The disappearing Sun Temple of Queen Nefertiti

Kom el-Nana, site of a solar shrine for Nefertiti, is one of the last surviving peripheral cult complexes of ancient Akhetaten. Jacquelyn Williamson talks about her work reconstructing wall reliefs from the site, and its precarious condition.

Starting in the late 1980s and ending in the 1990s Barry Kemp and the members of the Egypt Exploration Society team excavated an area called Kom el-Nana, located in one of the southernmost sections of Tell el-Amarna. They were able to document a large walled compound the size of five American football fields that held many different structures inside. In addition to an industrial scale brewery (one of only a few from Amarna) there were two stone buildings and several brick buildings, one of which is likely to be a Window of Appearance structure. One of the most intriguing features of the site however is the fact that it is divided down the center by a wall running west to east, slicing the square-ish enclosure into unequal halves. The Maru Aten, also known as the sun temple (or more accurately the “Sunshade of Re” temple) of Akhenaten’s daughter Meritaten, is the only other structure that has anything similar to this innovative ground plan. Unfortunately the Maru Aten does not exist anymore, having been swallowed up by encroaching fields and urban development. The same fate sadly awaits Kom el-Nana unless steps can be taken to save this precious structure.

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An aerial photo of the site showing its overall layout, dating to 2012 when there remained a buffer of desert around much of the complex.

The inscriptions from the site of Kom el-Nana prove that it is the “Sunshade of Re” temple of Queen Nefertiti. Sunshades of Re are rare temples because not every king built one. The kings who did build a Sunshade of Re usually built only one. Akhenaten built at least four at Tell el-Amarna – and at least one in Memphis as well! Each of these structures was dedicated to a female member of the royal family, even Akhenaten’s mother Queen Tiye had her own Sunshade of Re. Although these were obviously important structures to Akhenaten, a true understanding of their function was lost due to the fact that we had none to study in person – until Kom el-Nana was excavated. I am currently working to reconstruct the relief and architecture from the site and I hope to reopen the site for future excavation.

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The head of an Amarna princess on a Kom el-Nana block.

Nefertiti’s Sunshade of Re Temple at Kom el-Nana reveals the function of Sunshades of Re at Amarna in general, and the role played by Queen Nefertiti specifically. The temple served as the locus for the king’s divine renewal and daily rebirth, brought about by Nefertiti’s attributes as a fertile stand-in for the goddess Hathor (the solar goddess of sexuality, fertility, and celebration). Inscriptions from the temple also reveal that it played an important role in the mortuary cults of the elite dead at Amarna – with dead courtiers coming to Nefertiti’s Sunshade of Re as spirits to obtain offerings to sustain them for eternity. Since Atenist mortuary practices are still almost entirely unknown, this is a valuable piece of the puzzle that is King Akhenaten and Atenism.

In short it is clear that this site, the Sunshade of Re of Nefertiti at Kom el-Nana, is incredibly important, revealing not only new information regarding the role of Nefertiti but also providing new information regarding the mortuary lives of the elite residents of the city. However it is directly at risk from encroaching farmland and increasing urbanization around Tell el-Amarna as a whole. Looting at the Sunshade has also increased dramatically.

The back wall of the complex in 2008 (above) and 2017 (below), showing the extent of recent encroachment. The mud brick ruins sit as a shallow layer on the desert surface and are easily destroyed.

The Ministry of Antiquities has been heroic in their efforts to protect Kom el-Nana, which is otherwise quite isolated, but without ongoing archaeological engagement as well as additional funding to conserve and consolidate it, we will not be able to protect this delicate site.

Unfortunately this is the case for many areas at Tell el-Amarna, and the Ministry cannot patrol and protect them all. We hope to raise money to protect Kom el-Nana and develop it further, but funding for this kind of work is becoming harder to find. Please consider supporting the Amarna Project with any amount you can spare, and help us protect this site so that we can all continue to learn from its remarkable treasure trove of secrets!

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The author on a site visit in 2017. Photo: EriKa Morey.

Jacquelyn Williamson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. Her two-volume monograph Nefertiti’s Sun Temple: A New Cult Complex at Tell el-Amarna was recently published as part of Brill’s Harvard Egyptology Series.