Nefertiti Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write about a queen who’s been dead for over three thousand years?

My love-affair with Egyptology began in the summer of 1998 on an archaeological dig in Israel. While our team was working to unearth an ancient trading post, we came across a scarab, proof that the Egyptians had traveled north, perhaps selling cloth, incense, or Nubian gold. Looking at the mysterious lapis stone in the dirt, untouched for who knew how many years, I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I found myself wandering through Egyptian exhibits in Los Angeles, London and finally Berlin, where the stunning bust of Nefertiti rests behind a case of polished glass. Even three thousand years later it fills the viewer with the same awe that citizens of Amarna must have felt when they saw her. I wondered who she was, what her story must have been, and as I began researching into Nefertiti’s life I was surprised to discover how many books and internet sites were devoted to her, yet there were no fictionalized accounts exclusively about her reign, one of the most enigmatic of any Egyptian Pharaoh-Queen. Spurred on by Nefertiti’s untold story, I visited Egypt on an historical tour two years later, gathering books and writing down impressions of what had once been the most powerful kingdom in the East. When I returned to America, I began researching into Nefertiti’s Egypt, scouring libraries and initiating dialogues with the contacts I made in the archaeology world.

Q: Did Mutnodjmet really exist?

Yes, Mutnodjmet really existed, as did Nefertiti, Queen Tiye, Akhenaten, Vizier Ay, Lady Kiya, General Horemheb, General Nakhtmin… Suffice it to say that almost every character in the book was based on an historical personage.

Q: So how much of the story is true?

While the main historical events are accurate, such as Ay’s rise to power, Akhenaten’s obsession with Aten, the dream of Amarna, and Nefertiti’s unparalleled influence at court, liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister’s vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant. And while Nefertiti did have six daughters with Akhenaten, she never, so far as we know, produced twins the way she did in the novel. Historical uncertainties revolve as well around the questions of whether Amunhotep the Younger ever had a co-regency with his father, or whether Nefertiti ever did rule on her own. These are questions that can only be answered by conjecture, and I went with what seemed most plausible given the historical evidence.

Today, some of these questions could be answered by a firm identification of the Amarna mummies. Although much of Kiya’s funerary equipment was found in her son Tutankhamun’s tomb, little to nothing remains that was Akhenaten’s or Nefertiti’s. How old was Nefertiti when she died? What killed Tiye? Dr. Joann Fletcher contends that a cache of mummies found in tomb KV55 are the bodies of Nefertiti and the Dowager Queen. If so, they were stunning beauties even in death.

Q: Isn’t there evidence that Nefertiti was banished to a Northern Palace towards the end of her husband’s reign?

No. This belief was predicated upon an inscription on the Northern Palace which archaeologists believed read “Nefertiti.” The name had been removed from the palace while Nefertiti was still alive and replaced with the name of Princess Meritaten. If Princess Meritaten had truly removed her mother’s name from the palace, it would indeed seem to indicate a daughter taking the place of her mother. However, the inscription was later discovered to actually read “Kiya.” After Kiya’s death Nefertiti and her daughter set out to erase the existence of Nefertiti’s only real rival. Unfortunately, many internet sites haven’t bothered to update their information, so the erroneous theory of Nefertiti having been banished persists.

Q: Is it true that Akhenaten had Marfan Syndrome?

There is absolutely no anthropological or DNA evidence to suggest this was the case. Those who believe that Akhenaten had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by unusually long limbs and curvature of the spine, do so simply because some of his statues show a man with long arms and an elongated head. It is essential to remember, however, that Akhenaten purposefully changed the artistic style which all of his predecessors had used, creating a new style known today as Amarna Art. For as many images as there are of Akhenaten with a long, leonine face and feminine hips, there are just as many images from when he was a child displaying none of these startling features. During the Amarna period, all of Akhenaten’s family begins to appear with long arms, elongated heads and large hips, even Nefertiti. It is highly unlikely that the entire royal family had this connective tissue disorder, particularly in light of Nefertiti’s bust which resides in Berlin and shows none of the characteristics that those with Marfan Syndrome typically display.

