Few figures from ancient history have inspired as much conjecture as Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as scholars dispute even fundamental aspects of their story – let alone the interpretation of the events. The tale begins with Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who flouted convention by making Tiy, his Nubian concubine, Great Wife, despite her lack of royal blood. Queen Tiy remained formidable long after Amenhotep entered his dotage and their eldest son ascended the throne as Amenhotep IV. Some believe this event followed his father’s death, others that mother and son ruled jointly for twelve years. To square the former theory with the period of his reign (c.1352–1336 BC) and his demise around the age of 30 would mean accepting that Amenhotep IV embarked on his religious reformation between the ages of 9 and 13, though a marriage at 13 is quite likely.

The origins of Amenhotep IV’s wife, Nefertiti, are obscure. Her name – meaning “A Beautiful Woman Has Come” – suits the romantic legend that she was a Mesopotamian princess originally betrothed to Amenhotep III. However, others identify her as Amenhotep III’s child by a secondary wife, or as the daughter of his vizier Ay, whose wife, Tey, was almost certainly Nefertiti’s wet nurse. The pharaonic custom of sister–brother and father–daughter marriages allows plenty of scope for speculation, but the fair-skinned bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum suggests that she wasn’t Tiy’s child, at any rate. (Amid all the fuss about Cleopatra being black, nobody seems to have noticed that Queen Tiy – and therefore her son, Amenhotep IV – were indubitably so.)

Early in his reign, Amenhotep IV began to espouse the worship of Aten, whose ascendancy threatened the priesthoods of other cults. The bureaucracy was equally alarmed by his decree that the spoken language should be used in official documents, contrary to all tradition. To escape their influence and realize his vision of a city dedicated to Aten, the pharaoh founded a new capital upon an empty plain beside the Nile, halfway between Memphis and Thebes, which he named Akhetaten, the “Horizon of the Aten”.

It was here that the royal couple settled in the fifth year of their reign and took Aten’s name in honour of their faith. He discarded Amenhotep IV for Akhenaten (Servant of the Aten) and vowed never to leave the city, while she took a forename meaning “Beautiful are the Beauties of the Aten”, styling herself Nefernefruaten-Nefertiti. Her status surpassed that of any previous Great Wife, approaching that of Akhenaten himself. Bas-reliefs and stelae show her participating in state festivals, and her own cartouche was coupled with Aten’s – an unprecedented association.

There’s no sign that their happiness was marred by his decision to take a second wife, Kiya, nor of the degenerative condition that supposedly afflicted Akhenaten in later life. However, the great ceremony held at Akhetaten in their twelfth regnal year marked a turning point.

Whether or not this was Akhenaten’s true coronation following his father’s death, he subsequently launched a purge against the old cults. From Kom Ombo in the south to Bubastis in the Delta, temples were closed and statues disfigured, causing public unrest. Although this was quelled by Akhenaten’s chief of police, Mahu, his foreign minister apparently ignored pleas from foreign vassals menaced by the Hittites and Habiru, and the army was less than zealous in defending Egypt’s frontiers. Akhenaten was consequently blamed for squandering the territorial gains of his forefathers.

What happened in the last years of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign is subject to various interpretations. The consensus is that Nefertiti and Akhenaten became estranged, and he took as co-regent Smenkhkare, a mysterious youth married to their eldest daughter, Meritaten. While Nefertiti withdrew to her Northern Palace, Akhenaten and his regent lived together at the other end of the city; the poses struck by them in mural scenes of the period have prompted suggestions of a homosexual relationship. Whatever the truth of this, it’s known that Smenkhkare ruled alone for some time after the death of Akhenaten (c.1336 BC), before dying himself (see Tomb of Ramses IX (#6)). Nefertiti’s fate is less certain, but it’s generally believed that she also died around the same time. To date, none of their mummies have been found (or, rather, definitely identified).

The genealogy of Smenkhkare’s successor – the boy-king known to posterity as Tutankhamun – is obscure. Some hold that his parents were Amenhotep III and his half-sister Sitamun; others favour Ay and Tey, or Akhenaten and Kiya, or even (based on DNA analysis) that he was of Hyksos or Jewish descent. About the only certainty is that he was originally raised to worship Aten, and named Tutankhaten.

By renouncing this name for one honouring Amun, he heralded a return to Thebes and the old gods, fronting a Theban counter-revolution executed by Vizier Ay and General Horemheb. Some think this was relatively benign while Tut and his successor Ay ruled Egypt, blaming Horemheb and Seti I for a later, ruthless extirpation of Atenism.

Seti plundered the abandoned city of Akhetaten for masonry to build new temples, ordered its site cursed by priests to deter reoccupation, and excised the cartouches of every ruler tainted with the “Amarna heresy” from their monuments and the List of Kings. So thorough was this cover-up that Akhenaten and Nefertiti remained unknown to history until the nineteenth century. Since then, they have inspired much scholarly and mystical conjecture, novels such as Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, and an opera by Philip Glass.

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