional. The royal family is portrayed in very intimate scenes, cuddling, playing, and giving generous gifts to officials. Nefertiti races chariots with her husband, and often wears a rounded blue crown that some believe is derived from the pharaonic khepresh or war crown. She is also shown smiting Egypt's enemies, an action normally reserved only for a ruling king.

Around Year 12 of Akhenaten's reign, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti disappeared. Some scholars believe she simply died. Others believe she was disgraced and exiled. Still others, however, think that the queen made another transformation--this time to pharaoh and co-regent.

They point to the appearance of an actual co-regent at that time, a mysterious person named Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten. Several cylindrical seals recovered from Amarna give this co-regent's name as Ankhetkheprure--a feminine name! This variation is repeated too often to be an error. Ankh(et)kheprure Neferneferuaten must be a woman.

But who is she? Only two Amarna royal females had the name Neferneferuaten. One was Nefertiti. The other was Neferneferuaten-Tasherit, Nefertiti's fourth daughter. Since Princess Neferneferuaten was as young as four years old in Year 12, it is extremely unlikely that the little princess is this new co-regent. The most logical conclusion is that in Year 12 of her husband's reign, Nefertiti was appointed co-regent and therefore ruled as pharaoh alongside her husband.

Why? We may never know for sure. Perhaps Akhenaten, who had become more and more radical in his persecution of the old religion, was no longer a very effective ruler. Under Pharaoh Neferneferuaten's reign, the persecution eased and a greatly weakened polytheistic priesthood was officially allowed to exist once again.

What happened next is, if possible, even more controversial. When Akhenaten died in Year 17, he was succeeded not by Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten, but by Ankhkheprure Smenkhkare. Some Egyptologists believe that this Smenkhkhare was a son or younger brother of Akhenaten. Curious, though, that there is no record of his existence before Pharaoh Neferneferuaten disappears! The only other person to be named Ankhkheprure was Nefertiti. Again, the most logical explanation is that this solo pharaoh was Nefertiti herself.

Some people object that Smenkhkare must have been a man because his consort was Akhenaten and Nefertiti's oldest daughter Meritaten. The logic goes that a female pharaoh cannot have a female consort.

The problem with this, of course, is that only a few generations earlier the female pharaoh Hatshepsut did take her own daughter as consort. She did this to keep divine order. Pharaoh plays a male role and therefore needs a female consort for ritual purposes.

Another objection to the Nefertiti-as-Smenkhkare theory is that there was already a legitimate male heir: Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun. Again, we can look to Hatshepsut. Even though her stepson Thutmose III was the heir, she acted as his regent and eventually declared herself pharaoh.

Perhaps Nefertiti took the throne because she feared a coup and wanted to keep the power for her family. Maybe she intended to groom Tutankhamun for the throne and abdicate to him once he was old enough.

Alas, this did not happen. Nefertiti/Smenkhkare reigned for only a short time before presumably dying. It's not hard to imagine that she was murdered. Around this time period an Egyptian queen sent a distraught letter to Egypt's enemy, the Hittite king, begging him to send her a son to marry. The king was suspicious but eventually sent his son Zannanza. Zannanza never made it to the wedding. He was murdered shortly after entering Egypt. His would-be bride may well have suffered the same fate.

Smenkhkare was succeeded by nine-year-old Tutankhamun. Less than ten years later he, too, was dead, probably as the result of a chariot accident. His wife, Nefertiti's daughter Ankhesenamun, disappeared from the record soon after.

Tutankhamun and his sister-wife Ankhesenamun

The next person to jump into this game of "musical thrones" was Ay, Nefertiti's father. Already an old man, he reigned for only four years.

Ay's chosen successor was his son General Nakhtmin, but it seems there was a power struggle after Ay's death. The victor was General Horemheb. His wife and consort was a woman named Mutnodjmet who may well have been Nefertiti's half-sister. Sadly, like so many of her relatives, Mutnodjmet's life also ended in tragedy. A woman's body was found in Horemheb's tomb next to the body of a fetus or newborn infant. Mutnodjmet, who was probably in her mid-forties at the time, seems to have died from complications of pregnancy or childbirth.

The Eighteenth Dynasty ended with Horemheb, who reigned for thirty years and died childless. He named as his successor a military man named Ramses, who became Pharaoh Ramses I. His grandson would be Ramses the Great.

Nefertiti's life is cloudy with mystery and misfortune. She was a mother, daughter, sister, wife, and ruler. Her name was later erased from history, but today she is one of Egypt's most famous queens. Today we remember her as the greatest beauty of her time. Instead, we should remember her as the most powerful woman of her time, a woman who dared to do what only a few women ever did: declare herself pharaoh of Egypt.

Reeves, Nicholas. Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Print.

Samson, Julia. Amarna, City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Nefertiti as Pharaoh. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1978. Print.

___. Nefertiti and Cleopatra: Queen-Monarchs of Ancient Egypt. 1985. London: The Rubicon Press, 1990. Print.

Tyldesley, Joyce. Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.
___. Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen. 1998. London: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.


  1. but i have read Nakhtmin was Ay's son-in-law, he was Mutnodjmet's husband.

  2. There's a statute of Nakhtmin and Mutnodjmet in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, depicting them as husband and wife. It refers to nakhtmin as the son in law of Ay.

  3. Hello both Anonymouses (Anonymi?). I've gone over my research since you've commented and I cannot find any reference linking Nakhtmin and Mutnodjmet as husband and wife. I believe I confused the statue of Horemheb and his wife Mutnodjmet with the statue of Nakhtmin and his unnamed wife.

    As for the latter statue referring to Nakhtmin as the son-in-law of Ay, it actually does not. It refers to him as "Royal Scribe, Generalissimo, and King's Son [...]" It is at this point that the inscription becomes unreadable due to damage. Some scholars want to complete this so that it reads "King's Son of Kush" (that is, Viceroy of Kush). However, he doesn't fit into the list of known viceroys of the 18th Dynasty. The most logical way to complete the inscription is "King's Son of His Body," which refers to the biological son of a king. The only logical candidate for this king is Ay. It obviously can't be the youth King Tutankhamun, and it can't be Smenkhkare (if he was even a he). It can't be Akhenaten either, since that would mean that Nakhtmin would have inherited the throne instead of the younger Tutankhamun. (See "Amarna Sunset" by Aidan Dodson, p. 99.)

    The only book I have read that names Nakhtmin as Ay's son-in-law is Michelle Moran's historical novel "Nefertiti." If she had access to another publication or article that argued in favor of Nakhtmin being Ay's son-in-law, I don't know of its existence. It was probably one of those creative decisions that novelists often make to further the story.