Nefertari means ‘beautiful companion’ and was the first of Rameses the Great’s Great Royal Wives. Known also as Nefertari Meritmutor or ‘Beloved of the goddess Mut’ Nefertari is one of Egypt’s most iconic queens, alongside Nefertiti, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra.
However, comparatively little is known about her family or her past prior to Rameses ascending to Egypt’s throne. Much of her back history is based on educated assumptions using her titles as indicators of her background.
Facts About Nefertari
- Nefertari was the Pharaoh Ramses II’s first Great Queen
- Nefertari means ‘beautiful companion’
- Also known also as Nefertari Meritmutor or ‘Beloved of the goddess Mut’
- She married the then 15-year-old Rameses II at just 13
- Surviving accounts suggest their marriage was an affectionate and loving relationship
- Nefertari held the revered religious title “God’s Wife of Amun,” which conferred high religious status, wealth and political influence
- Very little is known about her personal history or her family origins before Rameses ascended Egypt’s throne
- To date, Nefertari’s tomb is the most beautifully decorated discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens
- Archaeologists discovered love poetry written by Ramses II for his beloved queen in Nefertari’s tomb
- Ramses II dedicated Abu Simbel’s Small Temple to Queen Nefertari and the goddess Hathor
Her name, Nefertari Merytmut embodies the stature and serene majesty of a queen. At just 13 she married the then 15-year-old Rameses II destined to forge his place in history as Ramses the Great. Historians believe Nefertari was in all likelihood of noble birth but unlikely to have been a member of the royal family. Nefertari adopted titles associated with her probable status as a noblewoman but no titles indicating she was the daughter of a king. Nefertari enters Egypt’s official records from the first year of Ramses II reign and indicates she married Ramses II prior to him gaining the throne.
Ramses II was one of Egypt’s most long-lived monarchs, living for over ninety years and ruling Egypt for sixty-seven years. During this time he married seven queens, fathering at least forty daughters and forty-five sons. The first of his queens was Queen Nefertari who bore Ramses at least four sons and two daughters.
Documentary proof of detailing the link between Ramses II’s queens and their children is scant Artifacts and for the most part, Egyptologist made assumptions about a child’s mother based on where his or her images were discovered. The four princes currently thought to be Nefertari’s sons are Pareherwenemef, Amun-her-khepeshef, Meryre and Meryatum. Two princesses believed to be Nefertari’s daughters were Henwttawy and Meritamen.
Line Of Succession
Horemheb, whose rule followed those of Tutankhamun and briefly Aye, selected as his successor Egypt’s commanding general of Egypt’s army. With a son and a grandson securely in place to succeed Rameses the court had every reason to expect that the succession would proceed smoothly. Rameses I who founded the Nineteenth Dynasty ruled for a single year before dying. His son Seti ascended the throne. Seti I enjoyed ten years of successful rule before he died, educating his son Rameses II on kingship, court politics and foreign affairs. As Horemheb had prayed, the transition between rulers proved to be a smooth one. Inevitably when Seti selected a wife for his son, he was aware that he was also choosing Egypt’s future queen. The line of new kings emerged from Egypt’s Delta region and could not claim ties to any royal bloodlines. Some Egyptologists contend Rameses’ marriage to Nefertari was designed to strength Rameses’ claim to his throne by associating his family with an aristocratic family from Thebes. While none of her titles points to Nefertari being a “king’s daughter,” both Ay and Horemheb have been proposed as possible parents for Nefertari, together with a lower status consort from the royal harem.
A Successful Marriage
Whatever the dynastic maneuvering behind Nefertari’s marriage to Ramses surviving accounts indicates it was an affectionate and loving one. Nefertari’s approach to her role as queen is open to conjecture. Some Egyptologists contend Nefertari continued Egypt’s tradition of powerful and influential queens, which originated in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Certainly, Nefertari held the title “God’s Wife of Amun,” which brought with it significant independent status, wealth and power. Moreover, Nefertari is portrayed wearing Ahmose-Nefertari’s distinctively ornate headdress. However, surviving records of her rule are scarce so we know very little about her active role as Queen.