Q: What evidence is there to prove that Nefertiti ever ruled as Pharaoh on her own?

This depends on which Egyptologist you ask and what camp they fall into. Amunhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, and when Nefertiti became co-regent with her husband she changed her name to Ankhkheperura-Neferneferuaten. It is not beyond the limits of plausibility, then, to imagine that Nefertiti later became Pharaoh Ankhkheperura-Smenkhkara, who ruled briefly after Akhenaten’s death. A beautiful gold figurine in Tutankhamun’s tomb depicts a female Pharaoh (not a queen) walking atop an ebony leopard. Egyptologists have dated the figure back to Akhenaten’s reign, which means there is only one possibility of who this feminine ruler of Egypt could be: Nefertiti. There is also evidence of foreign correspondence during Pharaoh Ankhkheperura-Smenkhkara’s time that points to Egypt’s Pharaoh being Nefertiti. If you want more information about this, I suggest checking out the work of Dr. Joann Fletcher, who wrote The Search for Nefertiti: The True Story of an Amazing Discovery and whose work was featured on the Discovery Channel. Dr. Fletcher stirred up quite the controversy with this book and her announcement that she discovered the body of Nefertiti.

Q: In the novel you write about the ancient Egyptians using toilet seats and copper razors. Is this accurate?

Yes, it is accurate. Dating as far back as 1500 BCE, palaces were more comfortable than you or I might imagine given that it was 3,500 years ago. The wealthy shaved with copper razors and bathrooms were discovered in Amarna equipped with toilet seats that matched the limestone sink bowls. Royal women regularly applied face cream, eye shadow and lipstick. Women had elaborate containers for their makeup, and very wealthy women carried handheld mirrors made of polished brass the way women carry purses today.

Q: If Nefertiti ruled on her own, then who would have been her queen?

Just as Hatshepsut made herself Pharaoh and her daughter queen, Nefertiti would have named her eldest daughter Meritaten as her consort. Surprising though this may seem, rulers of Egypt searched for balance, the feminine with the masculine, and in religious ceremonies it was necessary to have a female part which Pharaoh, as a “man,” couldn’t play.

Q: How long did it take you to write Nefertiti: A Novel?

Over two years, then another year to edit it, and a fourth to publish. A common misconception amongst non-writers seems to be that as soon as an author signs a contract the book comes out just a few months later. Would that were so! Instead, the process seems to take forever. Up to a year and a half after the contract is signed the book might hit stores, or nine months if an author is really lucky.

Q: How are the characters’ names pronounced?

One of the most difficult aspects of translating hieroglyphics is the fact that the ancient Egyptians did not record vowels. So Amun might really be Amon or Amen, and Tutankhamun might equally be Tutankhamen. Some of the names in the book are quite hard to pronounce, and I think most readers can figure out why I chose to shorten Mutnodjmet to Mutny. Here’s a few of the more difficult ones.

Mutnodjmet: Muht-know-gmet

Nefertiti: Ne-pher-tee-tee

Akhenaten: Ahh-khen-ahh-ten

Ankhesenamun: Ankh-es-sen-ah-moon

Tutankhamun: Toot-ankh-ah-moon

Q: If there is evidence that Mutnodjmet married the general Horemheb, who later became Pharaoh, why does she fall in love with general Nakhtmin in the novel?

I chose to have Mutny fall in love with General Nakhtmin because there is circumstantial evidence that Horemheb took Mutnodjmet by force as his wife. If that was the case, then theirs was certainly not a love match, and it would have been possible that Mutny would have been married, or at least in love, before Horemheb made her his queen.

Horemheb married Mutnodjmet after her family died and she was the last royal link to the throne. Since the book focuses only on Nefertiti’s reign, I wanted to depict Mutnodjmet’s early life when she married for love, not because she had to.

Q: You mentioned that there is circumstantial evidence that Horemheb married Mutnodjmet by force. What evidence would that be?

