Queen Nefertari was an Egyptian queen and the first of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses the Great. She is one of the best-known Egyptian queens, next to Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Hatshepsut.
In this article, we are going to take you on a journey to the tomb of Queen Nefertari, by far one of the largest and most beautifully vivid tombs ever built in ancient Egypt. So bring along a cup of coffee and read on.
Table of Contents
Before we get to the tomb of Nefertari and understand what makes it that remarkable, it makes sense to learn a thing or two about who Nefertari was in the first place. In fact, Queen Nefertari was one of the most famous queens of ancient Egypt, a name that was meant to be amongst other majestic women who changed the course of history for this country, such as the mighty Queen Hatshepsut.
Queen Nefertari was the first and royal wife of Pharaoh Rameses II or Ramesses the Great, who is considered the most powerful ancient Egyptian king of all time. His reign stretched for 67 years and he had a lifetime of 90 years, and both were filled with terrific achievements and huge impactful changes that he made in Egypt.
Queen Nefertari names
In the ancient Egyptian language, Nefertari means the Beautiful One or the Most Beautiful of Them All, and she certainly was very pretty, as depicted on the walls of her magnificent tomb.
Besides her beautiful name, Nefertari also had so many different titles, including the Sweet of Love, Lady of Grace, Lady of All Lands and the One for Whom the Sun Shines. The latter was actually given to her by Ramesses II himself, which indicates how much love and affection he had for her.
Origins of Queen Nefertari
The origins and childhood of Nefertari are pretty much unknown. The only record that indicates her lineage was an inscription of her name combined with King Ay in a cartouche on a wall of her tomb.
Although, King Ay was an 18th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled from 1323 to 1319 BC, way before Nefertari was born. If she were in any way related to him, she would be his granddaughter or even great-granddaughter. However, that was not confirmed in any other ancient Egyptian records.
Marriage to Ramesses II
What is known for sure is that Nefertari married Ramesses II when he was still a prince and while his father, King Seti I, who also had one of the most magnificent tombs, was still in power. Nefertari was either the same age as or a few years younger than Ramesses. Some say she was around 13, and he was 15 when they married, or maybe a little older than that.
Ramesses II became the pharaoh in 1279 BC when he was around age 24, and because Nefertari was his first wife – yes, he had many other wives – she became the royal queen. Ramesses II ruled during the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, which was one of the three golden ages of ancient Egypt. Together, the couple had four sons and two daughters; with some records citing four daughters.
Role in diplomacy
Nefertari held a high status in the court and was highly educated. She could both read and write hieroglyphs, which was a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals of the time.
The late queen played a significant role in diplomatic relations with the queen of the Hittites, a major rival of Egypt at the time. This was unusual, as women rarely played such a prominent role in diplomacy in ancient Egypt.
Queen Nefertari’s death
The exact date and cause of Nefertari’s death are unknown, but it is believed she died relatively early in Ramesses II’s long reign, as she disappears from the historical record around the 25th year of his reign. Her tomb suggests she was honoured and remembered long after her passing.
Despite the grandeur of her tomb, Nefertari’s mummy was not found there. Fragments of her mummy were discovered in a cache in the Valley of the Queens and positively identified in 1999. The remains indicate that she was about 40 years old at the time of her death.
Representation in ancient art
Nefertari is depicted in numerous pieces of ancient Egyptian art, including statues and reliefs. She is often shown accompanying Ramesses II in these depictions. One of the most famous depictions of Nefertari is in her tomb in the Valley of the Queens.
The queen is also depicted on the facade of the smaller temple at Abu Simbel, which Ramesses II dedicated to her and the goddess Hathor. This is unusual, as it’s one of the few times in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen.
Queen Nefertari statue
In statues, Nefertari is often shown with her arms straight down at her sides or crossed over her chest, holding symbols of authority like the ankh (symbol of life) or the sceptre. Her face is typically serene, with large almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose, and a small, slightly smiling mouth.
She is also usually shown standing or seated, wearing a tight-fitting dress and a headdress. The headdress, known as a ‘nemes’, is striped and covers much of her hair, extending down the back. It’s often combined with a vulture headdress, a symbol of the goddess Mut, with whom Nefertari was particularly associated.
