Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Life, Death, and Modern Discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Part I

Buy the entire series for your Kindle reader from, only $1.99.  Includes updates from the most recent medical studies of Tut's family line, which have ultimately answered the question of Tut's lineage:


Tutankhamun (“toot-onk-ah’moon”) – more widely known as “King Tut” – ruled during Egypt’s turbulent 18th dynasty, dying around 1325 B.C.E. He was, in fact, one of the most insignificant kings in all of ancient Egyptian history. This, of course, is highly ironic, considering that Tutankhamun has become, for modern folks, the most famous of all the kings of ancient Egypt. We have Howard Carter’s astonishing and quite accidental discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922 to thank for this.

This story will be told in a series of four installments, the first covering Tut’s life and lineage, the second discussing Tut’s death and its implications, the third covering the history of how Tut’s existence was lost from historical knowledge, and the fourth detailing the discovery of his identity, and ultimately his tomb, in the early 20th century.

In an attempt to make the confusing names a bit easier to follow, here is a “cast of characters” appearing in this real-life drama (the pharaohs are listed in the order in which they ruled):

Pharaoh Amenhotep III

Pharaoh Akhenaten

Queen Nefertiti, principle wife of Akhenaten

Queen Kiya, secondary wife of Akhenaten

Meritaten, oldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Queen Ankhesenamun, third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, wife of King Tut

Pharaoh Smenkhkara

Pharaoh Neferneferuaten

Pharaoh Tutankhamun

Hittite Prince Zannanza

Pharaoh Ay

Pharaoh Horemheb


Tut’s life – like the lives of most ancient Egyptian figures – is more mystery than established fact. Egyptologists know he became pharaoh as a child, was married to a royal princess named Ankhesenamun, and died at roughly 18 years of age.

Tut and his wife, depicted on Tut's throne.
It is also known that Tutankhamun was preceded on the throne by the infamous Akhenaten, the great heretic king who rejected all of Egypt’s traditional gods, and instituted a sort of early monotheism, worshipping only the sun disc god, the Aten.

Akhenaten worshipping the sun disk god.
As part of this religious revolution, Akhenaten moved Egypt’s capital city from Thebes to a place called Akhetaten. Akhetaten was the heretic king’s own creation, built in the desert as a sort of ancient Mecca or Jerusalem – a holy city dedicated to the Aten.

The ruins of Akhetaten.
As can be imagined, Akhenaten’s actions constituted an enormous upheaval in Egyptian customs and way of life. The powerful priesthood was rendered irrelevant, and it became illegal to worship any god but the Aten. It was, indeed, a period of great religious persecution.

Tutankhamun appears to have grown up in the North Palace of Akhetaten, part of the royal household (just how he was related will be discussed later).

Ruins of the North Palace at Akhetaten.
However, when Tut came to the throne at about age 9, he did away with his predecessor’s religious upheavals and reinstituted the old pantheon of gods. As part of this reversion back to traditional Egyptian religion, Tutankhamun moved the capital back to Thebes and began a campaign to build new temples to the old gods. His birth name had actually been “Tutankhaten” – a reference to the monotheistic sun disc god – but Tut changed his name in Year 2 of his reign, replacing “aten” with “amun.” Amun was the principle god of the traditional pantheon. The same was true of his wife, Ankhesenamun, whose birth name had ended with “aten” instead of “amun.” It was a move by the royal couple to show that they were not in line with the religion of the heretic king who preceded them. Unfortunately, as will be seen in a later installment, Tutankhamun would ultimately pay part of the penalty for his predecessor’s sins.

It is important to note that because Tutankhamun was so young when he came to the throne, his principle advisors would have been functionally running the kingdom for him, and making all the decisions. Thus, most every “official” transaction during his kingship was performed by others. It has been suggested that Tut himself may have had very little say in reinstituting the old religious traditions. Instead, these political moves would have been orchestrated by those acting in his name. The two major players in this situation were Ay and Horemheb – the former being the equivalent of a prime minister, and the latter being a prominent military leader. Both had also served in the court of Akhenaten, and both had their eye on the kingship, as we shall see.

Although Tutankhamun is depicted in art wearing the khepresh – the traditional blue war crown of the pharaohs – there is not much evidence that Tut ever actually fought in a military campaign.

