The Life and Death of King Tut

It is one of the ironies of history that the best-known pharaoh of ancient Egypt should be as unassuming a figure as King Tutankhamun. He reigned for only about a decade, of which he actually ruled no more than half. He died unexpectedly, prolonging a period of uncertainty that would end only with the accession of the first Rameses. At the same time, he was at least the figurehead of his nation at a time when it was struggling to regain its equilibrium after a tumultuous period marked at once by radical reform and practical neglect. Even more importantly to modern eyes, the discovery of his tomb has kindled the imaginations of three generations.

Another irony is that a period so well attested in some respects should be so poorly understood in others. The waning of the Eighteenth Dynasty was systematically effaced from the historical record by its final ruler, Horemheb. As a result, some elements were preserved as if in a time capsule, such as the capital city built for Akhenaten and abandoned shortly after his death; other elements, even the precise ties of kinship within the royal family, remain elusive.

It is known that near the end of his reign, Amunhotep III elevated his son Amunhotep (IV) into a co-regency, but the length of this co-regency is unknown and plays havoc with efforts to create a coherent timeline. The younger Amunhotep latched onto the solar cult that his father had encouraged as a counterweight to the priesthood of Amun, and immersed himself into it with the fervor of a fanatic. Having changed his name to Akhenaten to honor the sun-disk, his only god, this younger king and his strong-willed wife Nefertiti attempted to refashion the spiritual life of Egypt in their own image. They abandoned the traditional capitals of Memphis and Thebes for one of their own construction at “Horizon of the Aten.” They closed the temples of Egypt’s traditional gods, compelling all to worship the visible sun as the only god, albeit through the king as his divine son. These acts ushered in what is known as the Amarna period, after the modern name for Akhenaten’s capital.

As his reign progressed, Akhenaten became increasingly erratic. He spent more and more time devising rites and hymns while neglecting the administration of his country. He raised his wife Nefertiti to an unprecedented stature as a Queen-Consort before she disappeared utterly. Some scholars suggest that she may have died, or alternately, that she may have displeased Akhenaten and been pushed aside; and that she was replaced, perhaps personally as well as politically, by the king’s younger brother, Smenkhkare, who was elevated to co-regent. Others suggest that it was Nefertiti herself who was named co-regent in masculine guise, much as Hatshepsut had done earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty. However it was, Smenkhkare died soon, and another successor was needed.

This new heir was born as Tutankhaten, “The Living Image of the Aten.” Only one inscription is known from his days as a prince, but this inscription establishes firmly that he was a prince of royal blood. In it, he is identified with the formula “King’s Son of His Body,” which distinguishes the royal prince from others who might be known as “King’s Son” in recognition only of the king’s favor. Unfortunately, in the absence of other information, one might ask which king was his true father; depending upon the unreliable chronology, Amunhotep III, Akhenaten and Smenkhkare are all candidates.

The candidacy of Akhenaten was strengthened significantly at the end of 2008 with the discovery that the aforementioned inscription belongs alongside another inscription that refers to the prince’s future wife, the princess Ankhesenpaaten, as “King’s Daughter of His Body.” The inference is that they had the same father, and Ankhesenpaaten is well-attested as the daughter of Akhenaten. Not everyone is convinced, however; advocates of Smenkhkare as the father of Tutankhaten point out that it remains possible for Akhenaten’s daughter and Smenkhkare’s son to both be children “of the King’s Body” at the same time. (See Dennis C Forbes’ “Editor’s Report” in KMT, volume 20, no. 1, page 2.)

If Tutankhaten’s paternity is open to some question, there are even more candidates for his mother, ranging from Amunhotep III’s Great Royal Wife Tiye to Akhenaten’s daughter Meritaten. The theory that currently seems to enjoy the most favor is that Tutankhaten was the son of Akhenaten by a secondary wife named Kiya. Nefertiti was clearly the dominant woman at court, but Kiya enjoyed a special place in the king’s affections; she received a unique title, “Beloved wife,” in testimony to this fact. Moreover, she vanishes from the record at a time that could plausibly coincide with Tutankhaten’s birth. Childbirth remained hazardous in ancient Egypt, despite relatively advanced medical knowledge, and it is all too conceivable that Tutankhaten lost his mother during, or shortly after, his birth.