One of the most famous statues of Nefertari is the colossal statue at the temple of Abu Simbel, where she is depicted standing next to Ramesses II. The fact that her statue is the same size as that of the pharaoh is highly unusual and a testament to her status and importance.
Queen Nefertari Temple
The temple of Queen Nefertari is located in Abu Simbel, near the border of modern-day Sudan. It’s one of two massive rock temples in this area, the other one being the temple of Ramesses II, her husband. These temples were carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Ramesses II in the 13th century BCE, as a lasting monument to himself and Nefertari.
The temple dedicated to Nefertari is also dedicated to the goddess Hathor. It’s smaller than Ramesses II’s temple but no less impressive. It features colossal statues of the queen and the pharaoh, each standing about 33 feet (10 meters) tall. The statues of Nefertari are the same height as those of Ramesses, which is unusual and indicates the high regard in which she was held.
The interior of the temple is decorated with wall paintings depicting Nefertari offering to the gods. The colors and details of these paintings are still remarkably vibrant and clear, even after more than 3,000 years.
In the 1960s, the entire complex was relocated to avoid being submerged by the creation of Lake Nasser, following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The relocation was a monumental engineering feat, with the temples being carefully cut into blocks, moved, and then reassembled in a new location higher up the hillside.
Tomb of Queen Nefertari
Despite the little-known things about Nefertari’s life, it was evident that her relationship with Ramesses II was very special. She was his closest and most favourite wife, and he was deeply in love with her. This was extremely clear from what he did after her death to honour her life. He left her a legacy that would make her remembered for eternity, best represented by the vivid, lavish tomb he had built for her.
This vivid, lavish tomb Ramesses II built for his wife is located in the Valley of the Queens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where the royal wives of ancient Egyptian kings were buried. The valley is situated on the west bank of the River Nile, opposite Thebes, modern-day Luxor.
The tomb was discovered in 1904 by Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli and was given the number QV66. Once he opened the door, Schiaparelli knew he was before a distinctive discovery no one had ever encountered before. The tomb was very beautiful. All the walls were decorated with amazingly vivid and colourful paintings. Not a single space was even left uncoloured.
Later on, the QV66 was nicknamed the Sistine Chapel of ancient Egypt because, in a way, it resembled the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican City.
Structure of the Tomb of Queen Nefertari
So what exactly does Queen Nefertari’s tomb look like?
Well, first of all, it is spacious. Very. In fact, This is one of the largest tombs in the entire Valley of the Queens, with a total area of 520 square metres.
To get to the tomb, one has to descend over 20 steps, it is underground and basically carved out of a limestone cliff. A huge metal door was installed there after the tomb’s discovery, and it opens up to a whole new realm of beauty, elegance and vividness.
The tomb was made of three chambers. The first one is the antechamber, to which the second chamber is connected through a small corridor on the right. Both chambers are on the same level. Then the third one, the burial chamber, the largest of the three, is on a lower level and attached to the antechamber by another set of steps.
The burial chamber is quite wide and alone has an area of 90 square metres. It has four columns that support the ceiling. On its right and left sides, there are also two annexe rooms.
The burial chamber is the sanctum of the tomb and its most sacred place. This is supposedly where the coffin of the Queen was placed. This is also where, according to ancient Egyptian religion, the deceased was brought back to life for judgement.
Decorations in the Tomb of Queen Nefertari
The tomb of Nefertari is a true representation of the love and affection Ramesses II had for his wife. Besides its huge size, what is even more magnificent about this tomb is the stunning paintings and decorations that stayed colourful and vivid even after thousands of years. They are literally beyond any description.
The ceiling is painted dark blue with thousands of golden five-angle stars that depict a clear summer night sky. All of the walls inside the tomb have white backgrounds with scenes and portraits that depict the late Queen and the religious beliefs of that time.
The antechamber, for instance, is decorated with scenes and paintings taken from the Book of the Dead. This is an ancient Egyptian book containing about 200 spells believed to have guided the deceased in the afterlife.
On the walls of the antechamber, we can find different paintings of the ancient Egyptian gods, including Osiris, the god of the dead and afterlife and Anubis, the guide to the underworld and one who protected graves, as well as Nefertari herself welcomed by them. They are all painted in different bright colours on that white background.
