THE MAD ROAR OF THE CROWD penetrated the temple’s thick stone walls, shaking them to their foundations. It was bedlam of the most unnerving sort on the streets of Thebes—deafening noise mingled with the spectacle of men and women frantically making love in back alleys, oblivious to the stench of stale urine, desert dust, and whiskey vomit.
Such was the Sed festival in Thebes, a time when all of Egypt celebrated the immortality of the pharaoh. But the partying was happening on the other side of these sacred walls.
Queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten and stepmother of Tut
Inside the temple at Karnak, Queen Nefertiti was oblivious to the noise of the masses. A slender, shaven-headed package of genius and raw sexuality, she had the habit of making men weak in the knees by her mere presence. (Her name means “a beautiful woman has come.”) Nefertiti was also known for her poise, but at the moment she was seized by an urge to slap someone hard across the face.
Whether it should be her anxious wimp of a husband or the silly sculptor with the peasant beard who was taking hours to draw a simple sketch, she couldn’t decide.
So Nefertiti settled onto her throne and tried to see her husband through the eyes of the sculptor. Amenhotep IV was in his early twenties and at the height of his power and virility. Yet he had generous hips and the breasts of a woman, as well as hideous buckteeth and long spidery hands. And those ears! Could they possibly get any bigger?
Yet she loved him in her way. All his life, her husband had been a freak. But he was her freak, and that freak happened to be the pharaoh, which made her queen.
And what a queen she was turning out to be—performing sacred rituals once reserved just for pharaohs; frequently wearing the Nubian wig that only men had worn prior; even driving her own chariot with the skill of a man.
Much of this was possible because Egypt had always treated women better than other ancient civilizations had. Women could conduct business, own property, represent themselves in legal disputes, study and become doctors. Women had even become pharaoh, and queens with the strength of Nefertiti could control their much weaker husbands.
“You look divine,” purred Nefertiti now, though it was she who felt beautiful. The sheer white gown, floral headdress, and priceless golden amulets decorating her arms accentuated her physical attributes and radiance. The makeup, which she and the pharaoh both wore, did more for him than it did for her.
“I am divine,” laughed Amenhotep IV. It was their little joke.
“Is it so difficult to show me as I am?” he finally barked at the artist. He was a new pharaoh and still didn’t understand that raising his voice showed weakness. His father, Amenhotep the Magnificent, had died from a painful infection of the mouth. Now Amenhotep IV, who had briefly served alongside his father as co-regent, stood to flick a bee off his shaved chest.
Nefertiti stepped forward and brushed away the bee before it could sting him, then held her husband’s hand. She saw that he looked all too human on this, the day Egypt was supposed to bask in his strength as pharaoh.
This was a problem: The pharaoh needed to prove his immortality by galloping a chariot through the teeming masses outside. Even under the best of conditions, it was a bold and reckless ride that could easily end in a crash, which would be a disaster for the young pharaoh.
As palace insiders were all too aware, Amenhotep IV was very poor at the reins of a chariot. This ritual race could become a suicide run for him.
Yet if by some miracle he pulled it off, his claim to Egypt’s throne would be secure. No longer would his masculinity be questioned. With one death-defying ride, Amenhotep IV would demonstrate his power in a most public way. Egypt would know that he was their one true pharaoh.
But if anything went wrong—if Amenhotep IV got thrown or dropped the reins and crashed into the crowd; if a wheel somehow broke off, and the chariot spun out of control—it would be obvious that the strange-looking man claiming to be the pharaoh was no god. And if a pharaoh was not divine, the temple high priests would find another to take his place.
A pharaoh’s chariot, lightweight and sleek
Somehow they would kill him. And possibly his queen as well.
“How are you?” Nefertiti asked. “I have nothing but confidence in you, sire.”
“You lie—so beautifully,” the pharaoh replied.
“How much longer?” Nefertiti whirled and shouted at the sculptor.
“At least thirty minutes.” The callous little man crumpled a sheet of papyrus to start fresh.
“You have ten.”
“Not a second more.”
“I’ll do my best,” the sculptor replied.
Nefertiti pursed her lips in a thin crocodile smile—and made a mental note to have the so-called artist killed once the statue was complete.