on 7 May 2006
One of the most famous faces in the world, and perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of sculpture, is the exquisite bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, which is currently housed in the Berlin museum. She's also widely regarded as Egypt's most beautiful queen (I wonder what Cleopatra would have to say about that?). But what do we really know about her? Not a lot, as Joyce Tyldesley's book, Nefertiti, shows us. In fact, so little is known that a book that is rather short to begin with takes a lot of side trips talking about her husband and the unusual monotheistic religion that he formed. Thankfully, Tyledesley never claims to have all of the answers. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the publishers from advertising that she did. Yes, bad cover copy once again leads the reader astray, and while the book is interesting enough despite that, I still have to knock it down some for that. Many of the questions that the back cover asks ("Did she ever rule Egypt as king? When did she die?") don't actually have answers within the book. Tyledesley gives her best estimate, and refutes some of the common theories, but she admits that there's no way to tell.
Tyldesley has certainly given us an interesting book, however. She begins by giving an overview of Nefertiti's father-in-law, Amenhotep III, and his rule. She goes into great detail about Amenhotep's mother, Tiy, and examines some of the questions about them. It takes almost fifty pages before Nefertiti comes on the scene, and Tyldesley introduces her with the question of her parentage. No record has ever been found of her birth and only one relative has come to the fore. Some believe she was a foreigner come to Egypt, perhaps a Nubian princess? Tyldesley effortlessly deflects most of these theories, even as she does admit that they could be true. I was very glad to see that Tyldesley rarely assumes anything, giving the reader all sides of the story, even as she provides evidence that supports what she believes is the case.
The book then moves on to examine the reign of her husband, Akhenaten, and the religion that he founded (and which, subsequently, was pretty much wiped from history by subsequent pharaohs). Nefertiti does figure in this at times, as it has been proposed that she was a goddess figure much like Akhenaten was the god. Some images that date from this period show Nefertiti acting similar to what high priests would do in the previous religion, smiting enemies or leading religious ceremonies. For the most part, however, the chapter is about Akhenaten's rule, and subsequent chapters give us more detail, even as they examine Nefertiti's role in the whole thing. In fact, one of the chapters (called "Queen, King, or Goddess?") brings up the question of whether or not Nefertiti ever ruled in her husband's place, perhaps after he died. Once again, Tyldesley deals with that by giving us as much information as is known, stating that it's most likely that she never served as king and detailing why the other hypotheses aren't very credible.
I found these chapters especially interesting because, while I had heard of Akhenaten and his replacing of all the Egyptian gods with his own divinity, I didn't really know much about it. Tyldesley does a wonderful job giving the reader as much information about this period as she can, detailing all the references that Egyptologists have discovered about this period. She sets the scene wonderfully too, so clearly that I almost felt like I was walking the streets of ancient Amarna (what archeologists now call the city Akhenaten founded, though I don't think she ever explains why this is).
When Tyldesley begins discussing the "sunset" of Akhenaten's reign, that's when the book really begins to take a side trip. Nefertiti disappears from the narrative, and we must assume that she died at this point (Tyldesley does bring up some people's theory that she fell out of favour and was wiped from the record, but she quickly discounts it after explaining what evidence these theorists use for it). She then discusses the fall of Akhenaten, the birth of Tutankhamen, and the gradual erasure of the Amarna era as subsequent monarchs move back to the original capital and bring the old gods back. Another of Akhenaten's wives is believed to be Tut's mother, so we have a great many pages where the supposed thrust of the book is completely off screen. While this was interesting, I do believe that the book may have been tighter if it had remained centered on Nefertiti. Perhaps Tyldesley just takes too long to summarize what happened to Akhenaten after she disappears?
The book ends on a wonderful note, however, as Tyldesley gives a rundown of how Nefertiti came back to prominence with the discovery of the sculpture and further archeological research that brings Nefertiti back to the forefront. For the longest time, archeologists thought that Queen Tiy was the main inspiration for Akhenaten's religious reforms (as Tyldesley notes, a book on the Queen's of Egypt written in 1908 only gave Nefertiti six pages), but subsequent findings have restored Nefertiti to her rightful place. I love reading about archeology, so this was probably my favourite chapter in the book, and it's a fitting conclusion to it.
As Tyldesley says in her introduction, "We simply do not have the information to write the definitive 'warts and all' biography which we have come to expect of more modern subjects." However, she has definitely given us the closest thing possible to it. She demonstrates the mystique Nefertiti had (and still has), presents us with her theories, and even gives credence to other, more conflicting ones (sometimes before demolishing them). This is a great book, marred only by a tendency to drift away from the subject occasionally. Those with an interest in Egyptology should lap this up.