Nefertiti’s Daughters: The Life of an Egyptian Princess
Who Was Nefertiti?
Nefertiti, the wife of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, is one of the most famous of ancient Egyptian queens. We know of her grace and beauty from her painted plaster bust sitting in the Neues Museum in Berlin. We also know she wielded more power and political prestige than most great royal wives of the pharaohs, from the many inscriptions and images of her that still exist. She is shown side by side and the same size as her royal husband.
She was Akhenaten’s equal in the new religion they created together dedicated to the worship of only one god, the Aten. The Aten was a solar deity, portrayed as a sun disk shown with tiny hands on the end of the sun rays offering the ankh of health and life to the royal couple. For this was a revolution in Egyptian religious thought. The old gods were banished, the temples closed, and ordinary folk could only worship the new deity through the royal family. Their direct access to the divine was slammed shut.
But as well as being the queen and wife of Akhenaten, Nefertiti was also a woman. We tend to see the glitter of the lavish Egyptian court she presided over, with its ceremonies, banquets and religious rituals, but not think of her as a wife and mother. Life was a precarious business in ancient times and even the wealth of the pharaohs could not protect her and her children from the high infant mortality rate, dangers of childbirth and risks of accident and disease. Nefertiti gave birth to six little girls, so what was life like for an Egyptian princess at the end of the 18th dynasty?
Scholars still speculate as to who Nefertiti was and where she came from. Nowhere is she referred to as a king’s daughter in the archaeological record, so it is likely she was not born a member of the royal family. Many Egyptologist’s think she was the daughter of a prominent courtier called Ay, a brother of Amenophis III’s chief wife Queen Tiye. Her only relation we can be sure of is her sister Mutnodjmet, who is named as such on several inscriptions.
It is likely she was a young teenager when she married the then Prince Amenophis. It is thought their first daughter Meritaten was born before her father’s accession to the throne, followed by Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten, Neferneferure and Setepenre.
The life of a pharaoh, before Akhenaten built his new capital city and vowed to stay there, was peripatetic, travelling the length of the Nile to visit the various palaces and centres of worship. The prince’s father Pharaoh Amenophis III had built a large new palace complex on the west bank at Thebes, known in modern times as Malkata, and it is likely the young family spent much time there.
Pregnancy and Birth in Ancient Egypt
There is scant evidence for what happened during royal pregnancies and deliveries, but we can make some suppositions from wall paintings and ostracon found at the worker’s village at Deir el-Medina. These show that a special space was created for the expectant mother for the birth and lying-in period.
This could take the form of a specially constructed birth bower or a room set aside within the house. One depiction that has been found shows a pavilion with columns made of papyrus and decorated with grapevines and convolvulus and draped in garlands. Such a pavilion could be erected on an open flat roof or in a garden. One possible royal example of a birth bower was carved onto the walls of the royal tomb dug for Akhenaten and Nefertiti at the new capital city they built at Amarna.
The scene in the tomb shows their second daughter Princess Meketaten, or a statue of her, standing in what looks like a birth bower. The scene seems to indicate she died in childbirth and her royal parents and three of her sisters are shown as mourners.
Childbirth was a dangerous time for a woman in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians possessed much medical knowledge for the times, but they still relied on magical spells, amulets and statues of the gods, such as Thoeris the goddess of pregnant women and Bes the dwarf god of sex and fertility.
Nefertiti, however, may not have had the solace of these traditional comforts while giving birth, as she and her husband had outlawed the old gods. All too many women died in childbirth and infant mortality was high. After giving birth Nefertiti would have spent fourteen days in seclusion in order to purify herself. It would have been a time when the new mother was protected by rituals and be cossetted by her attendants doing her hair and makeup.
Babies were given their names at birth and they were usually named by their mothers. All of Nefertiti’s daughters were given names containing the name either of the Aten or the sun god Re. As they were princesses, they would have had a suite of attendants assigned to them at birth.
Their most important attendant would have been their wet nurse. Wet nurses were held in high esteem in Ancient Egypt, and several lavish tombs have been excavated belonging to them.
The most famous example is probably that of the tomb of Maia, who was the wet nurse of their half-brother Tutankhamen, discovered at Sakkara in 1996. Tey, the wife of Ay whom many believe to be Nefertiti’s father, is referred to as the queen’s wet nurse not her mother, leading scholars to believe she could have been Nefertiti’s step mother.
The Princesses' Childhood
On the death of his father, the prince ascended to the throne as Pharaoh Amenophis IV, but within five years had changed his name to Akhenaten and had founded a new capital city called Akhetaten, the Horizon of the Aten, modern Tel el Amarna.