Tutankhaten’s legitimacy in the succession is not in dispute. Indeed, recent tests have shown him to be fully in line with the royal family of his day, from the prominent incisors of the Thutmosid family that dominated the Eighteenth Dynasty to the elongated skulls of the Amarna period. With the deaths of both Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, Tutankhaten was the natural heir to the throne; by the standards of the Egyptian kingship, it was equally natural that he should marry his slightly older half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten.

Tutankhaten was a child of nine or ten at his accession, and all decisions were made by his chief advisors, among them the vizier Ay and the general Horemheb, each of whom was to succeed him as king in turn. While the transfer of the machinery of government from “Horizon of the Aten” to Thebes took some time to effect, it is noteworthy that the new king was crowned in the traditional manner at the old capital of Memphis. Over the next several years, the exclusivity of the Aten cult was shed in favor of the religious pluralism that had always characterized Egypt. The temples of Egypt were again opened, and their priests were permitted to resume their duties. Indeed, the Crown was particularly keen to reconcile itself with the cult of Amun: the young king and his wife even saw their names changed to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun to assist in this rapprochement.

Most of these acts were performed at the command of the advisors around the young king, and it is not known how Tutankhamun might have felt about them. At the same time, it is worth observing that as he grew older, he would have exerted an ever-greater influence on affairs of state. Egyptian concepts of childhood and adulthood did not match our own; puberty was considered the onset of adulthood, and Egyptian princes have been known to be entrusted with military command as young as fifteen years of age. Therefore, the popular image of the “Boy King,” with the assumption that he remained merely the puppet of his advisors, is not likely to be true. He was considered sufficiently grown up to rule for perhaps as much as half of his reign, and there are grounds to support the notion that he was a reasonably active young king, not least in the manner of his death.

During his reign, Egypt began to reassert itself in Nubia, the Middle East and the Western Desert after a prolonged military decline. For the most part, it is assumed that Tutankhamun had no direct role in these efforts, and that others, principally Horemheb, led the army in his stead. It is, however, possible that Tutankhamun led his forces at least once, as suggested by recent work undertaken in Thebes by W. Raymond Johnson. (See Zahi Hawass, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, 2005, p. 174.)

Admittedly, Tutankhamun was less than robust, but forensic analysis of the mummy undertaken in 2005 points to a king who was much healthier than previously thought, and one who lived a reasonably active lifestyle, very likely dying as a result of misadventure. Damage to the chest, spine and skull have been shown to be postmortem; they are more likely consequences of mummification than anything else. One injury that did occur before death, and very recently before death at that, is a broken leg. By itself, it would not have killed the king, but a resulting infection could certainly have done so. (Ibid, p. 269-270) In short, the physical arguments supporting the notion of regicide did not stand up to modern analysis, but the most likely cause of death suggests, rather, that the young king died as a consequence of an injury sustained in an active lifestyle.

When he died, he left behind a wife but no children; two tiny mummies found in the king’s tomb were premature, stillborn daughters of the royal couple. Ankhesenamun’s grief was likely genuine; Egyptian spouses are usually shown as placid companions, but in the last echoes of Amarna art, depictions of the king and queen show a sincere affection that one would not expect in a political marriage. It seems likely that she was made to marry Tutankhamun’s successor, the vizier Ay, and then she, too, disappears from the historical record. Ay’s reign was also to be a transitional one; it is not until the reign of Horemheb that Egypt seemed to regain its balance. When it did so, however, it was to find even greater heights of wealth and power than it had known at the apex of the Eighteenth Dynasty.


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