This article was originally published on December 1, 2022.

Queen Nefertiti is best known for her elegant limestone bust showing her role as the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. The Egyptian artifact highlights her long neck, high cheekbones and flawless features. But many scholars believe that there may be more to Nefertiti than beauty. They argue that Nefertiti was also Egypt’s leading lady, a powerful figure who took over after her husband’s death.

Nefertiti ruled during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt between 1353 to 1336 BC. She was the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, had six daughters, and was probably the mother of Tutankhamun, the boy king known as King Tutankhamun . But many experts also argue that when Akhenaten died in 1336 BC, Nefertiti takes over and secretly rules under another name.

Read more: The mystery behind King Tutan’s 3,300-year-old burial mask

Was Queen Nefertiti a female pharaoh?

“We now know for sure that there was a female king who ruled alongside Akhenaten at the very end of his reign,” says Aidan Dodson, professor of Egyptology at the University of Bristol and author of Nefertiti, Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt: Her Life and Afterlife.

Her secret name was Neferneferuaten, and although we cannot know for sure that she was Nefertiti, it would make the most sense because the queen’s full name was Neferneferuaten Nefertiti. She most likely dropped Nefertiti from the title when she took over.

Although still controversial, Dodson says, most scholars agree that Nefertiti made the transition from queen to female king before her husband died in 1336 B.C. Dodson says she most likely was “the last surviving adult” after another temporary king named Smenkhkare, probably Akhenaten’s brother, died prematurely.

“It’s important to note that the word queen and female king are not interchangeable because queens had little power in ancient Egypt,” Dodson says.

Deputy before King Tutan

Dodson says it is less likely that she ruled independently after her husband’s death. Instead, she was a substitute until Tutankhamun was old enough to take over. This is especially important because Akhenaten made drastic changes in Egypt in just a few decades, Dodson says. He was desperate to ensure that his religious revolution would remain intact after his death. Akhenaten moved from a polytheistic system to one that discredited the other gods and instead placed the sun god Aten at the center of polite society.

“Akhenaten was terrified that he would die when his son was still a minor and the regents [those in temporary control] will reverse the whole religious revolution,” says Dodson. “He needed a co-ruler who could ensure that the revolution would endure.”

But it’s important to note, Dodson says, that Nefertiti was not elevated to her position because her husband was in any way progressive or free-thinking. Instead, it was mostly out of desperation. “It was a purely political maneuver by a totalitarian figure,” he says.

Still, getting short in ancient Egypt was unusual, says Kathleen Cooney, professor of ancient Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA and author of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt. She says it’s relatively normal for a woman to come in during a crisis. But Cooney argues that this was not a crisis period because there was still a king on the throne when she was elevated.

Queen Nefertiti as a female pharaoh of Ancient Egypt

Cooney also argues that Nefertiti, not Akhenaten’s brother, ruled all along as the female pharaoh of ancient Egypt before Tutankhamun ascended the throne. She says it is no coincidence that both Smenkhkare and Nefertiti shared the same coronation name, Ankheperure. In fact, she says, they were the same person.

“Just like today, women then had to masculinize themselves to fit into a patriarchal society, and that’s why she uses a male name and why Smenkhkare is depicted as a man,” Cooney says. “It is quite clear to me that Nefertiti was the sole king after the death of her husband.”

Read more: Nefertiti’s Final Resting Place continues to polarize, captivate

Nefertiti’s tomb has never been discovered, as it appears that she was not buried as a king. Dodson says it’s likely she was killed while trying in vain to hold back her husband’s hard-fought revolution, but to no avail. After her death, Tutankhamun took over and reversed his father’s policies, returning to a polytheistic religion. The religious revolution failed after all that Nefertiti might have done to keep it going.

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