One of the most surprising facts to emerge from the “reconstruction” of the walls of Akhenaten’s buildings at Thebes is the unexpectedly prominent role played by Akhenaten’s wife Nefertity during the Theban period of his reign. In one temple complex she alone is portrayed as the celebrant of the cult, raising offerings to the Sun-Disc both in the temple itself and in the colonnade leading to it. Not only is she alone portrayed in this temple, but when the sum total of attested scenes from the talatat are tallied, we find that Nefertity appears nearly twice as often as her husband the king! Art motifs devised originally for and inspired by the Pharach are carefully translated into a female idiom: Nefertity wields the club or sword in the head-smiting scene, and captive females (alternating blonds and blacks to represent the two ends of the empire) kneel around her throne dais. A surprisingly large number of the ceremonial acts Akhenaten performs are shared by the queen. Very often, she accompanies her husband and is depicted, slightly smaller in stature, standing behind him.

Sometime during the Theban years, Akhenaten conferred on his wife a new title, which henceforth appears with her name, nfr-nfrw-itn, “exquisite beauty of the Sun-Disc.”

She was indeed beautiful—perhaps one of the most beautiful women in history, at least as we know her in present portrayals. Her Egyptian birth name, Nefertity, means “the beautiful one is come.” Nothing is known of her parentage.

The new epithets Akhenaten conferred on Nefertity, as well as his descriptions of her, reflect her husband’s feeling for her: “Heiress, great of favor, possessed of charm, exuding happiness,” “mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, beautiful and fair in the Two Feathers, soothing the king’s heart in his house, soft-spoken in all,” “at the sound of whose voice people rejoice,” “the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the Two Lands, Nefertity.”

Nefertity’s beauty contrasts strangely—dare we say it—with her husband’s ugliness. From the depictions recovered at Akhetaten, we are familiar with his uniquely misshapen appearance: elongated skull, fleshy lips, slanting eyes, lengthened ear lobes, prominent jaw, narrow shoulders, potbelly, enormous hips and thighs and spindly legs.

In the earliest portraits, at Thebes, his facial peculiarities—the high cheekbones, the full lips, the arched brows, the slender neck—give him a rather supercilious expression.

Perhaps he also had a congenital deformity. His unusual shape has led some scholars to identify him as a disguised female or a eunuch. Of late the experts have tended to identify his problem with some sort of endocrine disorder in which secondary sex characteristics failed to develop, and eunuchoidism resulted.a

How all this may be connected with his exclusive devotion to the Sun-Disc is pure speculation—in any event, the realm of the psychiatrist, rather than the historian. Was Nefertity literally the power behind the throne? Did she play a part in motivating her husband to become a monotheist devoted to the Sun-Disc? Or should we search for the motivating force behind Akhenaten’s monotheism in his distant relationship to his own father, to his search for a “better,” heavenly father who would confer on the earthly king honor and status even greater than had been enjoyed by his own earthly father?