Nefertari, the tireless partner of Ramses II, managed his harem and played a minor role in developing the peace agreement with the Hittite kingdom. In appreciation of her abilities, Ramses II built her a smaller, lavish temple at Abu Simbel. This Ninteenth- Dynasty statue of the two stands as testament to their partnership.
In the palace, Ramses married his first royal wife, Nefertari, who presented his firstborn son. His secondary wife, Isetnofret, gave birth to a second boy. There were more sons and daughters, and a nursery blossomed in the harem. King Sethos became grandfather to a dozen or so children. In ancient times, many babies died in infancy. Those who survived later played major and minor roles in Egyptian history. All of Ramses’ boys held the title of commander and chief of the army. Ramses’ brother and Sethos’s heir apparent had died.
Nefertari, a daughter of Egyptian nobility, was the favored wife of Ramses II. The first of eight wives to provide Ramses II with a son, Nefertari was known as the chief queen of the harem.
Grounded in her husband’s rule while Ramses was away from the capital, his chief consort, Queen Nefertari, held his exalted position. In the grand audience chamber she conducted court, heard grievances, and governed his correspondences. She supervised her large royal household and a girls’ school where young women received instructions in art, weaving, and music. Elegant and composed, Nefertari stood alongside Ramses at public and state ceremonies. Two of his sisters, Tia, and his younger sister, Hentmire, assumed their places as official wives of the king, as did two other sisters.
When he was crowned king, not only did Ramses design plans for his own burial tomb, but for that of his first royal queen, Nefertari. Said to have been the most beautiful of his seven royal wives, scribes and artists were instructed to emblaze stunning scenes throughout her tomb. Nefertari appeared in a white linen gown, with six strands of amethysts around her neck, gold bracelets on her wrists, and her golden vulture crown with its two feathers artfully extending from the back. A small gold and turquoise cobra, threaded through her earlobe, marked her as royalty. Another frieze showed her worshipping the mummified body of Osiris. Equally stunning, another depicted her offering milk to the goddess Hathor. In one scene, the goddesses Nephthys and Isis watch hawk-like over the queen’s mummy, portrayed as Osiris. To match Nefertari’s radiance, Ramses ordered a pink granite sarcophagus. Befitting his royal wife, passages from the Book of the Dead emblazoned a wall, and his love for Nefertari was expressed: “For the one whose love shines. My love is unique—no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.” Jimmy Dunn.
In the twenty-fourth year of Ramses’ reign, the two great temples at Abu Simbel in Nubia were completed—one for Ramses II and his gods, the other for Nefertari and her goddess. A giant statue of Ramses and a rounded figure of Queen Nefertari with smaller figures of their children flanked the sun-bleached portals. Ramses had hieroglyphics inscribed above the giant figures that read, “Rammesses II, he has made a Temple, excavated in the Mountain of eternal workmanship . . . for the Chief Queen Nefertari Beloved of Mut, in Nubia, forever and ever . . . Nefertari . . . for whose sake the very sun does shine!” according to Christian Jacq’s The Lady of Abu Simbel.
A grand flotilla of royalty sailed up the Nile to Nubia. Ramses and Nefertari were accompanied by their daughter Princess Meritamun. But, in a rock stele, outside the temple, it portrayed only Ramses and Meritamun worshipping the gods. There was no record of the queen’s participation. Had Nefertari not survived the long journey? Shortly after the inauguration, about 1255 b.c., we learned she had died.
Nefertari’s monument revealed a splendor beyond all the others Ramses had built. Historian Bernadette Menu wrote that it was, “a masterpiece of Egyptian painting, richly decorated with mythological scenes. Gods and goddesses are depicted either alone or with the queen, who worships them or presents offerings to them. . . . The goddess Maat spreads her wings in protective gesture.”
The royal custom of secession had changed with the death of Queen Nefertari. Assistant Queen Isetnofret became the great royal wife. Her first daughter, Bintanath, assumed her mother’s previous role. Meritamun, Nefertari’s eldest daughter, reigned as associate queen. Isetnofret’s eldest son became heir apparent. Four daughters of Ramses also held the title of associate queen. These were the most exalted among his daughters, of whom there were at least 40 in addition to some 45 sons. Isetnofret bore Ramses’ gifted son Merenptah, a famous magician who ultimately made the greatest mark in Egypt and attained kingship. Another son, Prince Khaemwaset, became the first Egyptologist, as he preserved the ancient monuments. He served as high priest of the god Ptah with a steady stream of high government positions.