Tutankhamun is one of the most famous people in history, but behind the shimmering golden mask and piles of ancient treasures is a surprisingly obscure man. There are glaring gaps in the historical record that deprive us of basic details of his life, but the details we do know paint a fascinating picture. King Tut’s life and afterlife are a remarkable story of one boy’s rise into glory, only to fall into oblivion again before a glorious resurrection thousands of years after his death.
King Tut: A Boy Who Would Be King
Tutankhamun’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He was born around 1342 BCE towards the end of what Egyptologists call the 18th Dynasty. He was probably the son of the infamous heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten who overthrew Egypt’s traditional religion in favor of the exclusive worship of the solar deity Aten. Tut’s birth name was Tutankhaten (Living Image of Aten) to honor his father’s god.
Tut’s mother is a point of debate. Akhenaten’s famous wife Nefertiti, a lesser wife named Kiya, or one of Akhenaten’s sisters have been suggested as candidates. DNA studies on the subject have suggested his mother’s body is the one known as the KV35 ‘Younger Lady’ but this connection and the body’s identity have proven controversial with scholars.
Tut’s childhood was spent in his father’s holy city at the modern site of Amarna. There he was raised by his wet nurse, Maia, whose impressive tomb at Saqqara shows that Tut held her in high regard for the rest of his life. Princes are rarely shown in artwork in the 18th Dynasty so a handful of scattered artifacts and one possible inscription are all that survive of his early years.
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Akhenaten’s reign was one of controversy and confusion. The temples of Ancient Egypt were important social and economic institutions, so when Akhenaten withdrew support for them in favor of his new god it had a destabilizing effect on all of Egyptian society. Diplomatic records also paint a picture of an empire in decline as Akhenaten neglected foreign affairs to focus on his religious reforms. Furthermore, analysis of human remains at Amarna suggests that while the royals were languishing the commoners were undernourished and overworked. Far from a religious paradise, Amarna seems more like a vanity project where Akhenaten pursued his zealotry as his nation withered away.
A Difficult Childhood
Tut himself faced as many challenges as Egypt did. Tut’s mummy indicates a cleft lip that would have made it difficult for him to breastfeed and could have stunted his development. Studies have also suggested a variety of other ailments, from a club foot to anemia, that could have afflicted Tut from birth. There is no consensus on whether these studies are correct, but it is certainly plausible that Tut was saddled with many health problems from the start.
Tut was beset by tragedy from an early age. All but one of his six sisters probably died before his tenth birthday. Tut’s revered grandmother Tiye did not live much past his 5th birthday. His probable mother, the KV35 Younger Lady, shows catastrophic damage from a fatal accident that probably occurred shortly after Tut was born.
Akhenaten himself would die around 1336 BCE. Egyptologists disagree on the chronology of events at the end of Akhenaten’s reign. Two ephemeral Pharaohs named Smenkhkare and Nefeneferuaten ruled alongside or after Akhenaten. The first might be Tut’s elder brother while the latter could be his mother or step-mother Nefertiti under a different name, or perhaps his eldest sister Meritaten. Whoever they were, they vanished as quickly as they appeared. By 1334 BCE, 9-year-old Tut had lost almost all of his family and now had Egypt resting upon his shoulders.
The Boy King
The Egypt that Tutankhamun inherited was torn apart by religious strife, afflicted by social and economic unrest, and faced a complete collapse of its imperial power abroad. It would be difficult for any ruler, let alone a child, to face those challenges. Fortunately, Tut was not alone. His third-eldest sister Ankhesenpaaten was still alive and he had two powerful allies to call upon: Ay, an experienced statesman who might in fact be Nefertiti’s father, and a younger military man called Horemheb. With Tut being so young, Ay and Horemheb might deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the actions of Tut’s reign.
The new administration’s first concern was to backpedal the unpopular and damaging religious reforms of Akhenaten. Under the guidance of Ay and Horemheb, Tut restored royal funding to the old temples, abandoned the city of Amarna, and dropped the ‘Aten’ element of his and his sister’s names in favor of the older god Amun, becoming Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun as we know them today. Across Egypt, statues and inscriptions of the old gods that Akhenaten had defaced were repaired and restored.
Artwork, such as that found on a box inside his tomb, shows Tutankhamun riding a chariot and executing war captives, suggesting that the young Pharaoh undertook military activity during his reign. Egyptologists disagree over whether these images are pure propaganda or accurate records of events. Tut’s age suggests that, if he did go to war, it was only later in his reign — it would be quite absurd for any 11-year-old, no matter how royal, to charge into battle on a chariot. The other complications are Tut’s theorized disabilities, especially his club foot which might have made it impossible for him to fight.