Beside the paintings, are illustrations of countless texts in hieroglyphics again taken from the Book of the Dead – as if they explain what the painted scenes are about.
The paintings foresee Nefertari in her afterlife and depict what her earthly life was like. One painting, for instance, shows the Queen playing senet, which was an ancient Egyptian board game.
One wall of the burial chamber is divided into two parts. The upper one shows the mummy of Nefertari surrounded by two falcons on the right and left sides, a lion, a heron, and a male figure, all dazzling in beautiful bright colours. The lower part features large texts in hieroglyphics, again taken from the Book of the Dead, written vertically on a white background.
The columns of the burial chamber are also decorated with different paintings of the Queen. On the walls of this chamber, as well, there are so many different scenes of Nefertari with different gods and divine creatures, including, the likes of Horus, Isis, Amun, Ra and Serket.
The Queen’s name was found in several cartouches on the walls of her tomb. These are oval-shaped paintings where the name of the royal was written. As we mentioned earlier, one of them combines Nefertari with King Ay with no other reference to why they both were written in the same cartouche or what their relationship could be.
The artists who did all this amazing work took special care in showing how beautiful Nefertari was. There are so many portraits of her shown wearing a beautiful white dress, a vulture headdress and a plum-shaped crown. In all of them, the Queen has outlined eyes and eyebrows, blushy cheeks and a beautiful physique.
Besides everything we mentioned so far, there is still one last thing that shows how much Ramesses II cared about honouring his wife. That is, there is not even a single portrait of him with Nefertari, in a way that would falsely indicate she was single, however, it is more like Ramesses II totally stepped aside and made her tomb all about her.
Robbery of the Tomb of Queen Nefertari
It does not take a genius to know that a tomb as big and spectacular as Nefertari’s would be filled to the top with countless treasures of all kinds, colours, shapes, materials, and values. At the time of the Queen’s burial, the tomb must have been stuffed with artefacts, figures, jewellery, clothes and any belongings those who buried her thought she would need in the afterlife. This was something ancient Egyptians were famous for doing in honouring their belief in the afterlife.
But when Ernesto Schiaparelli opened the tomb over a century ago, it was clear that he was not the first to do so.
Unlike the tomb of King Tut, which remained untouched ever since it was closed after the pharaoh’s burial thousands of years ago, until its discovery in 1922. The tomb of Nefertari was pretty much, well, empty. Everything that was once buried with the Queen was stolen. Even Nefertar’s coffin and mummy were stolen.
The only thing that remained in this tomb, and, thankfully, was preserved, was the vivid paintings on the walls, because they were parts of the tomb, which was part of a cliff. Otherwise, the thieves would not have missed them.
It is not known when or how the tomb was located and robbed, but this could have happened during a time of chaos. As scholars agreed, the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties together made the New Kingdom of Egypt. This was the last of the three golden ages of ancient Egypt.
The New Kingdom was then followed by the Second Intermediate Period. As the name suggests, this was a period of conflicts and mayhem where the pharaohs, as well as the military, were weakened. So laws were violated, crimes were increasingly committed, and tomb robberies, like the Baby Shark song, went viral. So it’s not entirely ludicrous to assume that this could be when the tomb of Nefertari was robbed.
There were only a few items that were found in the tomb at the time of its discovery in 1904; a piece of golden bracelet, an earring, a few small Ushabti figures of the Queen, a pair of sandals and fragments of her granite coffin. Some of those are currently found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In addition to these items, two mummified legs were found in the tomb. Using modern research methods, it was proven that they belonged to the Queen herself. Unfortunately, they are not in Egypt because Ernesto Schiaparelli took them back to Italy for display at the Museo Egizio of Turin or the Egyptian Museum in Turin. They have been there since then.
Closure of Tomb of Queen Nefertari
The fantastic tomb of Nefertari was, and still is, an outstanding archaeological find that had to be shared with the entire world. Not only those interested in ancient Egypt or even art advocates but almost everyone on this planet needed to see these beautiful and surprisingly well-preserved paintings that are beyond comparison.