The four younger girls were all born in one of the opulent new palaces built by their father. Even as royal children they were lucky to survive infancy. There was no protection from infectious diseases, a simple accident or infection could kill and there were dangers such as snakes and scorpions.
Their health would have benefitted from their high-status diet. Many wall carvings show the lavish banquets held in the palace, with table groaning under the weight of the haunches of meat, roast fowl, loaves of bread, sweet cakes, fruit, wine and beer.
If a child did die, then they would be mummified and provided with the grave goods they needed for the next life just like an adult providing the family could afford it. There is even evidence that miscarried foetuses were mummified and given burials.
Two such tiny pre-term infants were discovered in gilded coffins in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Children’s health was protected by placing magical amulets around their necks. Sometimes these were small cylindrical cases that contained a spell written on a piece of rolled up papyrus. The Egyptians also feared that children could be attacked by demons and evil spirits, which could cause the child to sicken and die.
Little remains of the palaces built at Akhetaten, but evidence shows the princesses would have been brought up in comfortable, luxurious surroundings. Excavations have revealed a formal Great Official Palace probably used for court ceremonies and matters of state and a less formal King’s House where it is thought the royal family congregated to relax and spend time together.
There was also the North Palace, which had its own zoo and aviary for the little girls to enjoy. The Egyptologist John Pendlebury uncovered a suite of rooms in the King’s House, he thought might have been the royal nurseries. In one of the rooms there were still paintbrushes strewn across the floor and the lower part of the walls was streaked with brightly coloured paint.
Reliefs from the walls and floors have survived from Amarna, and they show a riot of glorious colour. Nature was celebrated. Geese flew from ponds, calves gambolled through the reeds and lush ripe grapes hung from vines that curled across the painted walls.
One famous fresco in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford shows two of the younger sisters sitting on floor cushions in a brightly, painted room. Many personal articles excavated at Amarna are now housed in the Petrie Museum in London, including such toilet articles as tweezers, mirrors and cosmetic palettes, which show what a sophisticated, luxurious lifestyle the princesses were raised in.
Play and Entertainment
The children would have had much to amuse them. There were musicians in the palace, dancers and troupes of acrobats. They would have had toys such as balls made of sewn together pieces of leather and stuffed with grass or carved from wood. Whip tops, rag dolls and clay model animals were all known in Ancient Egypt.
Pets were popular, much loved companions and the children may have had cats, dogs, birds or apes and the princesses are shown in one wall decoration in the tomb of Meryre II at Amarna, carrying a tame gazelle fawn. Their uncle, Prince Thutmose, loved his cat Ta-miu so much he buried her in a specially carved limestone coffin.
There are also scenes, unheard of in earlier Egyptian art, of the girls being cuddled by their parents, playfully poking the rump of a horse from the chariot they are travelling in and reaching up to play with one of their mother’s earrings. These intimate tableaus speak of a warm, affectionate family life and the simple humanity rarely glimpsed from so distant a time.
Education and Religion
Unlike most ordinary Egyptian children, they would not have been expected to work alongside their parents or do chores around the house. However, they would have been trained from a young age in court protocol and would have taken their part in court ceremonies and have accompanied their parents to the great new temple for religious rituals. This was probably boring for six lively young girls and, as we have seen, they could be mischievous and badly behaved like any young child.
The Amarna princesses were important figures in their parent’s new religious cult. The Aten could only be worshipped through the royal family and the feminine principal was important in this epoch of Egyptian history. The sisters are often shown following their mother as she worships at the temple, sometimes shaking a sistrum, a type of rattle used in religious rites.
As the old gods were banished, there would have been a need to replace the traditional feminine deities of fertility and regeneration by the women of the royal family.
Clothing and Jewelry
What would they have worn? In many depictions the princesses are shown naked or wearing the same type of sheer linen robes worn by their mother. However, this more likely to be artistic style rather than what they really wore. It can be chilly in Egypt in the winter and early mornings and evenings.
It is more probable they wore pleated linen tunics and robes, although these would have been of the finest quality linen as befitting their royal status. There have been several examples of detachable sleeves excavated in Egypt, which could be used to adapt a garment for cooler weather.
The Egyptians loved gold and precious stones and the court goldsmiths would have crafted beautiful pieces for the girls to adorn themselves with. They were shown wearing gold collars, bracelets and anklets and they seemed to have had their ears pierced as infants.
Hair was important to the Ancient Egyptians. Either they shaved it off and wore elaborate, plaited wigs or styled their own hair into curls and plaits. Children typically wore the ‘sidelock of youth’ where the head was shaved, and the hair plaited into a braid on the right side of the head.