It’s likely that Horemheb took up the responsibility of waging war. Horemheb’s tomb in Saqqara shows him offering war captives to the king and Horemheb’s military titles are strong evidence for him acting as Pharaoh’s stand-in on the battlefield. Most likely, these campaigns were in Asia to restore lands lost due to Akhenaten’s neglect and to confront the rising power of the Hittites who were challenging Egyptian hegemony in Canaan and Syria.
One thing that often surprises people about Tut is that he was a father. Inside a small box in the treasury of his tomb, archaeologists discovered the mummified fetuses of two girls. The first was stillborn about 6 months into the pregnancy, while the latter was about 8 or 9 months along. Queen Ankhesenamun is Tut’s only known wife and therefore the most likely candidate for their mother, although it is not impossible that Tut had unrecorded mistresses or secondary wives who could have borne these children.
Without children to hand, Tut appears to have made a provision for Horemheb to be his contingency successor. Horemheb was bestowed the title of Hereditary Prince which is known to designate the successor. Horemheb gave that same title to his own heir Paramessu, who became Ramesses I. However, it’s reasonable to assume that this was just a contingency plan should Tut die without heirs. There is no reason to believe that Tut wasn’t planning on having more children to succeed him in Horemheb’s place. Unfortunately, Tut’s contingency would be needed sooner than he expected.
The Death of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun died suddenly when he was no older than 19. Speculation about what killed him is a story for another time, but the simple answer is that we don’t know. Evidence suggests that Tut’s death was unexpected though. His burial goods were not ready and his tomb was unfinished. Whether an accident, illness, murder, or another cause, it seems Tut’s death caught Egypt unprepared.
Not only were there no royal children, but Hittite records and other circumstantial evidence suggest that Egypt was at war with the Hittite Empire around the time of his death. It’s likely that Horemheb was commanding this effort in Asia when Tut died and was not present for his death or funeral.
Tradition held that 90 days should transpire between a person’s death and their burial. This allowed time for the burial to be prepared and the body to be mummified. However, the grand tomb that Tut planned was not ready, so Tut was given an alternative tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The most likely scenario is that this was Ay’s tomb. Non-royals, including a couple many believe to be Ay’s parents, were sometimes granted tombs in the Valley, and Ay’s advanced age meant that his tomb was further along. Still, even this was far from finished. Only the burial chamber in Tut’s tomb was decorated and many of his treasures show signs of being repurposed from other burials.
Tut’s death is estimated to have taken place around the end of the year 1323 BCE. This is based on Hittite records which record the death of an Egyptian king and the request for a prince around the end of a campaigning season. However, analysis shows that flowers found in Tut’s tomb only bloomed in the spring, suggesting that much more than 90 days passed between Tut’s death and his burial. It is plausible that the confusion over succession caused this delay. It was tradition for the new Pharaoh to perform certain rituals for the dead Pharaoh, so Tut’s funeral had to wait until one was available.
Tut’s death set off a cascade of events whose vagueness in the historical record are equal parts frustrating and captivating.
With her husband gone, the widowed Ankhesenamun tried to secure her place on the throne by marrying a Hittite prince. This bold ploy shocked the Hittites too, but eventually, the Hittite King Suppiliulima sent one of his sons to Egypt as a groom. However, he died en route. It’s widely believed that someone in Egypt had him killed. Anhkesenamun’s intentions from the faulty plan, but clearly, they failed, The Queen vanished from the historical record soon after, taking her bloodline with her.
It was the aging vizier Ay who would follow the boy king to the throne. Ay appears in Tut’s tomb decorations performing the rituals that each Pharaoh owed to their predecessor. Some speculate that he had a hand in the Hittite prince’s demise, if not Tut’s as well, as he tried to steal the throne for his own.
Horemheb’s position on events is also unclear. While he was probably in Asia when Tut died, there would have been plenty of time for him to return for the funeral. However, Horemheb is completely absent from Tut’s burial goods, which is bizarre for such a powerful official and the man who was probably Tut’s legitimate heir. For whatever reason, Horemheb does not appear to have been present and he all but disappears from the historical record for several years.
