Sunday, 23 June 2013

What Happened to the Three Youngest Amarna Princesses?

The heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Queen Nefertiti had six daughters, who were often shown with them on their monuments and in tomb decorations.  Before this time at the end of the 18th dynasty it was rare for Pharaoh’s to be shown with their offspring or even alongside their royal wives, and there are probably many royal children who have not made it onto the pages of history from Ancient Egypt. But from these illustrations from Amarna it would appear that these little girls lived a privileged life of luxury and ease in the royal palace and also that they were loved and included in both the public and private lives of their parents.  But life expectancy was not very long in Ancient Egypt, even for the cosseted children of royalty, so what did happen to the three youngest Amarna princesses Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure and Setepenre?

Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure
Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure

What draws many people to the Amarna period of Ancient Egypt is the innovative, more realistic style of the art and statuary.  For the first time in Ancient Egypt’s long history the palaces were decorated with colourful scenes from nature, such as flying birds, fish in ponds, gambolling calves and plants.  The royal family were also shown in a more natural guise for the first time.  No longer were the Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife shown in the perfect, formal poses of earlier reigns; they were drawn or carved with pot bellies and long, spindly limbs, doing the kind of things that ordinary families do, such as playing with the children and showing affection to one another. Some of the most charming scenes from this time depict the young Amarna princesses playing with each other, cuddling with their parents or even being naughty by poking a chariot horse with a stick.  But, as well as being attractive images, these carvings and wall paintings provide us with most of the evidence we have regarding the lives of these royal children.

Their royal father Akhenaten abandoned the traditional capital and religion of Egypt and built an entirely new city called Akhetaten, based on the worship of the Aten or sun disk, for his family and to be the principle royal administrative centre.  It is very likely that Neferneferuaten Tasherit (Beauty of the Beauties of Aten’ – Tasherit means ‘the younger one’ or ‘little’) was the first of the royal sisters to have been born in the new city, followed by Neferneferure (‘Most Beautiful One of Re’) shortly after and then the youngest princess, Setepenre (‘Chosen of Re’).  The very first image we have of them all dates to around year 9 and is a wall painting from the King’s House in Amarna. It shows the entire royal family relaxing, with Neferneferuaten Tasherit painted sitting with her sister Neferneferure on a cushion.  The fresco is very badly damaged unfortunately and all that is left of the picture of the youngest daughter, Setepenre, is her tiny hand.

The three youngest Amarna princesses are also shown in the decorations on the walls of the noble’s tombs at Amarna.  It is in these tombs that we see the last scenes that show Nefertiti surrounded by all six of her daughters.  In year 12 of Akhenaten a ‘Great Durbar’ was held at Amarna where foreign rulers and vassals came from all corners of the Empire to pay tribute and give offerings to the Pharaoh.  The three little princesses are shown with their elder sisters standing behind Akhenaten and Nefertiti as they receive tribute in the tombs of Meryre II and Huya, the Chief Steward of their grandmother Queen Tiye, and in one of the registers Neferneferure is shown holding a pet gazelle, which her youngest sister Setepenre leans forward to pet.  This ‘Great Durbar’ seems to be the nadir of Akhenaten’s reign, as after this glittering event things seem to start falling apart at Akhetaten and many members of the royal family slip away into the shadows of history.

There is evidence from the Amarna letters that a great plague was sweeping through the Middle East at that time and that unwittingly the coming together of so many people from different countries could have helped it to spread.  It is thought that the three youngest Amarna princesses may have been victims of whatever disease it was that was ravaging the population of Egypt.  The tiny Setepenre may have been the first to die, as there is no evidence of her after years 13-14.  Her name does appear on Wall C in the Royal Tomb, along with that of four of her sisters. She is also not shown on a wall in another chamber of the tomb that shows her parents and family mourning the death of her older sister Princess Meketaten.  No evidence of her burial has been found, although she was very likely interred in the Royal Tomb and, heartbreakingly, the little girl was probably not even six years old when she died.

Princess Neferneferure is also missing from the death scene of Meketaten in the royal tomb at Amarna, so may also have died by years 13-14.  However, it is important to remember that we do not know that much about the protocol surrounding royal burial ceremonies; these two princesses may simply have been too young to have been mourners in the scene.  However, Neferneferure’s name is plastered over on Wall C in another chamber in the tomb.  She could also have been buried in the Royal Tomb, although there is some evidence she could have been buried in another tomb at Amarna, Tomb 29, based on an inscription that was discovered on the handle of a pot that refers to the ‘inner (burial) chamber of Neferneferure’.  If she was indeed interred in this other tomb, it could be that she died after her father Akhenaten and the Royal Tomb was already sealed and could not be opened for another burial.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Again we cannot be certain what happened to Neferneferuaten; when she died or what was the cause of her death.  She is shown on the walls of the royal tomb mourning the death of her elder sister Meketaten accompanied by Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten, so was presumably still alive at this time, which was around year 14.  There has been speculation that Neferneferuaten could have been married to a foreign ruler, one of her father Pharaoh Akhenaten’s vassals, and sent abroad but this has never been proved and would have been highly unusual. Egyptian princesses were married within the royal family or to prominent courtiers, and not married off into foreign royal families as diplomatic bargaining pieces. There is also a theory that she could have been her father’s mysterious co-regent, a shadowy figure who may have been either male or female. However, it is thought that she died before Tutankhamun and her sister Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenamun) came to the throne, as there is no evidence of her during their reign that has so far come to light.

Perhaps we will never know what the ultimate fate of these three young Amarna princesses was, but the sands of Egypt still hold many secrets and new evidence may be found during future excavations. So hopefully there are artefacts out there still waiting to be found that might give us more clues and further glimpses into the extraordinary royal lives of these three little girls.

Image Amarna PrincessesNeferneferuaten and Neferneferure Wikimedia Commons Any Purpose
Image Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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