Nefertari appears to have played a significant role in affairs of state and official celebrations and sacred rites for her first three years as Great Queen. Then, Nefertari seemingly disappears from Egypt’s state records. This gap in the surviving state records lasted for around eighteen years. Then, Nefertari once more appears, this time in correspondence with the Queen of Hatti marking the occasion of the two countries signing a peace treaty ending a protracted period of tense and fraught relations between the two powers.
Egyptologists question whether Nefertari reverted to the passive Old Kingdom role queens traditionally assumed, or whether state records detailing her actions merely disappeared or were lost in the sands of time?
Traditionally, Egyptian pharaohs took several wives and Rameses II dutifully followed tradition. The date of Rameses’ marriage to Iset-Nofret remains unknown. Historians point to the period following his marriage to Nefertari. Iset-Nofret bore Bintanath Rameses’ first daughter together with his second son and Rameses’ eventual heir, Merenptah.
Nefertari is believed to have died at some point between her husband’s 24th and his 30th year on the throne. She was succeeded by Iset-Nofret as Rameses Great Wife. The splendour of Nefertari’s tomb gave her abundant fame, but we know very little about her day to life either as a queen or as a mother.
Spectacular Tomb Paintings
Nefertari, as befitted her status as Rameses II’s Great Wife was entombed in one of Egypt’s most spectacular tombs in the monumental Valley of the Queens. Sadly, ancient tomb robbers thoroughly looted her tomb and her mummy was largely destroyed. Fortunately, much of the wall painting in her tomb has survived. The paintings are masterworks of their type, incredibly beautiful and leaving us a wealth of information on the Egyptian beliefs about Judgement Day and their concept of the Afterlife.
Worshipped As A Goddess
In line with Egyptian tradition adopted by her two queenly predecessors, Tiy and Nefertiti, officially Nefertari was worshipped as a goddess following her death. The ancient Egyptians subscribed to the belief that almost anyone could achieve immortality. This belief formed part of their religious framework, which saw the king as the earthly embodiment of the god Horus during their life. Upon their death they ascended into the underworld emerging as deities in their own right. Nefertari was depicted as Hathor, cow goddess of music and dancing who protected women throughout pregnancy and childbirth in her temple at Abu Simbel, in then Nubia. There is no evidence to show Nefertari was worshipped in other temple complexes. Despite the honour accorded her, it is unlikely anyone outside the temple grounds believed Nefertari to be a divine goddess.
Temples Dedicated In Her Honour
As part of his great construction program, Rameses ordered two temples to be carved into Abu Simbel’s living limestone cliff. The smaller temple, known today as the Small Temple of Abu Simbel, was dedicated to Nefertari. Despite it being consecrated to Nefertari, Rameses had four out the six statues positioned at its front depicted his image. Two statues depicted Nefertari dressed in the goddess Hathor’s garments and holding her divine symbols, while an image inscribed on the sanctuary’s inner wall depicts Rameses making an offering to Hathor.
Ramses II initiated Abu Simbel’s construction in the twenty-fourth year of his reign. Nefertari is pictured in the images illustrating the start of the temples’ building phase, while later images depict her daughter Meritamen in her place. Egyptologists conjecture that this indicates Nefertari was in ill health around this time. It is thought she may have died not long after the construction of the Abu Simbel temple complex began.
While Nefertari is thought to have given birth to up to ten children, tragically none outlived their unusually long-lived father to follow him on Egypt’s throne.
Reflecting On The Past
Mother, queen, goddess, Nefertari fulfilled many roles illustrating the depth and richness of Egypt’s complex system of social and religious beliefs.
Header image courtesy: Maler der Grabkammer der Nefertari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons