Nefertari: Queen of Egypt

Queen Nefertari was Ramesses II’s first and favorite wife. Archeologists know that she was not born a princess, but this wouldn’t have bothered Ramesses since his father Seti I became pharaoh after his birth. During their twenty or so years of marriage, Nefertari had six children. Since Ramesses II reigned for 66 years, however, none of these children outlived their father. Fortunately, he had other wives and over 100 children. Yet none of these family members got the same recognition as Nefertari.

Nefertari is shown alongside her husband during royal ceremonies but doesn’t take a particularly active role. No records exist that describe her personality. We do know that Ramesses II favored her, however. She was sometimes referred to as Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Usually the king called himself ruler of the two lands of Egypt and did not share the title with his queen.

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Nefertari’s Temple at Abu Simbel. Photo by Hedwig Storch, Jan. 16, 2009.

The other reason we know Ramesses was especially fond of her was because of the monuments he dedicated to her. At the Lesser Temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia, there are four enormous statues of Ramesses and two of Nefertari. Unlike temples given to other queens, Nefertari’s statues are of the same size and scale as her husband’s. Just in case anyone doubted Ramesses’ affection for her, he had the temple inscribed: “Ramesses II has made a temple, excavated in the mountain, of eternal workmanship…for the chief Queen Nefertari beloved of Mut…Nefertari…for whom the sun shines.”

In addition to the temple at Abu Simbel, Nefertari has one of the most elaborate and beautifully decorated tombs in the Valley of the Queens. The Valley is west of Thebes, which was Egypt’s capital during Ramesses II’s reign. The sarcophagus that held Nefertari’s body and her grave goods are long gone, but the paintings on the tomb walls are stunning. The images in the tomb are only meant to ease Nefertari’s passage into the afterlife. There are no details about her life on earth. In fact, the paintings were never meant to be seen by humans after Nefertari’s burial.

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Nefertari and goddess Isis from Nefertari’s tomb.

Various gods and goddesses are shown leading Nefertari on her journey to the afterlife. Nefertari’s image is youthful. She wears a flowing white gown with pleats tied at the waist. On her head is a crown with golden feathers which she wears on top of her dark wig. In one scene, she is led by hand by the goddess Isis to the god Khepri, who symbolized the sun. Another wall shows Nefertari bringing offerings of food to Osiris (god of the afterlife) and Atum (the creator god). The deities assure Nefertari that a place has been prepared for her in the afterlife.

In a later scene, several gates that lead to the underworld are shown. The nearby hieroglyphs function as a sort of cheat sheet, providing the names of the gates and their guardians so that Nefertari will pass though them easily. The journey to the afterlife is a difficult one, but Nefertari is ultimately successful.

Letters from the Past: Back to School in Ancient Egypt

Hi, I’m Rahmose, and like many of you, I’ll be starting school soon. I’m nine now, which means that I have three more years to go before I can be a scribe for the pharaoh. This year I’ll learn to write hieroglyphics.

As a young boy, I watched my father perfect his hieroglyphic writing before chiseling the final copy on the walls of royal tombs. He dipped his reed pen in ink and drew tiny birds, sheaths of corn, and odd looking lines on papyrus. Sometimes I copied what he wrote, or tried to, on pieces of ostraca. My mother says I used to break her pottery on purpose so I could have something to write on! She was relieved when I turned five and she could send me to the House of Instruction in the Royal Palace.

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Name of Ramesses II in hieroglyphs at his temple Abu Simbel

 

 

I was so excited to start school. Finally, I would learn what the symbols in the tombs and temples meant. Imagine my disappointment when the teacher told us we weren’t learning hieroglyphs right away. Instead, we had to master hieratic. In case you haven’t seen it, hieratic is a curly looking script that reads from right to left. Most Egyptians who can write use hieratic because it’s not as time consuming as hieroglyphics. It’s not as beautiful, either.

 

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Example of hieratic writing. Document known as Papyrus Sallier

 

 

Our teacher gave us reading assignments from the Kemyt. The assignments were hard and boring. The Kemyt was filled with advice for young students and included Egyptian phrases.

When we finally finished the Kemyt, the other boys and I moved on to the Wisdom Texts. I thought that with a name like the Wisdom Texts, this new text must be more interesting. Maybe I would become as wise as my father after I read it. But no, we’re just reading about how much better off scribes are than men in other occupations. I had to memorize and copy out this passage: “there is no worker without an overseer except the scribe, who is his own boss.”

Sometimes I wonder if other jobs are as bad as our teachers say. It might be fun to work outside and grow crops. My father says that farming would make me dependent on the flooding of the Nile, though. As a scribe, I’ll rely on my knowledge, not nature.

Even if I get bored sometimes, I still want to become a great scribe like my father. Writing has so much power in Egyptian culture. When someone dies, their mummy is buried with their possessions. Still, the objects in the tomb aren’t as important as the hieroglyphics. If the tomb is robbed but the name of the owner is still carved on the wall, the spirit of the dead person can live on. The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be forgotten by the living and have their name disappear from the earth.

I am so proud that someday soon I will be preserving the spirits of the pharaoh’s family.

 

 

Wife of the Pharaoh: The Role of Ancient Egyptian Queens

The pharaohs decided how much we know about their queens because men commissioned the building of monuments like temples and tombs. Unfortunately, most wives did not have much written about them. Yet the Egyptians left us with a blueprint for the perfect Egyptian queen in the story of their goddess Isis and her husband Osiris. After her husband’s brother killed Osiris so he could steal the throne of Egypt, Isis searched for Osiris’ body. She brought him back to life long enough so they could have a son named Horus. Isis then protected her son from her jealous brother-in-law until he was old enough to reign as pharaoh.

Like Isis, Egyptian queens were supposed to support their husbands and bear children. Yet in times of crisis, they could be called upon to act on behalf of their husband or son. Some queens ruled their country temporarily while their husbands were away on military campaigns. Others stepped in as Queen Regent for a son who inherited the throne at a young age. Mainly, however, a queen’s role was defined by her relationship with the king.

Following the tradition of Isis and Osiris, all pharaohs were expected to marry.  Pharaohs married wives that were chosen for them, but there is no record of how they were picked. Many came from the royal family so the king would have a wife who was trained to help in a crisis and who was supposedly trustworthy. Queens like Nefertiti and others were born commoners, however, so the idea of a non-royal wife for a pharaoh was apparently acceptable. Perhaps commoners received acceptance because in the story of Isis and Osiris, relatives were not always loyal.

In ancient Egypt, the word queen is translated as King’s Wife. Yet Egyptian pharaohs were polygamous, meaning they had more than one wife. Polygamy demonstrated the wealth of the pharaoh and provided insurance that he would have an heir. Only one wife, known as the King’s Great Wife, would be featured in official records. She hoped to earn the title King’s Mother by giving birth to a son who would become pharaoh. If she did not accomplish this, another lesser wife might receive the title.

While she lived, however, the King’s Great Wife served as the embodiment of Isis—the perfect complement to her husband who was thought to be half god and half human. Together, she and the king would serve the gods and rule their people, keeping order in their kingdom.