Thursday, July 17, 2008

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


Following the death of the teenage pharaoh Tutankhamun, his principle advisor, Ay, became king and ruled for roughly four years. We have already looked at the circumstances surrounding Tut’s death and Ay’s ascension to the throne, so now we turn to a brief look at who Ay was, and how his own successor’s reign helped ensure that the young King Tut would be forgotten to history.

A well-preserved bust of Tut


Ay was a commoner most likely born in the Egyptian town of Khentmin, where he commissioned the building of a small temple.

A 15-foot statue of Ramesses II's daughter (and later wife), Meritamun, at Khentmin (modern Akhmim)

Ay is believed to be the son of Yuya, a priest of the god Min and later a prominent military advisor to Amenhotep III. Ay’s sister was most likely the queen of Amenhotep III, Tiye. Yuya, as the father-in-law to Amenhotep, was honored by that pharaoh with his own tomb in the Valley of the Kings, a rare privilege for someone who was otherwise not royalty.

Yuya's chariot, found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Prior to the discovery of Tut's tomb, the tomb of Yuya and his wife was the least disturbed of any royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Yuya's wooden sarcophagus

Yuya's inner and outer coffins

The death mask of Yuya's mummy

The death mask of Yuya's wife, Tjuya

No doubt thanks to the prominence of his priestly father and queenly sister, Ay appears to have moved up quickly through the social hierarchy of ancient Egypt, becoming a successful military leader and later an advisor of Amenhotep’s son and successor, Akhenaten.

A bust of Ay

Genealogically, Akhenaten would have been Ay’s nephew. There is also some evidence to suggest that Ay’s daughter was none other than Akhenaten’s principle wife, Nefertiti.

One of the most famous busts in all of ancient Egyptian art, depicting Akhenaten's powerful wife, Nefertiti

Akhenaten appears to have relied quite a bit on old “Uncle Ay,” and Ay stayed loyal to his king when Akhenaten instituted his religious revolution, outlawing the Egyptian pantheon and instituting a monotheistic worship of the sun disc god, the Aten.

Akhenaten (left) and Nefertiti, along with three of their daughters, spending a "family moment" beneath the rays of the Aten

Ay appears to have gone along with this change, and his loyalty apparently paid off for him – Ay was allowed to commission the building a tomb for himself in Akhenaten’s city of Akhetaten, and Ay was elevated to the “Overseer of All the King’s Horses,” a prominent military position within the charioteering division of the king’s army. Additionally, in his tomb at Akhetaten, one of Ay’s titles is given as “Fan-Bearer on the Right Side of the King,” a position which implied close personal associations with the king.

Ay and his wife worshipping the Aten in Ay's Akhetaten tomb

The 8-pillared hall in Ay's extensive tomb in Akhetaten

It cannot be known for certain whether Ay went along with his nephew’s monotheism out of genuine religious conviction, or whether it was simply political convenience. However, the fact that Ay helped lead Egypt’s return to the old pantheon after Akhenaten’s death would imply that Ay’s religious convictions were more politically motivated than spiritually motivated. In the opinion of many historians, Ay was simply a shrewd politician who knew how to follow the undercurrents of society and affairs of state in order to elevate his own status and power. And, of course, it worked. Ay managed to finagle his way into the kingship after Tut died.


Tut’s master general, or Commander of the Armies, was a man named Horemheb, and Horemheb was apparently designated as Tut’s successor, a conclusion arrived at by the fact that Horemheb was named Tut’s “deputy” and regnal “son.” However, as we have already seen in a previous installment, Ay managed to outmaneuver Horemheb, in part by marrying Tut’s widow and claiming the throne for himself. The exact methods used by Ay to outwit Horemheb, however, are not clear.

As previously stated, Ay ruled for only about four years. By ancient Egyptian standards, he would have been an old man by the time he took the throne, and it is likely that he died a natural death, though the circumstances of his demise are not known. During his brief reign, he commissioned the building of several temples, and continued promoting the return to the old pantheon, which he, of course, had helped initialize as the principle advisor to Tut.

Following his own death, Ay was buried in a modest tomb in the Valley of the Kings (abandoning his original tomb in Akhetaten).

An unusual scene depicting Ay hunting ducks, from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings

It is uncertain whether Ay had any children of his own, but his chosen successor was a military officer named Nakhtmin who is noted on artifacts from Ay’s period as being the “King’s Son.” It is not clear, however, if this was literal or metaphorical.

