Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt

The One for Whom the Sun Shines. Beautiful Companion. First Royal Spouse.

Queen Nefertari. Who was she? One of the most celebrated ancient Egyptian queens alongside Nefertiti, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, Nefertari was the wife of the great pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned about 1279–1213 B.C.E. during the 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom. Ramesses II is famous as the builder of sophisticated cities and grand tombs and temples — including the great temples of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Although we know few details about Nefertari, archaeological records reveal that she was highly regarded, educated and could read and write hieroglyphs. Using these skills, she aided Ramesses II in his diplomatic work.

I first discovered Nefertari as a young man in the early 1990s, when I was in Egypt consulting on behalf of the Getty Conservation Institute. I was in the Valley of the Queens, a barren landscape where the sun beat down and the air felt hot and dry. One day, I stepped through a dark door that looked like a black keyhole set against the mountain into one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Through that portal, the air became cooler, and my eyes slowly adjusted to the underground world. Electric lights helped guide the way through ancient chambers, and I could see walls painted with winged goddesses, hieroglyphs, insects and birds. Although more than 3,000 years old, the colors were vivid and striking.

Until the early 1900s, Nefertari was known through monumental statues adorning the face of one of the temples at Abu Simbel, and tomb paintings and hieroglyphs related to Ramesses II. In 1904, the noted Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, discovered one of the largest and most spectacularly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Queens — that of Queen Nefertari. The brilliantly painted scenes decorating the tomb depict the perilous and challenging journey Nefertari must make to negotiate the underworld on her path to immortality. Because of the artistry of the wall paintings, it has been referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Egypt.

This striking find by Schiaparelli revealed an extraordinary tomb, but most of its contents had been looted in ancient times. Schiaparelli, however, made other significant discoveries in the village of Deir el-Medina that give us a remarkable understanding of what daily life would have been like for the tomb builders and artisans — as well as their families — who constructed Nefertari’s magnificent tomb.

At the Nelson-Atkins, Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt reveals the excitement of discovery of the tomb and conveys visitors to the world inhabited by Nefertari, women in her court, and those that built the remarkable tomb that would serve as her resting place. The exhibition opens with the model of Nefertari’s tomb, constructed soon after the discovery in 1904, which is so accurate that it was used as a source in the tomb’s restoration in the 1990s. Visitors will then step back in time to about 1250 B.C.E., discovering impressive and monumental statues of Ramesses II with the gods Amun and Mut and those of the lion-headed Sekhmet, goddess of divine wrath. Women’s role in Egyptian society and life in a royal palace are explored through musical instruments, jewelry and cosmetic jars.

Schiaparelli’s expeditions uncovered a way of life during the New Kingdom, especially that of the artisans and workers who diligently created the tombs and the varied items of tribute. The workers lived in a settlement called Deir el-Medina, a village well preserved through the centuries because of its secluded and elevated location adjacent to the Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings. Tools, sketches and models used by the painters and scribes reveal life in this important and elite society, with its own status and gods.

One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is the recreation of the spectacular painted tomb of Nefertari and a display of the surviving contents, believed to be Nefertari’s personal items. Among them are a pair of fiber sandals that are striking in their simplicity, perfectly preserved, size 9. The sandals are not regalia for the afterlife; rather, they appear worn, and they provide a delicate link for us to a particular person, an Egyptian who lived 3,000 years ago.

Finally, visitors will see lavishly painted sarcophagi discovered in the tombs of Khaemwaset and Setherkhepeshef, two sons of Ramesses III. Constructed during the 20th dynasty, these tombs were later reused during the 24th and 25th dynasties. Dozens of coffins were piled inside the tombs, many belonging to the families of two temple priests.

Borrowed from the Museo Egizio, the works in Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt are part of the most important collection of ancient Egypt culture outside Cairo.

The Egyptians believed that a deceased person was not truly dead until his or her name was no longer spoken or remembered. Come and join us at the Nelson-Atkins, and be part of celebrating Nefertari and helping ensure that this Queen of Egypt will continue to have eternal life.

–Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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