A Lost King
Ay would not reign for long. After no more than 4 years, Ay followed his predecessor into the grave and Horemheb finally ascended to the throne of Egypt. Again, we know precious little of what happened, but Horemheb’s vicious attacks on statues, tombs, and inscriptions mentioning Ay or his allies alludes to a serious factional struggle and possibly a brief civil war. It was not in the nature of Egyptian authorities to leave records of things that reflected negatively on them. If a war did happen, Horemheb would never want it known that he spilled Egyptian blood and we would never expect to find clear records of it.
This attitude of erasing things that reflected negatively on Horemheb or Egypt writ large was a defining feature of Horemheb’s reign. Akhenaten was long dead, but the scars of his controversial religious reformation remained. Horemheb decided to erase the black mark of Akhenaten and his legacy from Egypt forever. Starting in Horemheb’s reign, the Egyptian authorities systematically erased all references to the so-called Amarna period — including not only Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but Tutankhamun and Ay too. Every official inscription was erased, every statue destroyed or recarved, almost every temple torn down. Horemheb even used blocks from Akhenaten’s old temple as filler for his new constructions. It was one of the most elaborate and successful damnatio memoriae campaigns in Egyptian history.
There was one place Horemheb’s destruction never touched though: Tut’s tomb. On the contrary, the seal that archaeologists would break in 1922 was put up by Horemheb’s officials who repaired and resealed the tomb after a break-in during Horemheb’s reign. This contrasts to Horemheb’s treatment of Ay, whose tomb was opened and every image of the man destroyed.
Millennia in Oblivion
Within a few generations, almost no one in Egypt would have remembered the lost boy king. Within a hundred years or so, it’s likely that no one at all remembered Tutankhamun. By the time of Cleopatra in the 1st century BCE, it’s probable that no one had even spoken Tut’s name in a thousand years.
Ironically, this was Tut’s saving grace. When Egyptian royal power waned a few centuries after Tut’s death, the tombs of the Valley of the Kings were pillaged by priests and pilferers eager for the gold locked away with the dead pharaohs. By this time, many tombs including Tut’s had been covered over by landslides and debris from periodic flooding, but records preserved the locations of those royal burials. Horemheb’s own town was thoroughly looted, as was that of Tut’s esteemed grandfather Amenhotep III; even mighty Ramesses II’s tomb was plucked clean of all its treasures. But Tut, and Tut alone, was untouched. After all, no record of him existed. No one even knew there was a tomb of Tutankhamun to look for in the first place.
Rediscovering a King — Howard Carter
It would take 3,000 years for traces of Tut to re-emerge when scattered references to him were found in his birthplace of Amarna in the late 19th century. At long last, a handful of people spoke Tut’s name again, but Egyptologists at the time knew practically nothing about him other than that he was a short-lived king from the 18th Dynasty.
They concluded that he must have had a tomb in the Valley but most archaeologists believed it was one of the already discovered but unattributed burials. One archaeologist named Theodore Davies found a small tomb in 1908 which he wrongly attributed to Tut. In his 1912 report, Davies issued one of history’s greatest incorrect predictions: “I fear the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted.”
Ten years later, excavators working under Howard Carter proved Davies wrong. On November 4th 1922, a workman found a stone step leading into the ground. What followed was one of the most incredible archaeological discoveries in history. An intact royal tomb full of priceless treasures turned Tut from a virtually unknown minor Pharaoh into a global celebrity.
The Resurrection of King Tut
Sensational media coverage followed every step of the discovery and it took years to catalog and extract everything from the tomb. The treasures that poured out captivated the world. Of course, the crowning glory of them all was Tut’s iconic golden burial mask whose shining visage isn’t just a symbol for him, but of Egypt and even history itself. His name and image have since appeared on everything from stamps to lemons. Tut’s treasures have drawn millions to Egypt and its museums but they have also acted as ambassadors around the world. A series of globe-spanning tours brought the magic and mystery of the boy king to tens of millions, further cementing Tut’s place as one of the most famous figures in history.
The tomb has been an academic treasure too. As the only intact royal burial, this monument to Tut’s death has been invaluable to our knowledge of Ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun’s worldly remains have also offered scholars a chance to study the boy king’s life and death, inspiring endless theorizing about what led him to his early golden grave.
For modern audiences, the tomb is a tantalizing insight into the wealth and secrets of a bygone age. But we should not forget that it served a powerful emotional and spiritual role for its creators and inhabitants. The Egyptians believed that the tomb and all of its treasures would preserve the dead for the next life. In that regard, Tut’s tomb has done its job a million times over. Most of the world now recognizes his face. After thousands of years of silence, billions of people know his name. In the end, this shadowy son of a heretic, dead before his 20th birthday, got a resurrection more glorious than anyone could have predicted.