The Amarna princesses are shown wearing this hairstyle when they were young, and it seemed to indicate their age seniority in the family as sometimes the littlest princess would have a very short braid, the middle sisters slightly longer ones and the eldest sister the fullest, longest sidelock of them all.
Heads were shaved for practical reasons. Even royalty could not avoid lice infestations and it helped to keep cool in the hot Egyptian summer. As they grew older, they started to wear adult wigs. On popular style of wig at the Amarna court was the ‘Nubian’, which was a full head of short braids styled into the shape of a helmet, often made from real human hair.
Why Do the Princesses Seem to Have Elongated Skulls?
One aspect of the princesses’ appearance which has stirred controversy is their elongated skulls. They are shown in frescoes and carvings with skulls more elongated than normal. Was this merely another example of artistic style or were their heads really shaped this way?
These little girls were the celebrities of their day and would have been seen by the crowds driving through Akhetaten with their parents, and by courtiers at the palace and religious ceremonies. So did the royal sculptors, tomb builders and artist exaggerate this feature on purpose?
None of the sister’s mummies have yet been discovered, but it is interesting that the skull of their half-brother Tutankhamen was found to be the same elongated egg-shape known as dolichocephalic.
Girls in Ancient Egypt matured at an earlier age than they do now, and the average life expectancy was between 35-40 years of age. Tragically, there is no evidence any of the sisters lived into old age. The eldest daughter Meritaten, appears to have lived at least until young adulthood.
She seems to have been the closest to her father Akhenaten and became more prominent in the latter years of his reign. After Kiya, a minor wife of Akhenaten, disappears from the archaeological record, many of that lady’s monuments were re-carved with the names and titles of Meritaten. Her titles were changed to include ‘King’s Great Wife’ and her name encased in a cartouche. Her prominence is indicated in a letter sent from the King of Babylonia talking about gifts he sent to the princess.
Who Was Meritaten the Younger?
Towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign, a princess called Meritaten-the-younger is attested at Amarna. It has been thought by scholars that she was the daughter of Meritaten and Akhenaten, or she could possibly have been a daughter of Kiya. Is this evidence Meritaten married her father and bore his child?
She has also been linked to two other potential husbands, Smenkhare and Neferneferuaten. Smenkhare is believed to be the older brother of Tutankhamen and to have ruled for a couple of years after the death of Akhenaten and might also have co-ruled with him.
There are also inscriptions that suggest Neferneferuaten became pharaoh for a short time and could have been a co-ruler with the heretic king. There are hints that Neferneferuaten was none other than Queen Nefertiti, which would have made Meritaten’s title of Great Royal Wife one of a ritual nature only.
If her mother stepped into the male kingship role, there would have been a need for a royal woman to step into the feminine role. Meritaten fades into history as Akhetaten is abandoned for a return to Thebes and the old gods. Her burial has not yet been discovered and she is not attested after this time.
Nefertiti’s second daughter Meketaten was born in Thebes shortly after her father ascended to the throne. She is first attested on the walls of the Hut-benben temple in Thebes, standing behind her mother and elder sister Meritaten. She moved to the new capital with her family as a toddler and lived the rest of her brief life there. She is shown on the walls of noble’s tombs at Amarna along with her sisters and attested on other monuments.
The princess died around Year 14 of her father’s reign at the time a plague was sweeping through the ancient Near East. Many prominent members of the Amarna court disappear from history at this time, although it is not certain how Meketaten died.
She was likely interred in the royal tomb at Amarna, as fragments of her sarcophagus have been found there. There are scenes on the burial chamber walls that show Nefertiti and Akhenaten mourning over their daughter’s funeral bier. The images have been damaged since they were discovered, but the inscription was recorded at the beginning of the 20th century by Bouriani which read ‘King’s daughter of his body, his beloved Meketaten, born of the Great Wife Nerfertiti, may she live forever’.
Outside the chamber there are three carved registers of figures. The bottom register shows a banquet being prepared, the middles depicts a nurse carrying a new born infant followed by two servants fanning the infant and in the upper a distraught woman, identified by some scholars as Meketaten’s wet nurse, is being restrained accompanied by groups of mourners.
The infant is not identified in the inscriptions, but it is thought the scenes show Meketaten may have died in labour. She would have been around twelve at the time, but there were no age restrictions in Ancient Egypt as to when girls could marry and bear children, which may have contributed to the high mortality rate of mothers and infants in childbirth.