Nakhtmin, the chosen successor of Ay, and likely his son

The problem, of course, is that Nakhtmin did not end up succeeding Ay to the throne.


Horemheb, the Commander of the Armies, and the named successor of Tut who had been outwitted for the throne by Ay, finally had his day and secured the throne from Nakhtmin after Ay’s death.

General Horemheb

Like Ay’s ascendancy, just how Horemheb pulled this off is unclear, but there can be little doubt that his position as Tut’s chosen successor played a prominent role. Furthermore, since Ay was a commoner who had managed to usurp the throne following the young Tut’s death, it is likely that the royal legitimacy of any of his own offspring would have been challenged. Ay was not of royal blood, and Ay had, himself, never been named as a royal successor, so any proclamations of succession that he made during his reign would not have been binding after his death. Horemheb was also a commoner, but had been named by a legitimate king – Tutankhamun – as a successor. These circumstances are likely what led to Horemheb’s rise to power. The fact that Nakhtmin was only a young military officer, and Horemheb was a veteran politician and master general of all the armies, no doubt played a significant role as well.

Interestingly, the statute upon which Nakhtmin was proclaimed as Ay’s successor has strong evidence of intentional damage, implying that Horemheb’s ascendancy was not entirely peaceful. But a policy of attempting to destroy all evidence of his predecessors, as we shall see, became the central policy, and most enduring legacy, of Horemheb’s reign.


Unlike his immediate predecessors, Horemheb apparently ruled for quite a long time, nearly thirty years. Almost from the very beginning, he made a systematic attempt to erase his enemy, Ay, from history.

We have already seen that the statue mentioning Ay’s named successor, Nakhtmin, was intentionally damaged. In addition to that, Horemheb ordered the desecration of Ay’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The paintings of Ay on the walls were chiseled out, along with his name, and his sarcophagus was smashed into pieces. It is likely that Ay’s mummy was also destroyed, as it has never been found. Ay’s tomb was discovered in the early 19th century, and the fragments from the sarcophagus were still on the ground, and the lid, which was intact, had been buried by debris.

A larger view of the duck hunting scene above, showing Ay in his boat, with his face and part of his body defaced

Ay's sarcophagus in his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings. Note the repaired damage to the sarcophagus, and the defaced images of Ay in the paintings on the walls.

Horemheb also usurped Ay’s mortuary temple for himself, chiseling out Ay’s name and images, and replacing them with his own.

A bird's eye view of Medinet Habu, the holy place where the moturary temple of Ay and Horemheb was located. Some 100 years later, Ramesses III built an enormous temple here, which dominates this photo. The ruins of Ay and Horemheb's much smaller temple are located in the desert area beyond the upper right wall of the main complex.

Horemheb was clearly intent on not only ruining Ay’s passage through the underworld, but also on removing Ay from history and asserting that his kingship was illegitimate.

In addition to his revenge against Ay, Horemheb appears to have been the first pharaoh to begin a systematic destruction of all the monuments and writings pertaining to the era of Akhenaten. This era is commonly called “the Amarna Period,” because Amarna is the modern name for Akhenaten’s holy city of Akhetaten. Though Horemheb was a prominent figure in the court of the heretic king, it is not clear that he ever really accepted Akhenaten’s new religion, the way Ay apparently did. Evidence suggests that Horemheb ordered the destruction of the city of Akhetaten, and he used dismantled stones from Akhetaten in his own monuments elsewhere. Furthermore, Horemheb was probably the first pharaoh to begin systematically removing the names and images of Amarna-era kings from statutes, stelas, temples, and other structures.

Horemheb, however, appears to have left Tutankhamun’s legacy alone. This is most likely due to the fact that Horemheb’s own claim to the throne came directly from Tutankhamun, so he naturally felt that Tut did not deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, and Ay. During Horemheb’s reign, the tombs of both Tutankhamun and an earlier 18th dynasty pharaoh named Thutmosis IV were vandalized, and Horemheb commissioned their repair.

The remarkably well-preserved face of Thutmosis IV. Thutmosis was likely the great-grandfather of King Tut. He is remembered primarily as being the first person who ever commissioned an official government restoration of the Sphinx at Giza, which was already more than 1,000 years old at the time of Thutmosis.

Unfortunately, Horemheb’s leniency toward his patron Tut did not extend to Horemheb’s own successors. Horemheb, like a number of the kings before him, died without an heir, so he named his principle advisor, Paramessu to succeed him. Paramessu had both a son and a grandson, so Horemheb, in addition to rewarding his faithful servant, also hoped to prevent the sort of succession crises that had marked the last several generations of Egyptian royal history.