The circumstantial evidence comes from the fact that Horemheb had no royal link to the crown. There are Egyptologists who contend that Horemheb used the marriage to legitimize his accession to the throne. I would agree with this, given that he destroyed everything that Nefertiti and Akhenaten built. I couldn’t fathom Mutny standing quietly by while the monuments that were supposed to write her family’s name in eternity were destroyed, block by block. Horemheb was methodical in his attempt to erase her family’s name from history, and he very nearly succeeded.

However, there are just as many Egyptologists who would argue that this is all, as I pointed out, circumstantial, and that there is no hard evidence of the marriage being unwanted by Mutny. As I wrote in my Author’s Note at the back of the book, I simply went with what seemed most convincing to me.

Q: In history, there are many people who populated Nefertiti and Akhenaten’s court who weren’t included in the novel. What happened to them?

They couldn’t fit. Literally. Very few publishers want to take a chance on publishing a seven hundred page book by a debut author. Not that it doesn’t ever happen, but it’s rare. Longer books cost more to print, and the more a book costs to print, the more books an author needs to sell. When I handed in Nefertiti, the book was six hundred pages long— too long for my publishing house, and so it was trimmed by more than a hundred pages. I knew that not every historical person who lived at the time was going to be able to make it into the book. It is an author’s job to determine which characters must stay and which can, unfortunately, go. Nefertiti is not a biography. There are plenty of biographies that do incredible jobs of recreating her life and the people she interacted with.

Q: You mention a Durbar at the end of the novel. Is that an Egyptian word?

No. The name is actually Indian, and when translated literally means a court or an audience chamber. But today it is usually used to mean a festival or significant state occasion.

Q: In the novel, many of the names are changed from what they were in Nefertiti’s time. Why is that?

As I explain in the Author’s Note, some of the names were changed for convenience. For example, I thought that the city of Akhetaten, which Akhenaten built, sounded too close to his own name. In oder to avoid confusion, I used the modern day name of Amarna. In the case of Thebes, Egyptians would have known the city as Waset, but I chose to go with the name more people would be familiar with today.

Q: Are the poems written by Akhenaten in the novel real?

Yes, they are translations of his Hymn to the Aten, which is considered one of the finest examples of Egyptian poetry ever discovered. It also has similarities to Psalm 104 in the Bible.

Q: Was there really plague in ancient Egypt?

Yes. In fact, in 2004, National Geographic published an article about tracing bubonic plague to ancient Egypt here. An excerpt reads:

“In Egypt Panagiotakopulu [an archaeologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Sheffield, England] combed the workers’-village site in Amarna, where the builders of the tombs of Egyptian kings Tutankhamun and Akhenaton lived. There, the researcher unearthed cat and human fleas—known to be plague carriers in some cases—in and around the workers’ homes. That find spurred Panagiotakopulu to believe that the bubonic plague’s fleaborne bacteria could also have been lurking in the area, so she went in search of other clues.

Previous excavations along the Nile Delta had turned up Nile rats, an endemic species, dating to the 16th and 17th century B.C. The plague’s main carrier flea is thought to be native to the Nile Valley and is known to be a Nile rat parasite.
According to Panagiotakopulu, the Nile provided an ideal spot for rats to carry the plague into urban communities. Around 3500 B.C., people began to build cities next to the Nile. During floods, the habitat of the Nile rat was disturbed, sending the rodent—and its flea and bacterial hitchhikers—into the human domain.

Egyptian writings from a similar time period point to an epidemic disease with symptoms similar to the plague. A 1500 B.C. medical text known as the Ebers Papyrus identifies a disease that “has produced a bubo, and the pus has petrified, the disease has hit.”

It’s possible that trade spread the disease to black rats, which then carried the bacteria to other sites of plague epidemics. Panagiotakopulu suspects that black rats, endemic to India, arrived in Egypt with sea trade. In Egypt the rats picked up plague-carrying fleas and were later born on ships that sailed across the Mediterranean to southern Europe.”

And according to ancient resources, the Hittites may have brought plague to Amarna from the north.

More questions will be added as readers ask!