Ahmose Nefertari, the deified Queen of Egypt

Ahmose Nefertari was the sister and Great Royal Wife of king Ahmose I, the first king of the 18th Dynasty. After taking the reins from the Hyksos’s hands and unifying a dismantled Egypt, Ahmose I was the first ruler of Egyptian origin to bring Egypt into what is referred to as it’s Golden Age, also known as the New Kingdom.

It is believed, Ahmose Nefertari and Ahmose I were the children of king Seqenenre Tao (Seqenera Djehuty-aa or Sekenenra Taa) and Ahhotep I. Seqenenre Tao was not king for long and was brutally killed in battle. Ahhotep I, was his Great Royal Wife and is thought to have been an influential ruler and beloved. She is the daughter of Queen Tetisheri and king Senakhtenre Ahmose.

The deified Ahmose Nefertari, as depicted within TT 359, Deir el-Medina. This wall fragment is now on display at the Neues Museum, in Berlin. ÄM 2060.
The deified Ahmose Nefertari, as depicted within TT 359, Deir el-Medina.
This wall fragment is now on display at the Neues Museum, in Berlin. ÄM 2060.

A century or so after their deaths, both Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose Nefertari became deified and were the subjects of a cult of recognition and worship within the Deir el-Medina and Theban region for approximately 400 years. Their image therefore appears in numerous stelae and tombs, despite not being the rulers of the period in which such likenesses were made.

The reason for their deified status and worship is not really known, however, it is thought it perhaps was due to Amenhotep I’s empathy and therefore help for the workers within the famous workers village of Deir el-Medina, where the cult of dedication towards the pair was heavily followed for centuries.

Amenhotep I depicted twice alongside his mother, Ahmose Nefertari. Tomb of Khabeknet (TT2).
Amenhotep I depicted twice alongside his mother, Ahmose Nefertari. Tomb of Khabeknet (TT2). Khabeknet was the son of Sennedjem and Iyneferti (Tomb TT1) and was titled with; “Servant in the Place of Truth“, during the reign of Ramesses II.

Why is Ahmose Nefertari sometimes depicted black after her death?

Contrary to what the internet may say, Nefertari’s black skin is not an indication of black African origin, it is in fact a symbolic indication of her being deceased.

Colour coding in Ancient Egyptian art is a rather simple formulaic structure that the basic armchair historian or Egyptologist can comprehend, and hopefully, you will understand the basic structure after reading this article.

Despite the artisans of the Ancient Egyptian empire being extremely talented in both sculpture and 2-dimensional art forms, they favoured a simplistic structure when it came to the structure of the art they developed, and the reason behind this was the functionality and spiritual purpose behind such depictions.

Although there are examples of outliers (where a piece goes against the regular canon), in short, the palette of Egyptian art tended to have a main colour scheme for human figures.

  • ~𓋹 Yellow or a peach tone for women: Throughout history and throughout various cultures from around the world, women being fairer than the man was a favourable image to present. This was not so much to do with race or ethnicity, but a representation of status in society. Fairer skin meant a person spent less time outdoors under the sun working and more time living relaxed or possibly even luxuriously. And so, the female being yellow beside her red-skinned husband, presented a portrait to the viewer of a hard-working man, who provided comfort and protection for the females of his family.
    Of course, fairer skin may have become a beauty standard for this very reason, Nefertiti herself is referred to as, “fair of face”, in writings dedicated to her by her beloved husband king Akhenaten. These ideals may seem problematic in this modern society, yet such ideals were worldwide throughout varied histories, and it would be wrong to deem the Egyptians as prejudice for this representation of the female form.
  • ~𓋹 Red or reddish-brown for men: Red skin would imply a healthy, tanned man who was fit and able for outdoor activity, be it hunting or agriculture. This would not always be a true to life depiction, as in death the Egyptian would want to be depicted at his best. And to the Egyptian, a healthy outdoors man was a man at his best. Even the king of Egypt in some periods would have to prove himself and his fitness at festivals. So, even if a man was sickly or obese, he would be depicted reddish-brown, adorned in fine linen and a wig adorning his head. They would even be depicted farming in such garments, even if in life they were not farmers, but wealthy scribes, because in death, even the most elite would like to present themselves as maintaining the agriculture of the Field of Reeds (Egypt’s heavenly realm), as to the Egyptian, heaven was essentially just eternal life in Egypt, the homeland already deemed a heaven to the Egyptian.
    Female king Hatshepsut, is famously depicted in male form and thus is depicted wearing the Osiride crown with red skin. The idea was to represent her as a male, to not disrupt the order of Ma’at by displaying a female pharaoh.
  • ~𓋹 Black for the deceased or immortal.
  • ~𓋹 Green (later periods have some deities depicted blue) for the deceased or immortal.