Paramessu took the reigns of power as an old man and only appears to have lived a year or two before his death. During that time, however, he took the throne name of Ramesses, and inaugurated Egypt’s 19th ancient dynasty. His own son was named Seti, and Seti became a very powerful king who ruled for some 10-15 years. Seti’s son, in turn, would eventually become Ramesses II, or Ramesses the Great, and would reign well into his 90’s, marking the height of Egypt’s Golden Age during the New Kingdom era.

The mummy of Ramesses II. His advanced age at death (over 90) is evident in his features.

The startlingly regal mummy of Seti I, father of Ramesses II

These early 19th dynasty pharaohs continued Horemheb’s campaign to rid Egyptian history of the Amarna period heresy. By the time of Ramesses II, the city of Akhetaten lay in ruins, and even much of the historical record discussing events of the Amarna period had been destroyed. Furthermore, 19th dynasty kings did not have the same respect for Tutankhamun that Horemheb evidently had. It did not matter that the old pantheon had been restored under the boy king; Tutankhamun was from the family line of Akhenaten, and was likely his son, and as such, his legacy got caught up in the systematic destruction of Amarna period history.

In addition to chiseling out Tut’s name and image from many structures, his name, along with that of Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Neferneferuaten, and Ay, were omitted from several “king lists” created during the times of Seti I and Ramesses II. The so-called “Abydos King List” skips right from Amenhotep III and goes straight to Horemheb.

The Abydos King List

Furthermore, at least one historical document – a text discussing a court case that occurred during the reign of Horemheb – refers to Year 59 of Horemheb’s reign. As discussed above, Horemheb is only known to have ruled for about 30 years; however, if you take the years comprised by the reigns of Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Neferneferuaten, Tut, and Ay, then add those to the known years of Horemheb’s reign, it equals roughly 59 or 60 years. Clearly history was being rewritten to suppose that Horemheb had directly succeeded Amenhotep III.


As a result of all this, within 200 years of his death, Tut appears to have been forgotten by Egyptian culture. While Akhenaten’s legacy was prominent and scandalous enough to be remembered despite attempts to destroy it, Tutankhamun – as a boy king who died young and never had much chance to secure a strong legacy – was easily forgotten. Added together with the intentional attempts to destroy all memory of the Amarna period, it is not surprising that Tut was lost to history.

The fact that knowledge of Tut’s existence was lost even to later-era ancient Egyptians is evidenced by several facts. First, the tomb of Ramesses VI, who lived and died about 200 years after Tut, was built right on top of Tut’s tomb. One chamber of Ramesses VI’s tomb, in fact, comes within about 6 feet of breaking through the entryway to Tut’s tomb. Furthermore, there is evidence of Ramesses-era construction huts built right over the entrance of Tut’s tomb. Clearly the builders had no idea that the boy king’s tomb lay right beneath them as they were digging out the earth. This further suggests that the location of the tomb was not even included on construction documents that most surely would have existed for the tomb builders in the Valley of the Kings. Tut’s existence was simply forgotten.

Second, a king list from the period of the Ptolemies, in roughly 300 B.C.E., neglects to mention Tut’s name. This list, compiled by the Egyptian historian Manetho about 1000 years after Tut’s death, was used by later historians of Egypt to list the pharaohs, and Tut’s exclusion from this list was simply perpetuated. Manetho no doubt based his king list on earlier lists, such as the aforementioned Abydos King List, but if it had been known by the time of Manetho that Tut and others were left off that earlier list, the historian Manetho would surely have added them to his own documents. His failure to do this makes it clear that Tut’s existence was long forgotten by the 300’s B.C.E.

Finally, the fact that Tut’s tomb was found largely intact, and was never cleaned out by grave robbers in antiquity, is further evidence that knowledge of his existence had been lost, even to the ancients. Many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings have been accessible to the public since ancient times. The aforementioned tomb of Ramesses VI, for instance, has thousands of individual ancient graffiti in it, with scribbled dates as early as 25 B.C.E., and leading up through the 1st century C.E., and beyond. No one entered Tut’s tomb, because no one knew it was there.

Considering that Tut was the victim of a successful Orwellian-style attempt to rewrite history, and considering that even the ancient Egyptians who came after Tut had already forgotten him, how is it that his existence was finally discovered by modern historians? And how did the rediscovery of his existence lead to the discovery of his intact tomb in the 20th century? That will be discussed in the fourth and final installment.

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