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Algerian model Farida Khelfa by Ali Mahdavi for Christian Louboutin Beauty, 2015.

How Queen Nefertiti used her beauty to convey power

From her talismanic use of kohl to her love of henna and hair extensions, we look at why ancient Egypt’s most iconic leader was also one of the world’s greatest beauty innovators.

It might seem like our obsession with beauty has never been greater, but looking to the past tells a different story. Making Up The Past is a column looking at great women from history and how they used cosmetics to shape their identities, from ancient queens to modern artists.

In 1912, a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt were trawling the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna when they uncovered a series of stone busts. Continuing to excavate, they stumbled upon a studio belonging to Thutmose, the official court sculptor to the ruling Egyptian dynasty throughout the 14th century BC. Borchardt dug a layer deeper, brushing away some dust to reveal a kohl-rimmed eye staring out at him. It was a face so extraordinarily lifelike, he believed for a moment he had uncovered a human body.

In reality, the face was to become one of the most memorable images from all of antiquity: a portrait bust of the Queen Nefertiti, who ruled Egypt alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten. Some historians even argue that after his death, she was the civilisation’s sole leader. Today it sits pride of place in its own room at Berlin’s Neues Museum, a timeless vision of female beauty recreated over the decades and referenced by some of the world’s most iconic women. There’s Iman in full Pharaonic drag for Michael Jackson’s 1992 Remember The Time music video, or Rihanna’s 2017 Vogue Arabia cover, where the singer sported not only Nefertiti’s signature cat-eye but also the traditional Egyptian headdress — even after thousands of years, some beauty trends never go out of style.

There are few cultures as fixated with physical appearance as the ancient Egyptians. Both men and women wore makeup not just out of vanity, but in the belief that adorning oneself with dazzling colours and intricate patterns would ward off evil spirits — like a sacred version of today’s “peacocking” pick-up technique. It’s this belief that left us with the legacy of extraordinary objects from Egyptian antiquity that populate museums across the globe, thanks to their love of durable materials like gold or precious stones and their knack for preservation, with many objects sealed away in air-tight tombs until their modern rediscovery. From Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century, to the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, to The Mummy franchise, the public appetite for Egyptology has rarely waned.

It’s interesting that the most iconic image of the might of ancient Egypt — a civilisation that spanned over three millennia — is that of Nefertiti, one of its most unlikely leaders. Her name roughly translates to “the beautiful one has come”, and it was a beauty that she used to her advantage, coming from a humble background and searing herself onto the public consciousness with unprecedented savvy. It’s no coincidence that the modern women who embody Nefertiti, like Rihanna or Iman, share both physical characteristics and personality traits. They are intelligent and industrious, using their striking appearance and talents to achieve positions of influence: Iman launched a cosmetics label catering to women of colour back in 1994, while the runaway success of Fenty Beauty and Fenty x Puma pay testament to Rihanna’s entrepreneurial instincts.

Looking back at the most significant female figures in history, they almost without fail possessed an uncanny ability to use their physical appearance as a propaganda tool, or a means of advancing their agenda, political or otherwise. There are the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, for example, produced in collaboration with the leading painters of her day to emphasise her heavily powdered, arsenic-white face as both virginal and ageless. Existing as a powerful woman in an oppressively patriarchal society requires serious political acumen, and one of the few tools they had to direct public opinion was the symbolism afforded by clothing and makeup.

Nobody would have understood this better than Nefertiti. Ruling during the most prosperous period of Egyptian history, she and Akhenaten oversaw a religious revolution, replacing the pantheistic beliefs of previous rulers with one divinity: Ra, the sun god. As part of these reforms, the Pharaoh and his wife were consecrated as the only direct link to this god, and along with this radical shift in religious culture came a reshaping of the aesthetic identity of the rulers, appropriate for this new status. One of the most remarkable legacies of Nefertiti’s reign are the paintings discovered in her husband’s tomb, where she is represented driving chariots, attacking enemies and performing ceremonial acts usually reserved solely for the male Pharaoh.

It wasn’t just in art that she shaped this new impression of female power: appearing directly in front of her subjects, the possibilities offered by makeup to fashion her own identity were carefully exploited. Archaeological chemists examining Egyptian mummies have noted that the signature black, swooping eyeshadow worn by Nefertiti was packed with toxic lead-based chemicals, potentially serving as a means of fighting bacterial infection during periods when the Nile would flood. This also had a spiritual parallel, with the painted eye becoming a kind of amulet, again warding off evil spirits; when undecorated, the eye was vulnerable to the influence of the “evil eye”. It’s even been suggested that Nefertiti herself sent chemists out to harvest galena leaves and refine the formula for kohl to grant her additional spiritual protection.

The immense wealth of the Egyptians meant precious stones, today reserved for the most opulent fine jewellery, were regularly crushed and ground as bold, eye-catching pigments. Cleopatra’s signature green eyeshadow, likely worn also by Nefertiti, was formulated from malachite. It’s also believed to be the birthplace of henna, with both men and women known to wear elaborate patterns across their skin, while archaeologists have discovered strands of hair which appear to be the first examples of wigs and hair extensions. Our continued interest in the Egyptian obsession with appearance isn’t just about vanity, but the innovative leaps they made within the world of beauty.

The uncovering of Nefertiti’s bust was well-timed. Two years earlier, the discovery by Howard Carter of her stepson Tutankhamun’s tomb sent western Europe into a frenzy: fashionable women were slicking back their hair and wearing jewelled scarab brooches, and the Art Deco style took direct cues from the regimented decorative schemes of ancient Egyptian art. At the same time, there’s something about her image which feels outside of any specific trend — its power lies in its timelessness.  

A recent scan of the bust has revealed that the original face lying underneath had wrinkles, a larger nose and less-defined cheekbones. It appears Thutmose, according to the queen’s wishes, underwent an ancient form of Photoshopping, refining her features until the image she wanted to present to the world was realised — a vision of beauty so enduring that even in the 21st century, a British woman spent £200,000 trying to reshape herself as the Beauty of the Nile.

It’s not just the specific motif of a cat-eye that lends this sculpture, and Nefertiti herself, an indescribable magic. It’s looking back through the centuries at a woman living in wildly different circumstances who used beauty in the same way we do today: to communicate publicly who we are, to express our uniqueness, or as a protective, even talismanic layer. Beneath the specifics of her make-up regime and aesthetic preferences, it seems that even ancient Egyptian queens were just like us.