Author Michelle Moran brought the famous Egyptian queen to life in her popular book Nefertiti – and is thrilled by what the possible discovery of Nefertit’s tomb could teach us about her life
In the windswept, hot, sandy Egyptian desert in 1912, a German archaeological team headed by Ludwig Borchardt was excavating a long-forgotten city that had a mysterious history. Borchardt unearthed a stunning bust that had been buried in the rubble for more than 3,300 years, a face that would soon become famous worldwide: Nefertiti.
Over the next 100 years, archaeologists and Egyptologists would slowly piece together the story of a controversial cultural and religious revolution that swept across ancient Egypt under the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife Nefertiti.
Recent news of the possible discovery of Nefertiti’s tomb sent a shockwave of excitement through Egyptologist communities around the world. In a paper published in July, British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves suggested that Nefertiti’s final resting place might be located just behind secret doorways in the famous tomb of her step-son King Tutankhamun – passageways that were closed off and plastered and painted over.
Discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, Tutankhamun’s funeral chamber became an instant global sensation for the 3,000 artifacts that were removed, including his mummy, encased in golden splendor.
But Tutankhamun was a little-known king who died at a young age. Nefertiti was one of Egypt’s most famous queens.
“She was the Cleopatra of her time. Just as beautiful, just as wealthy, and just as powerful – if not more powerful,” says Michelle Moran, author of Nefertiti, a popular work of historical fiction. “It would be a rich discovery if this tomb held her body.”
In Egypt’s history, there have been other powerful female leaders, but what is it about Nefertiti that captures the public imagination?
“It’s the bust. You see the graceful curve of her neck, her thinly arched brows, cheekbones so rigid they could cut you,” Moran says. “She could be a supermodel today. The ideals of beauty haven’t changed.” Indeed, Borschardt felt the same when he discovered the bust, writing in his diary: “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”
It was gazing into that frozen face of Nefertiti, now on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, that inspired Moran to write her book.
“She is compelling. You look into her face and you are arrested by beauty,” Moran says.
But her beauty is only part of the story. Moran is known for using fiction to bring to life important women who were forgotten in history. The more she learned about Nefertiti and ancient Egypt, the more drawn she was to writing her story. It took more than two years of research.
Beyond Nefertiti’s beauty lies the story of one of Egypt’s greatest cultural upheavals, the reign of Akhenaten, known as the “heretical king” for the sweeping changes he instituted early in his reign as pharaoh.
Akhenaten, who was born Amenhotep IV, brought in a new era in Egypt when he ruled from 1352 BC to 1336 BC. He dismissed Egypt’s polytheism and introduced worship that focused solely on the Aten, the disc of the sun – which was considered heresy at the time. It was at this point that he changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, to honor Aten. Many experts say that by dismissing Egypt’s other gods, especially the main god, Amun, Akhenaten’s actions massively disrupted Egypt’s established power structure in the longstanding capital Thebes between the pharaoh’s court and the head temple priests.
In addition to changing the national religion, Akhenaten and his family – which included his first wife, Kiya, and chief wife, Nefertiti – relocated the national capital from Thebes (modern Luxor) to a new city 250 miles to the north up the Nile River, building it hastily from scratch. He named the city Akhetaten. In addition to these radical changes, Akhenaten’s reign also supported a new style of artwork. Diverging from rigid long-established conventions, art during this time depicted people, animals and objects more realistically, with curves and imperfections and the illusion of movement. Other works for the first time displayed intimate scenes of affection within the royal family.
This art has dazzled and puzzled archaeologists, and left a lasting impression on writers like Moran. She was especially moved by a relief showing Nefertiti with her children. “The artwork showed the queen as a mother, bouncing her children on her knee.” It was these details and color that fuelled Moran’s imagination as she used fiction to bring Nefertiti to life.
An important figure in this new artistic era was the Egyptian royal sculptor Thutmose. It was in the excavation of his studio that the famous bust of Nerfertiti was found. And after the queen had captivated the public with her perfect beauty for nearly 100 years, advances in technology finally showed “the real” Nefertiti. In 2009, the bust was studied with sophisticated CT scanning technology, which revealed that Thutmose had placed layers of stucco on top of a limestone core. This “hidden” face of Nefertiti appears more realistic, with wrinkles, less-defined cheekbones and a bump on the nose. It was in the final stucco layer that Thutmose smoothed the edges and perfected the features.
Of all that we know about Nefertiti, this is one of Moran’s favorite tales. It was the “ancient-day version of photoshopping”, she said.
Until now, Nefertiti’s life has been pieced together from fragments. Finding her tomb would be an indescribable boon to understanding both her life and this mysterious, rebellious time in Egypt’s history, referred to by scholars as the Amarna period. Because Egyptian burials include lots of everyday objects (to accompany the individual into the afterlife) and are so well preserved, tombs – whether those of commoners or royalty – have helped archaeologists paint a picture of life in ancient Egypt.
And that is why the public is so captivated. These objects, now on display in museums around the world and featured in a myriad of documentaries, have brought these ancient people back to life. And as Moran notes, Egyptian life in many ways is similar to ours today. “They were so modern in many ways,” she says, noting the everyday objects they used. “These artifacts … transport people back 3,000 years ago.”
Moran, who spent countless hours imaging the life of Nefertiti to write her book, says that she is beyond excited about the possible discovery of her tomb. “To find her tomb would be unbelievable. It would answer a lot of unanswered questions such as when she died, how she died, speculations on if she was co-regent after husband’s death.” And of course, it would help scholars continue understanding King Tutankhamun’s dynamic family history. After Akhenaten’s death, scholars believe that Egypt dismissed Aten as the sole god and moved the center of power back to Thebes, and some speculate Nefertiti ruled as pharaoh. Born Tutankhaten in honor of Aten, the boy king changed his name to Tutankhamun.
Reeves is eager to continue the research needed to see if his theory is right. “Obviously a full and detailed geophysical survey of this famous tomb and its surrounding area is now called for and I would suggest as one of Egyptology’s highest priorities,” he writes. “Three and a half thousand years later, Howard Carter had the time, but he lacked the technology to see beneath the tomb’s painted walls. Accepting the oddly positioned rock-cut niches as evidence that the Burial Chamber’s walls were completely solid, he brought his search to a close wholly unaware that a more significant find by far may have been lying but inches from his grasp.”
It’s expected that the Ministry of State for Antiquities in Egypt will respond to Reeves’s theory and call for further study. The ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, the public will have to remain patient. But Moran says that in her next book, she will return her focus to another historical character in ancient Egypt, after years of receiving an “overwhelming” amount of mail from her readers fascinated by its history. Moran says she remains interested in Egypt’s 18th dynasty and “it is possible” her next book could be about Queen Hatshepsut. She may be about to bring another great Egyptian woman back to life.