Nefertari Merytmut, or Nefertari, was the favorite Great Royal Wife (or Queen) of Ramesses II, who reigned from c. 1279-1213 BCE. As his queen, Nefertari was very loyal to her husband and was always depicted by his side in every aspect of his reign. As queen of Egypt, Queen Nefertari had a nearly unprecedented influence on the kingdom, rivaling the influences of both Nefertiti and Tiye. While we do know that Nefertari was born in Thebes in 1301 BCE, the most obscure feature of Nefertari lies in her origins. Scholars in the past have developed many theories of her parentage, but a lot of these theories have had a substantial lack of evidence. For example, some believe Nefertari was the daughter of Seti I, the father and predecessor of Ramesses II. Sibling marriages were very common in ancient Egypt, mostly used a way to secure the royal family’s power. Nowhere, though, does any record mention Nefertari as having the title “King’s Daughter”, a title commonly used for the purpose of propaganda. The most likely theory is of Nefertari being of noble origin. Egyptologists believe Nefertari was born in Thebes because of her second name, Merytmut, meaning “Beloved of Mut”. Pronounced “moot”, she was one of the ancient Egyptian goddesses of motherhood. Mut was also the consort of Amun-Ra, the chief of all gods. Along with Khonsu, their son, Amun-Ra and Mut formed the Theban triad, based in Thebes (or Waset), modern day Luxor. According to ancient Egyptian belief, there were multiple creators of the world, and each had their own cult center (i.e. the god Ra centered in Heliopolis). The Egyptians who lived in the area of a major cult center, including Amun-Ra’s, usually chose their names to honor the gods of that region. In addition, Nefertari’s only known sibling, an official named Amenmose who later became mayor of Thebes, also has the name of the chief deity of his region incorporated in his name. A third theory is that Nefertari was directly related to the Pharaoh Ay because of a knob found in her tomb bears Ay’s cartouches. If this is true, Nefertari would’ve been a great-grandchild of Ay. With this we can think of two scenarios. One, Nefertari and her brother Amenmose who were the children of a nobleman and were descendents of Pharaoh Ay, or two, Nefertari and Amenmose lived in a harem in Thebes (the word harem in ancient Egypt is loosely used) with other children of the previous dynasty.

Knob found in Nefertari’s tomb bearing Ay’s cartouche

Nefertari married Ramesses when she was thirteen and he was fifteen (in 1288 BCE), as a result of an arranged marriage performed by Seti I. Because Nefertari’s childhood home was in Thebes, this legitimized the new dynasty. The Nineteenth Dynasty, which began around 1292 BCE, was from Avaris, a city in the Nile Delta. By marrying a Theban, Ramesses had gained control of all of Egypt, for Thebes was in Upper or Southern Egypt. If Nefertari was a descendent of Ay, then it would have been a win-win for the Nineteenth Dynasty. Ay was a pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and there are theories that he was related to both Tiye and Nefertiti, both very prominent queens. Very quickly, Nefertari gave birth to their first son, Amunherwenemef, later Amunherkhepshef, thus strengthening the dynasty and her relationship with Ramesses. Before Ramesses became king, she most likely already given him probably four of her six total children. In Year One of Ramesses II’s sole rule, Nefertari is shown initiating the ceremony to accept an official named Nebwenenef to the office of High Priest of Amun. From then on, she is frequently shown on monuments accompanying her pharaoh on state, religious, and even military duties, and took Ramesses’s place when he was absent. A very striking part of Nefertari is her relations with the Hittites. Nefertari was present in the signing of the peace treaty a few decades after the world-famous Battle of Kadesh. After the treaty was signed Nefertari wrote letters of correspondence to both the Hittite king and the Hittite queen, a responsibility so great that Ramesses would have had to have trusted her greatly. Take this into account, Nefertari was also one of the few known cases of female literacy in ancient Egypt. In her tomb, Nefertari tells Thoth “I am a scribe” as one of her credentials for the afterlife. This is interesting because not very many females in Egypt were literate, and the only other known literate queens of Egypt (not including the Ptolemaic era) were Tiye and Nefertiti.

Nefertari telling Thoth, “I am a scribe”

Ramesses clearly loved Nefertari because of the repetitive amount of monuments and inscriptions describing her. For example, a Luxor inscription says of her: “greatly favored, possessing charm, sweet of love…. Rich in love, wearing the circlet-diadem, singer fair of face, beautiful with the tall twin plumes, Chief of the Harim of Horus, Lord of the Palace; one is pleased with what(ever) comes forth concerning her; who has (only to) say anything, and it is done for her -every good thing, at her wish (?); her every word, how pleasing on the ear – one lives at just hearing her voice…” Another example is her tomb (QV66). It is regarded as the “Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt”, which beautiful inscriptions and portraiture. In her tomb, Ramesses is not even shown, showing his love and trust for her. I would like to mention some of the words he left for her in her tomb: “My love is unique – no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”

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Images from the tomb of Nefertari

Rameses dedicated the smaller temple of Abu Simbel to her, and it is interesting to note that she is depicted as the same size as him, a very rare occurrence. Only a loving union would have developed if he built an entire temple to her honor and rose her to the position as goddess. The famous dedication of the temple “to Nefertari, to whom the sun shines in Nubia” is an example of this.


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Nefertari’s temple at Abu Simbel

As mentioned before, Nefertari was the mother of a least six children:

1. Amunherkhepshef, first child of Ramesses

2. Pareherwenemef, third son of Ramesses

3. Meryra, eleventh son of Ramesses

4. Meryatum, sixteenth son of Ramesses

5. A second Meryra is mentioned as the eighteenth son of Ramesses. This may be the same Meryra as before, or a another who was named after his predeceased brother

6. Baketmut, second daughter of Ramesses, possibly a daughter of Nefertari

7. Nefertari, third daughter of Ramesses, possibly a daughter of Nefertari

8. Merytamun, fourth daughter of Ramesses

9. Nebettawy, fifth daughter of Ramesses, possibly a daughter of Nefertari

10. Henuttawy, seventh daughter of Ramesses

Just recently, archaeologists have determined that a pair of legs that was discovered in Nefertari’s tomb, now in the Turin Museum, belonged to Nefertari. The legs are of a person around forty years of age, which match up with how old Nefertari was when she died (around 1255 BCE). In addition, they show signs of arthritis and thick arteries, one of the consequences of royal prestige. Judging from these legs, Nefertari was five feet six inches tall, making her taller than most Egyptians at the time, and had a US shoe size of nine.

Possible legs of Nefertari

Despite all of the monuments Ramesses left for her, we do not know much about the life of Nefertari. We do know that Nefertari was a much more involved queen than some of those from the Old and Middle Kingdoms and that she was literate, making her valuable to Ramesses and Egypt. For instance, we know the duties of the queen, but if Nefertari was literate (which is a rare case for queens), what else can we say about her? Who were her parents? Did Ramesses instantly fall in love with her, or did it take time? Most of these questions are going to remain unanswered because the Egyptians never wrote down their exact thoughts; writing was reserved for administrative and religious purposes. Consequently, there is still much more to learn about Nefertari, wife of Ramesses the Great.

Guest Writer : By Grace Leber

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