When it comes to romantic glamour, Nefertiti, beautiful queen of ancient Egypt, has it all. Her story contains mystery, drama, and a lost flowering of art and religion. Most people know of her. Yet nobody would pay much attention to Nefertiti if her likeness hadn’t survived in a gorgeous piece of statuary that to our modern eyes shows her as intensely beautiful. In fact, this artistic representation from around 1340 BC has taken on a life of its own. It is reproduced in countless anthologies of ancient Egyptian art. It is imitated whenever anybody attempts an Egyptian costume. And wherever there is an exhibition of ancient Egyptian art, Nefertiti’s bust is likely to be represented. Where would Nefertiti be without this flattering piece of statuary? Pretty much where the rest of us are headed, the ash-heap of history.
Here are the facts about Nefertiti as we know them today: Nefertiti was the favored queen of the renegade Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. Akhenaten is viewed by the modern world as a very enlightened king because he dreamed up monotheism all on his own, thousands of years before it existed anywhere. This put him in direct conflict with the priestly establishment of his day (sound familiar?), so he abandoned the usual capital, Thebes, and built his own farther down the Nile, now called Amarna. During Akhenaten’s reign, the formal art style changed. Akhenaten himself looks pretty weird, with a pointy chin and big lips. And all the royal family have very elongated heads—unlike any Egyptian royalty depicted before or since. Nefertiti is in these depictions, and her head also is elongated. To complement that look, she wears a crown or headdress unlike any worn by any Egyptian lady. Nefertiti also assumes unusual importance in the stone carvings and paintings that tell us about ancient Egypt. Whereas conventionally, a man’s wife and children are represented in miniature size alongside him, Nefertiti was depicted in the same scale as Akhenaten on the wall paintings of the day. Proof she was very important. But it is her bust that has made her famous.
Nefertiti has fine features. And to my eyes she has a snooty and self-possessed look—just the kind of look that went over big in 1912, when her bust was found. Most ancient Egyptians look calm and happy. But Nefertiti looks like she’ll make mincemeat of you if you cross her. She’s a high-ranking lady made of steel. It takes a strong will to wear a headdress that huge and keep your chin up, but Nefertiti does it.
Nefertiti’s calm but deadly gaze, now known to western civilization for almost 100 years, has inspired many works of fiction, including straight romances, reincarnation tales, time-travel adventures, and more. In real life, Nefertiti gave birth to six daughters and was married to a fairly odd-looking nutcase pharaoh. Then she vanished. In fiction, she gets visited by modern time travelers, or is reincarnated into the bodies of modern young women. Or she is the star of far-fetched alternate history tales. Her ghost talks in seances. Her ectoplasm visits high-strung gentlewomen who live in spooky houses. And so on.
As silly or as sentimental as these fictional takes on Nefertiti sound, at their core they are proof of just how inspirational one dynamic piece of artwork can be. How the very idea of Nefertiti, the beauteous queen as represented by her bust, has forged an imaginative chain of hope and longing between modern people and a person who has been dead—regardless of the mysterious circumstances—for at least 3,300 years. A link between today and an ancient, vanished culture that is repeatedly expressed in romantic outpourings.
When people scoff at any visual medium, about art, they should think a little bit about Nefertiti. And ask themselves why they even know who she was. And then just look at her.