No father is shown or mentioned, so it has been thought that the child’s father was Akhenaten. No evidence of this royal infant has been found so far at Amarna, so the child may have died shortly after birth.
Ankhesenpaaten is the most famous of the six sisters. She grew into adulthood and married the boy King Tutankhamen. After the young couple moved the court back to Thebes and restored the worship of the old gods, she changed her name to Ankhesenamen.
She was born at Amarna and is depicted with her parents and sisters in the noble’s tombs and on other monuments. Many other exquisite images and statues of the young queen were found in her husband’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
She is also thought to have given birth to a daughter with her father Akhenaten, as there are inscriptions mentioning a princess Ankhesenpaaten-the younger found at Amarna. She produced no living children with her youthful husband, so when he died Egypt was without an heir to the throne.
Ankhesenamen is the Egyptian queen associated with the ‘Hittite Letters’. The Hittite king Suppilulima I received an ambassador from the queen of Egypt saying she had been widowed and that she had no son. The queen, named in the letter as Dakhamunzu, begged the Hittite king to send one of his sons to be her husband as she found it distasteful to marry one of her subjects.
Suppilulima queried this in his reply but did eventually agree to send one of his sons. Although not named, the prince in question is believed to be Zannanza. Zannanza died and did not make it to his wedding, although it is not known if he was killed by an Egyptian faction opposed to the union as he travelled to Egypt or died in an accident or from disease.
Little more is known of what happened to Ankhesenamen after Tutankhamen’s death, although a ring was found suggesting she married his successor, and her possible grandfather, the new pharaoh Ay. If so, there is little further evidence, as it is Tey, his wife of many years and Nefertiti’s wet nurse, who figures in his tomb.
Ankhesenamen’s burial has not yet been found, but a damaged mummy found in the Valley of the Kings, known as KV21 a, has proven by DNA analysis to be the mother of the foetuses found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. This suggests this is the mummy of Ankhesenamen, but there is no further archaeological evidence to prove this. It is possible Tutankhamen had another wife who has not yet been identified.
Very little is known of the lives and deaths of the three youngest princesses. Neferneferuaten was born at Amarna and is first attested in a scene in the tomb of Panhesy, suggesting she was born before Year 8 of her father’s reign. She also appears in the tomb of Meryre, on a fresco from the King’s House sitting on a cushion with her sister Neferneferure and is depicted with her sisters at the Great Durbar held in Year 12 in the tomb of Meryre II.
In Year 14 she is shown in a scene in the Royal Tomb mourning the death of her elder sister Meketaten, and this is last piece of evidence we have of her life. Whether she died of the plague that swept through the Middle East at this time, died of other causes or lived on into adulthood, we do not know. Her burial has not been found, but she could have been one of those interred in the Royal Tomb at Amarna.
The naming of the fifth princess Neferneferure, shows a moving away from using the god’s name Aten in the royal names and that the cult of the sun god Re was still accepted at Amarna. Little is known of what seems to have been her short life. The last references to her appear to be at the Great Durbar in Year 12, and she is not shown in the mourning scene for Meketaten in the Royal Tomb in Year 14 and on Wall C of the tomb her name was listed but later covered by plaster.
It is thought she may have been interred in the Royal Tomb, but there is also a suggestion she may have been buried in Tomb 29 at Amarna, based on the discovery of a pot handle that refers to the ‘inner (burial) chamber of Neferneferure’. Several touching family mementos were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and one of them was a small box with the crouching figure of Neferneferure as a young child on the lid.
Little Setepenre was the most ephemeral of the sisters. She was probably born around Year 9 and a damaged scene, only her tiny hand remains, shows her as an infant sitting on her mother’s knee. She is last seen at the Great Durbar of Year 12, petting the tame gazelle held by her sister Neferneferure. She is not mentioned in the mourning scenes for her sister Meketaten, so it is probable she was the first of the princesses to die, possibly of the plague. Her burial is place has not yet been discovered.
These days, all that is left of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s magnificent new capital city are low, crumbling mud brick walls and a few columns. Nothing is left of the verdant gardens that once rang with the laughter of six little girls at play. The hot winds sweep across a barren plain now devoid of life. Maybe the sands of Amarna still have treasures hidden there, waiting to be discovered by future Egyptologists. Maybe in the future more will be learned of the lives of these lost princesses.
- The Royal Women of Amarna – Dorothea Arnold – Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Nefertiti – Egypt’s Sun Queen – Joyce Tyldesley
- Growing Up and Getting Old in Ancient Egypt – Rosalind M and Jac J Janssen
- The Search for Nefertiti – Joann Fletcher
- Nefertiti Bust: Philip Pickart - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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