So ever since it was discovered, Nefertari’s tomb was opened to tourists. Over the years, however, the paintings were so exposed to bacteria, salt formation, humidity and water that they started deteriorating. This made the Egyptian authorities close the tomb in 1950 for fear of losing the paintings altogether.
Luckily in 1986, a project to restore the deteriorated paintings of Nefertari’s tomb was agreed upon between the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and the American Getty Conservation Institute. The project started in 1988 and was completed four years later, and the tomb once again returned to its original well-conserved state.
Queen Nefertari exhibit tour
Since its reinstallation, the Getty Conservation Institute has been closely monitoring the tomb to make sure it stays in a good state. In order to protect the tomb, preserve its alluring paintings and not waste four years of hard work, Egypt decided to reopen the tomb to visitors but only gave access to a maximum of 150 of them at a time.
However, that did not seem to work either. So it had to be boiled down even more. In 2006, the tomb was closed once again to the public. Only private tours of a maximum of 20 people were granted access under the condition of obtaining a special licence for $3,000—we know, far too expensive.
To help attract more tourists and revive tourism which was affected by the political situation in the country since 2011, Egypt lifted the restrictions on the tomb’s entry and allowed whoever wants to pay tribute to the Queen to visit her very sacred tomb for a ticket of EGP1400—still expensive, we know (shrug gesture!)
Winter is the best season to visit Luxor (and Aswan) and spend a wonderful vacation exploring some of the world’s most fascinating monuments. If you ever make it there, make sure you visit the beautiful tomb of Queen Nefertari. Although admission is a little bit costly, once you descend these steps and enter the sacred realm of ancient Egypt, you will instantly know that this experience is totally worth it.
Once you are done with that, do not forget to stop by King Tut’s tomb, which is only 8.4 kilometres from that of Queen Nefertari. This is another attraction you must never miss visiting while in Luxor.
Tomb of King Tutankhamun
Once it was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, the tomb of King Tutankhamun instantly turned into a worldwide fascination. Such a discovery is by all means, it is one of the most significant in Egyptian history, as the tomb was completely preserved. Ever since it was closed over 3,000 years ago, no one could ever locate it, let alone dare to annoy the young pharaoh.
Among the many things the world has been fussing about are the thousands of treasures that were found scattered everywhere in the tomb’s chambers, inside the pharaoh’s very sacred coffin and even between layers of linen that wrapped his mummy. Most of these fantastic artefacts are now displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, to which thousands of tourists flock every year to gaze in awe at the beauty and innovation of ancient Egypt.
The tomb of King Tut has received acclamation for more than a century, however, it seems to have overshadowed other, no less significant, archaeological discoveries. One such is the tomb of Queen Nefertari.
More Egypt Tombs Discovered
There are many significant tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, noble persons and even common people that are peppered throughout the land and it is safe to say that we probably haven’t discovered them all. Archaeologists however have uncovered some of the secrets of Egypt’s ancient past, check out these discovered tombs below.
Seti I’s Tomb (KV17)
Discovered in the Valley of the Kings, this tomb is one of the longest and deepest in the valley. It is known for its detailed reliefs and hieroglyphs.
Tomb of the Workers (Deir el-Medina)
This is a village that housed the workers who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The tombs of the workers themselves have been discovered here, providing insight into the lives of common people in ancient Egypt.
Tomb of Sennedjem (TT1)
Sennedjem was a worker in Deir el-Medina. His tomb is known for its beautiful and colourful wall paintings depicting scenes of daily life and the afterlife.
Tomb of Menna (TT69)
Located in the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna part of the Theban Necropolis, the tomb of Menna, a scribe and “Chief of Fields”, is noted for its well-preserved, high-quality wall paintings.
Tomb of Khafre (G 7120)
Khafre was a pharaoh of the 4th dynasty, and his pyramid complex at Giza includes several associated tombs for his family members and officials.
Tomb of Djehutyhotep (TT14)
Djehutyhotep was a local governor during the Middle Kingdom. His tomb in Deir el-Bersha has a famous relief of a colossal statue being transported.
Tomb of Petosiris (Tuna el-Gebel)
Petosiris was a high priest of Thoth during the late period. His tomb is a blend of Egyptian and Greek art styles.