Black was an important colour to the Egyptians. In fact, one name for their entire kingdom, and often purposely misconstrued, was the Black Land (km.t). This was in reference to the fertile silt of the Nile that gave Egypt life. You see, Egypt was surrounded by barren desert, which they would refer to as the Red Land (dshrt), and so, when the Nile would flood annually, leaving behind a soggy, wet, muddy landscape in its wake, the Egyptians saw this as a divine gift. Hence, another name for Egypt being “The Gift of the Nile“. Most importantly, this muddy silt would allow Egypt to be fertile, as once the flood had faded, Egypt would begin springing green agriculture, allowing life to flourish.

“The concept of race would have been totally alien to them [the ancient Egyptians]. Of course the ancient Egyptians discriminated… But it is evident, from reliefs, inscriptions, and actual mummies, that they did not discriminate on the basis of color.

Neither color nor ‘previous conditions of servitude’ prevented an individual from becoming ‘one of us’. Slaves sometimes married into families or were adopted. Some persons of foreign origin attained high rank… Foreigners became Egyptians when they learned the language and adopted the customs of the country”

Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, by Barbara Mertz (#aff)

And that’s where Green comes into play. Both black and green are two colours associated with the god Osiris. Osiris was the ruler of the Underworld. In short, his story goes that; after being killed by his brother Set, Osiris was dismembered and his body parts hid across Egypt. His beloved wife, Isis (Aset), gathered all the parts and put them together, creating in Osiris, the first mummy.

Osiris is often depicted with green or black skin, to represent the agriculture of the Black Land, which to the Egyptian represented rebirth, since after the flood, life would flourish from the Black Land. And so, Orisis’s black skin represents the fertility and incoming resurrection of life, and the green represents the actual rebirth and resurrection of that life.

Mummy of Queen Ahmose Nefertari
Mummy of Queen Ahmose Nefertari

The Egyptian obsession with fertility was present throughout their entire Pre-Dynastic and Dynastic age. Most deities were associated in some form to fertility or rebirth. Be it the protective gods and goddesses, securing the safety of children like Tawaret or Bes, or the female goddesses of motherhood and femininity like Hathor and Isis, and of course, the male gods of resurrection and fertility like Osiris and Min. Min, who is depicted with his phallus erected.

It is said that throughout the year religious festivals would occur, these festivals would revolve around the cycles of the seasons, and be filled with rituals to secure the fertility of the land, in hopes that the rejuvenation of the land would be most fruitful.

Like all ancient cultures from around the world, the need for the community to survive mattered most, and the agriculture springing forth to life would bring joy and hope, wealth and of course, secure survival for another seasonal year.

Ahmose Nefertari depicted in the 20th Dynasty tomb of Kynebu. British Museum. EA37994
Ahmose Nefertari depicted in the 20th Dynasty tomb of Kynebu.
British Museum. EA37994
Amenhotep I depicted in the 20th Dynasty tomb of Kynebu. British Museum. EA37993
Amenhotep I depicted in the 20th Dynasty tomb of Kynebu.
British Museum. EA37993

Egyptians were very matter of a fact when it came to depicting people of other cultures or ethnicities. They would display cultural costumes of the people they were representing, and even the distinctive facial features. These representations of the neighbouring regions and foreigners were important to the Egyptian, as such imagery was a showcase of the power the Egyptian had, with foreign tribute bearers and perhaps foreign subdued victims of smiting.

Nubian archers (from modern South Sudan), would be depicted with their traditional feathered headdresses, dark black or dark brown skin, and sometimes red like the Egyptian too, but yet their features would be more bulbous and their cultural facial scars that are still in use today by the Dinka Tribe would be present upon the foreheads. It is the same with the Libyan and Asiatics (Syria & Levant region). They, too, would be red skinned or fairer, but their costumes and facial hair differed greatly to the Egyptian. Such differing and identifiable depictions of the various peoples of the then known world, were written about by king Akhenaten in his Hymn to the Aten and even showcased in the tomb of Seti I.

Libyans, Nubian, Syrian, Egyptian. Tomb of Seti I, c.1294–1279 B.C. Facsimile by Heinrich von Minutoli (1820).
Libyans, Nubian, Syrian, Egyptian.
Tomb of Seti I, c.1294–1279 B.C. Facsimile by Heinrich von Minutoli (1820).

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.

Great Hymn to the Aten, as written in tombs at Amarna (ancient Akhet-Aten).

The deified Ahmose Nefertari enthroned beside her son, Amenhotep I
Stela of Sennefer, 19th Dynasty, c. 1292–1190 B.C.
Deir el-Medina
Museo Egizio. Cat. 1455