The images of ancient Egypt that have filled the pages of National Geographic come into glorious life in its museum exhibit “Queens of Egypt.” Spanning 1,400 years of history, this unique presentation of archaeological treasures focuses on some of ancient Egypt’s leading ladies.
The first queen of the 18th dynasty and founding queen of the New Kingdom was Queen Ahmose–Nefertari (1539-1514 BCE). She is the personal favorite of Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence and curator. He described how “her wooden artifacts include two intricately carved pieces of furniture and a beautifully carved wooden figurine show Ahmose–Nefertari as a very strong and confident individual.”
Archaeologists uncover objects that are both artifacts with clues about the society of the time as well as works of art that are ageless. As Dr. Hiebert points out: “Later in the New Kingdom Ahmose–Nefertari was revered as a goddess, and that really sets her apart. Given that the wood was very rare and had to been imported, they are finely carved masterpieces. At 3,500 years old they are also among the oldest in the exhibition.”
Hatshepsut (1479-1425 BCE) reigned for 22 years as the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty after her husband died. Her successor made an attempt to erase her from the historical record, leaving her cartouches and images chiseled off stone walls and her statues torn down or disfigured. Thus she disappeared from Egypt’s written and archaeological record, until rediscovered in the late 19th century.
While Tiye (1390-1340 BCE), the Diplomat Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, might not be as well known as the other queens, her grandson, Tutankhamun, would become the most famous pharaoh in the modern world after the discovery of his intact tomb in 1922.
One of the most popular is Nefertiti (1353-1332 BCE). Her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, abolished most of Egypt’s gods and goddesses, replacing them with the worship of a single god—Aten, the sun disk.
But it is she who is remembered for one of the most recognizable pieces of Egyptian art ever discovered. While the authenticity of her life-size bust, uncovered in 1912 during the excavation of a sculptor’s workshop, has been contested, there is no doubt that she is a pop culture figure revered by artists as an eternal icon of feminine beauty. The exhibit includes a replica of her bust but none of most recent 21st-century spinoffs.
The largest, most lavishly painted tomb in the Valley of the Queens is that of Nefertari (1279-1255 BCE), the first queen of Ramses II (or Ramses the Great) known for the monumental sculptures and colossal temples he left behind—like those at the Ramesseum and Abu Simbel.
While her tomb was raided not long after it was constructed, the vivid wall paintings remain intact, showing various scenes of Nefertari in her journey to the afterlife. A model (to 1/10 scale) built in 1904 by Ernesto Schiaparelli who uncovered her tomb, shows in elaborate details what it looked like within. National Geographic has re-created the experience of actually being in her tomb in an immersive visualization in a 3-D theater.
Little is known of Isetnofret, or “the beautiful Isis,” the second Great Royal Wife of Ramses II, except for a handful of statues and carvings that have been found depicting her with her sons.
The most famous is the last queen of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra VII (51-30 BCE). One could fill a museum of the paintings and writings through the centuries that she has inspired to say nothing of popular culture such as movie. Here her story is told with artifacts including a sculpture of the queen dating back to 44-30 BCE.
While the focus is on royal women, the exhibit covers ordinary aspects of daily life with artifacts from the pharaoh’s secondary wives in “The Harem,” and from the craftsmen’s village of Deir el–Medina.
Hiebert believes that what makes the exhibit come alive is visual pieces like a science film on the finding of a perfume factory along with experiences to open and smell the five jars with ancient Egyptian scents.
Visitors can also take a break from viewing the objects and play Senet, one of the most ancient board games, just as in one painting of Nefertari in the underworld.
One of the most amazing displays is the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses III, recently revealed to have had his throat slashed. A series of documents written on papyrus nearly 3,000 years ago called the “harem conspiracy papyrus” is on display. It contains the conspirators’ names and the punishments delivered by a judicial court, but Tiye, the queen who instigated the plot, is not mentioned—her fate remains unknown.
No Egyptian exhibit would be complete without objects about the Egyptian quest for eternal afterlife, like mummified remains and beautiful sarcophagi.
In that realm, the Egyptians had 2,000 gods and goddesses, but here most fittingly in an exhibit of powerful royal women is Sekhmet. Depicted as a lion-headed woman, the goddess of battle and the fiercest hunter in all of Egypt, is represented with four enormous statues, including one that is 7 feet tall and weighing about 6,000 pounds.
Who knows how much more is to be discovered in Egypt’s ancient history that is still buried in the desert sands? “With new high-tech archaeology tools, there’s so much more to learn about our world—we’ve just started exploring!” says Hiebert. For now, these 300-some treasures are a hint of what wonders might be there.