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.


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.


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.

Animals in Ancient Egypt

Maybe you have a pet at home, but did you know that the ancient Egyptians also had pets? Some of their pets were similar to those we have today, while others now live in the wild or in zoos.

Like families today, many ancient Egyptian families had a dog. Most ancient Egyptians owned mutts, but some of their dogs resemble breeds that still exist. On the walls of tombs, wealthier Egyptians sometimes included likenesses of their pets. Some of the dogs seen in tomb reliefs include a breed similar in size and shape to the greyhound, as well as a dog that resembled the dachshund. Ancient Egyptians named their dogs. In English, some of the names translate to “Ebony” or “Good Watcher.” One pharaoh’s dog was named “Cook-pot” because of the dog’s love of food!

Dogs provided loyal companionship and performed useful work like hunting and guarding. Owners with close bonds to their dogs had their bodies mummified after the pets died. The ancient Egyptians believed that by preserving the body of their beloved animal, it could join its owner in the afterlife.

Not all ancient Egyptians liked dogs, however. A dog’s loyalty and obedience was considered a sign of weakness. Cats got respect because they didn’t depend on humans like dogs did and they were more likely to ignore their owners. Like dogs, cats had multiple functions in ancient households. They served as pets but also kept mice and snakes away. Cats were most often portrayed in the tombs of women, though at least one Egyptian prince had a fondness for his cat, which he named “Miss Kitty.” In fact, the prince loved his pet so much that he commissioned an elaborate sarcophagus when she died. The images on the sides of the coffin showed Miss Kitty making offerings to the Egyptian gods.

Contrary to what some early historians believed, ancient Egyptians did not worship their pet cats. Some goddesses could take the shape of a cat, however. The goddess Bast, for example, had the head of a cat. Her cult became especially popular in during ancient Egypt’s decline. At Bast’s shrine, cats roamed freely.

Though they were not as common as cats and dogs, monkeys also became pets in ancient Egypt. Pictures in tombs show monkeys swinging from chairs and playing with children. On occasion, a monkey sat by his owner’s chair, but it’s doubtful that these creatures stayed still for long. Despite their mischievous nature, one pharaoh felt so attached to his pet monkeys that he mummified five of them so he would see them in the next life.

This post is not a complete list of pets of the ancient Egyptians. Some households also had geese as well as younger versions of larger animals such as gazelles. Young children probably played with a wide variety of baby animals until the animals got too large for them to handle.

Discoveries in King Tut’s Tomb

On January 3, 1924, Howard Carter discovered the sarcophagus [a coffin made of stone] of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. He had uncovered the pharaoh’s tomb two years before, but there were many different chambers inside. Carter’s team cleared these chambers, stuffed with furniture, clothing, and other items, before they entered the actual burial chamber. In the first few chambers, Carter said he found “strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” So many items filled the tomb that it took Carter ten years to record everything inside.

The sarcophagus was considered the most spectacular discovery of Carter’s excavation. Finding a burial chamber of an Egyptian pharaoh still intact was a rarity already in the 1920s. Tomb robbers often tore coffins open because dead Egyptian rulers wore valuable jewelry under the mummy wrappings. Fortunately, Tutankhamen’s tomb remained hidden by debris from the excavation of another nearby tomb. Robbers didn’t have the chance to get this far into the tomb.


Howard Carter opening mummy of King Tut, 1925

Howard Carter opening mummy of King Tut


Inside the stone sarcophagus lay three smaller coffins. The first two were wooden but covered in gold. The final coffin, made of solid gold, held the body of the pharaoh. Its worth is estimated at over a million dollars. Inside this coffin lay the body of the pharaoh with his face covered in the now famous golden mask. Carter wrote, “The contents [of the coffin] were completely covered with linen shrouds. As the last shroud was removed a gasp of wonderment escaped our lips, so gorgeous was the sight that met our eyes; a golden effigy of the boy-king of most magnificent workmanship.”

Unfortunately, Tutankhamen’s body was in poor condition because of the ancient practice of pouring perfumes and oils over the mummy during the embalming process. Over time, the oils caused the pharaoh’s body to stick to the inside of the coffin. The golden mask covering King Tut’s face was also glued down; however, once Carter freed the mask with hot knives, he discovered that the mask had protected the pharaoh’s face.

Thanks to this preservation, later scientists successfully performed an autopsy. The test suggested that the pharaoh died at age eighteen, perhaps of a head injury. Exactly how he died is still debated among Egyptologists. Theories range from murder to an accidental wound which doctors at the time could not heal.