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.

Seti I: Warrior Pharaoh

Although the Egyptian empire did not completely crumble under the leadership of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs, the Amarna period beginning with the pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BC) was nevertheless characterized by a combination of diplomacy and neglect towards its neighboring territories.  As a consequence, Egypt’s influence in the more remote regions it owned declined. Seti I (ca. 1306-1290 BC), however, introduced a new style of foreign relations during his reign in the early Nineteenth Dynasty. For example, battles were fought to extend Egypt’s sphere of influence in Syria. Seti wanted the people in his territories to see the might of the pharaoh rather than simply telling them to behave through letters as some of his predecessors had done. Seti’s campaigns were designed to reassert Egypt’s control over her empire and to retake areas that Egypt had lost to her enemies.      

Shortly after his second year as pharaoh, he accomplished something his more famous son, Ramesses II, could not. During the reign of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, the city of Kadesh was lost to the people of Hatti, known as the Hittites. Seti, seen at Karnak in his role as an archer, successfully defeated the enemy at Kadesh. The Hittites did not mount a good offense to the attack on Kadesh, most likely because a major part of the Hittite army at the time was involved in a border dispute with the Assyrians to the east. In fact, the king of the Hittites does not appear in the battle scenes which show Seti regaining Kadesh. Instead, an ultimately ineffective combination of Syrian and Hittite soldiers was sent to meet the pharaoh’s challenge. Nevertheless, the Hittites did try to put up a fight after their losses. The scene on the battle relief at Karnak is described as “the vile land of the Hittites, among whom His Majesty…made a great heap of corpses.” In battle Seti is “a mighty bull, with sharp horns, stout-hearted, who smashes the Asiatics and tramples the Hittites; who slays their chiefs as they lie prostrate in their blood; who enters into them like a blast of fire.” The next scene illustrates the return march to Egypt with prisoners from the campaign.        

Kadesh remained under Egyptian control for a short time; however, it eventually reverted to the Hittites without any military challenge from Egypt. Seti had the same problem with Syria as his predecessors—Syria was too far away from Egypt for him to maintain consistent control over the area. As the Hittites regained control over much of Syria, the stage was set for a future confrontation between Seti’s son, Ramesses II and Hatti’s new king. In the meantime, the Hittites and the Egyptians entered into a period of cold war, mainly because of Seti’s pride. Egypt did not actually need Kadesh—it had no supplies or overland trade routes that were vital to the country’s survival–but the king viewed retaining Kadesh as a matter of honor. As a result, although he would later reopen trade with other former foes, Seti refused to trade with the Hittites.

Although it is somewhat understandable that historians have devoted much attention to the achievements of Seti’s extremely long-lived son Ramesses II, Seti I deserves more than a just few paragraphs in the history books.