The Tomb of Queen Nefertari: Shedding Light on the Importance of Burial and Burial Practices in New Kingdom Egypt

Queen Nefertari, whose name meant “Beautiful Companion” was the Great Royal Wife and Queen of Ramesses II, the third Pharaoh of the 19th dynasty. She is probably one of the most well known Queens of ancient Egypt, and her tomb is one of the largest and most lavishly decorated tombs of the period. Belief in the divine and the afterlife was an integral part of everyday life in ancient Egyptian society, and Nefertari’s tomb allows us a tantalizing glimpse of just how life and death were interwoven, as well as the ancient Egyptian’s beliefs about the journey between death and the afterlife in the New Kingdom.

The tombs in the New Kingdom differed significantly in terms of architecture from previous dynasties. Instead of tombs out in the open desert, like the Pyramids, it was considered prudent to have the tombs hidden underground in the Valley of Kings & Queens. Nefertari’s tomb, like most New Kingdom tombs, consists of a series of descending corridors with small rooms and a sarcophagus hall with annexes. Elements of this basic floor plan were repeated so there was a pattern of corridor followed by a chamber followed by a corridor.  This particular design mirrored the idea of the “crookedness of the beyond”1. On the walls and corridors of Nefertari’s tomb are some 250 square meters of paintings and funerary texts that reveal a ritual process and illustrate the journey Nefertari must take to the afterlife.

The paintings and texts are all from the Book of the Dead, a collection of funerary spells that replaced the Pyramid texts from earlier Dynasties. Like many royal tombs in the New Kingdom, the decoration in Nefertari’s tomb is exclusively funerary; no references are made to any specific historic events or anything that happened to Nefertari in her lifetime, as both aesthetically and spiritually, the transient concerns of life are considered to be incompatible with eternity2.

Mirroring the Nile, the geographic course of the tomb runs from south to north. The ritual course however is east to west, which corresponds with the path of the sun3. Nefertari is shown being fortified with occult powers before beginning her descent into the burial chamber. Here she secures immortality by enduring an ordeal of passage through the gates and portals of the underworld. Throughout this journey, Nefertari is referred to as “hemet-neter” or “God’s Wife” which gives her mythical status as consort to Amun4. It might be a point of interest that this title had been out of use for some time, but was revived in the 19th Dynasty, possibly to strengthen dynastic claims of the Ramesside Pharaohs, who were not of royal blood5.

Nefertari’s Tomb

The detailed ceremonies in Nefertari’s tomb regarding the afterlife reveal to us the duties and roles of various Gods and Goddesses in the New Kingdom. Isis, Nephyths, Seth, and Osiris feature on the walls, as well as Ma’at, Neb, Nut and Mut, among others6. Neb and Nut, Gods of the sky and the earth, produced the two pairs of sibling deities: Isis and Osiris, Nephthys and Seth, so the divine family represents the theological basis for the creation of the world, and embodied Egyptian beliefs about life and death, with emphasis on the concept of rebirth and renewal7.

A new concept of a union between Osiris and Re, solar and celestial, emerged in the funerary texts in royal tombs during the New Kingdom. This new idea was summarized in Nefertari’s tomb in the wall depiction of a ram headed mummified figure crowned with a sun disk. The inscription reads: “It is Re when he rests as Osiris, Osiris when he rests as Re”. This union illustrates the ancient Egyptians belief in the cycle of the sun, where Re the sun god, is reborn every morning, and travels through the underworld at night.

Unlike previous dynasties, where tombs would contain objects needed for day to day life, tombs in the New Kingdom usually contained objects that had been made solely for the burial. In addition to the sarcophagus, the canopic chest was an essential aspect of all New Kingdom royal tombs, as it was believed that keeping the internal organs intact was vital to the completion of the body that would be resurrected8. Unfortunately Nefertari’s canopic jars were stolen but the niche in which the chest would have sat remains, with the image of Nut, her wings at her sides. Like all tombs, Nefertari’s contained shawabti (termed shabti’s in previous Dynasties) which were servants who would perform labours for the deceased, as it was believed that daily work would continue in the fields in the afterlife9.

It was believed that these figures were also essential for the deceased to be transformed into Osiris. Interestingly, throughout her tomb, Nefertari is consistently referred to as “The Osiris” which confirms her successful completion of the crucial step in her quest for immortality10. Nefertari’s sarcophagus was stolen from the tomb, but we know it was made from rose granite due to the fragments left behind, and that it was placed in the chamber called the golden hall, in which Nefertari’s resurrection would occur. Mummification really reached its pinnacle in the 19th Dynasty, and it was believed the body must be preserved, to be resurrected in the afterlife11. The placement of the actual sarcophagus in a shallow depression is of religious significance; it symbolizes the ground based reality of death12.

The illustrations in Nefertari’s burial chamber were drawn from chapters 144 and 146 of the Book of the Dead. These chapters speak of the gates to the Kingdom of Osiris, and provide the necessary spells needed to pass through, including the names of each guard. In previous dynasties, the crucial rite of the weighing of the heart against Ma’at’s feather of truth is depicted, however the illustrations Nefertari’s tomb, like most 19th Dynasty royal tombs veered away from the tradition, instead having portraits of Maat that echoed the rite13. Nefertari was not a sovereign, so the choice of texts that could be in her tomb was somewhat restricted14. The priests and architects in charge of the tomb chose selections from chapter 17, 94, 144, 146 and 148 of the Book of the Dead, which would assist Nefertari to gain access to the afterlife, as well as to flourish and become an immortal spirit15. Finally, once all the challenges are completed, Nefertari’s body is restored by Horus and she takes her place in the underworld, united with Osiris.

Nefertari’s tomb is truly one of the finest examples of the just how vital preparation for the afterlife was, and how life and the afterlife were so integral to their beliefs, being but two journeys through the day and through the night. There is something so uplifing in their assurance that death was not considered as an end, but a journey to a new life with Osiris, and resurrection in eternity.

Notes and Sources

  1. John K McDonald, House of Eternity, The tomb of Nefertari, (Thames and Hudson) 1996,p.27
  2. Regine Schulz, & Matthias Scidel, Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs, (Koneman 1998), p.148
  3. A.J Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt, (New York 1982), p.76
  4. McDonald, House of Eternity, The tomb of Nefertari, p.7
  5. Schulz, Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs, p.212
  6. McDonald, House of Eternity, The tomb of Nefertari, p.48
  7. A.R. David, The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press 1998), p.150
  8. Abeer El-Shahawy ,The funerary art of Ancient Egypt: a bridge to the realm of the hereafter, (American University in Cairo Press 2005), p.11
  9. “Egyptian Royal tombs of the New Kingdom”
  10. McDonald, House of Eternity, The tomb of Nefertari p.65
  11. Schulz, Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs, p.217
  12. David, A. R. The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices p.138
  13. Abeer El-Shahawy ,The funerary art of Ancient Egypt: a bridge to the realm of the hereafter, p.12
  14. Schulz, Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs , p.247


Primary Sources

  • Budge, E.A. Wallis (trans) The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Kessinger Publishing, 2003

Secondary Sources

  • David, A. R. The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press, 1998
  • El-Shahawy, Abeer ,The funerary art of Ancient Egypt: a bridge to the realm of the hereafter, American University in Cairo Press, 2005
  • McDonald, John K, House of Eternity, The tomb of Nefertari, Thames and Hudson 1996
  • Robbins, G, Women in Ancient Egypt, London 1993
  • Schulz, Regine & Scidel, Matthias Egypt, The World of the Pharoahs, Koneman 1998
  • Spencer, A.J, Death in Ancient Egypt, New York 1982