Statue of Tut wearing the Blue War Crown.
He is depicted in art hunting lions and other dangerous animals, and there is at least one scene depicting him in battle with Syrians and Nubians (the Syrians coming from modern day Palestine and the Nubians from modern day Ethiopia).

Tut in battle against the Syrians.
These battles with Syria and Nubia are corroborated by similar battle scenes in the tomb of Tut’s general, the aforementioned Horemheb. However, most historians do not believe Tut himself would have taken part in these campaigns, because of his age.

After a relatively uneventful reign of about ten years, Tutankhamun died suddenly, of uncertain causes, and was buried hastily in a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings – a tomb that was most likely originally intended for someone else.


Many historians believe that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, by one of that king’s secondary wives, Queen Kiya.

Queen Kiya, possibly Tut's mother.
This, however, is not certain. It is possible that Tut was a half-brother or nephew of Akhenaten. What we do know is that Akhenaten was the son of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, had six daughters – one of whom would later become the wife of King Tut – and was succeeded directly by two shadowy pharaohs named Smenkhkara and Neferneferuaten. The origins and identities of these two pharaohs are unclear, however they seem to have been co-regents, and only reigned for a few years before Tut took over. Speculation about the specifics of these two rulers is widespread and remarkably divergent (there are even disagreements about whether they were male or female), so it is best to simply assert that we know very little about them, where they came from, or what they did. That they were genetically related to Akhenaten and Tutankhamun is about the only thing most historians agree on.

Based on what I have read, the following is a likely (although certainly not final) scenario: Amenhotep III had two surviving sons, the elder being Akhenaten, and the younger being Smenkhkara. Upon Amenhotep’s death, Akhenaten took over, did away with the traditional gods, and forced everyone into monotheism. He is known to have had six daughters with his principle wife, Nefertiti. Of these six, Meritaten is the oldest and most prominent. One of Akhenaten’s secondary wives, Kiya, however, bore him a son – the future King Tut. Because succession was not always clear or well-established in ancient Egypt – the way it is in most monarchies today – there was some question as to whether Tut was the rightful heir to Akhenaten’s throne, since he was a son only by a secondary wife. Akhenaten’s brother, Smenkhkara, was the principle leader of this “anti-Tut” contingency. Since Tutankhamun was only a toddler at the time, Smenkhkara more or less pronounced himself pharaoh and took over the reigns of leadership. To legitimize his position, he married his niece Meritaten, Akhenaten’s oldest and most prominent child. As a result, their reign became a sort of co-regency, with Meritaten taking the throne name Neferneferuaten. Their reign, however, lasted only two or three years, cut short either by the natural deaths of both, or by a coup led by supporters of Tutankhamun. Whatever the reason, after their deaths, the path for Tut’s kingship was unimpeded, and he became the 12th pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty.

It should be quite clear by now just how many theories there are, and how little we can really know for certain when it comes to King Tut’s lineage. It all becomes a big jumble of strange names and incestuous marriages (for instance, some evidence suggests Tut’s wife, Ankhesenamun, was first married to her own father, Akhenaten, and bore him a child). What can be said for certain is that Tutankhamun was related somehow to Akhenaten and no doubt to Smenkhkara, and that Tutankhamun’s wife was the third daughter of Akhenaten, and probably Tutankhamun’s own half-sister.

The story of Tutankhamun’s death and the intrigue that surrounded it – both in how Tut died, and in what happened, politically, after his death – is perhaps even more captivating than the story of his life. These issues will be discussed in the next installment.


Lin Wang said...

That's a great blog! I am not familiar with new kingdom period. But certainly I've seen antiquity object of Akhenaton. Nefertiti is everywhere in tiny antiques stores in Upper State of New York, I guess she was just popular. But I don't recall seeing objects related King Tut at Met, definitely not from Brooklyn Museum.

So my question is how King Tut abandoned the workship of Aten? Since he was too young to reign at the beginning, you think the elimination of Amarna was implemented by his co-regent?

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Lin. Yes, I think it was definitely the advisors surrounding King Tut who encouraged him to abandon the worship of the Aten. There's no question that the political/religious climate of that time period was in great turmoil, and it seems that most everyday Egyptians weren't ready for monotheism.