Tomb of Psusennes I (Tanis)
Psusennes was a pharaoh of the 21st dynasty. His tomb was discovered intact in the 1940s and contained a wealth of jewellery and a silver coffin.
Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35)
This tomb in the Valley of the Kings was discovered in 1898. In addition to Amenhotep II, mummies of several other pharaohs were found in a side chamber, likely moved there by priests to protect them from tomb robbers.
Tomb of Ramesses III (KV11)
This is one of the largest tombs in the Valley of the Kings, known for its intricate reliefs The walls are adorned with religious texts and scenes and the burial chamber is decorated with the Book of Gates and the Book of the Earth, two important funerary texts that guide the deceased in the afterlife.
Ramesses III, the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty, is often considered the last great monarch of the New Kingdom.
Tomb of Ramesses VI (KV9)
This tomb was originally built for Ramesses V, but was completed by Ramesses VI. It has a well-preserved astronomical ceiling with a unique depiction of the sky goddess Nut.
Tomb of Thutmose III (KV34)
This tomb in the Valley of the Kings is known for its unusual shape and the Amduat texts – one of the first complete copies of this funerary text.
Tomb of Horemheb (KV57)
Horemheb was the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings is known for its beautiful wall reliefs.
Tomb of Merneptah (KV8)
Located in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, is known for its well-preserved reliefs.
Tomb of Senenmut (TT353)
Senenmut was an architect and government official under Hatshepsut. His tomb is located in Deir el-Bahari and is known for its architectural design.
Tomb of Nakht (TT52)
Nakht was an ancient Egyptian official during the reign of Thutmose IV. His tomb in the Theban Necropolis is known for its vivid wall paintings depicting scenes of daily life.
Tomb of Meryre (Amarna Tomb 4)
Meryre was a high priest of Aten during the reign of Akhenaten. His tomb in Amarna has important reliefs showing Akhenaten and his family
Tomb of Maya and Merit (Saqqara)
Maya was Treasurer during the reign of Tutankhamun, and his wife Merit was a singer in the interior of the temple of Amun. Their tomb in Saqqara was discovered in 1986 and is known for its beautiful statues and reliefs.
These tombs provide a wealth of information about ancient Egyptian culture, religion, and burial practices.
New Discoveries in Egypt
Archaeologists in Egypt are consistently uncovering new sites and relics from the country’s ancient past. check out some new discoveries in Epgpt below.
The “Lost Golden City”
In April 2021, archaeologists uncovered a vast ancient city in Luxor, often referred to as the “Lost Golden City” or “The Rise of Aten.” It is believed to have been built during the reign of Amenhotep III, around 3,000 years ago. This discovery provides valuable insights into the life and culture of ancient Egypt
In November 2020, archaeologists unearthed more than 100 intact ancient coffins in the Saqqara necropolis near Cairo. These well-preserved wooden coffins, along with numerous funerary artefacts, belonged to high-ranking officials and priests from the New Kingdom period.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
In 2020, a team of scientists conducted an extensive project called “ScanPyramids” using advanced technologies such as thermal imaging and muon radiography to explore the internal structure of the Great Pyramid of Giza. This endeavour revealed previously unknown chambers and highlighted the advanced engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians.
Painted Tomb in Sohag
In 2018, archaeologists discovered an elaborately decorated tomb in the city of Sohag. The tomb, dating back to the 4th century BCE, belonged to a nobleman named Tutu and contained stunning wall paintings depicting scenes of daily life, religious rituals, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Recent Mummy Discoveries
In recent years, numerous mummies have been found in different parts of Egypt. Notably, in 2019, over 40 mummies were discovered in burial chambers at the Tuna El-Gebel archaeological site in Minya. These mummies belonged to priests and priestesses from the Late Period of ancient Egypt.
Learn more about ancient Egypt
There is much that we do still not know or understand about life in ancient Egypt, but archaeological finds like the Tomb of Queen Nefertari, offer us a glimpse into a long-forgotten past. If you’re interested in learning more about ancient Egypt be sure to check out these other articles: Ancient Egyptian Symbols | The Old Kingdom of Egypt | Ancient Egyptian Inventions | Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt | Isis and Osiris.