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Who was the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun?

Updated on October 28, 2012
Artwork from a throne found in Tutankhamun's tomb, depicting the pharaoh and his wife, Ankhesenamun.
Artwork from a throne found in Tutankhamun's tomb, depicting the pharaoh and his wife, Ankhesenamun. | Source

Although Tutankhamun was not the greatest, most powerful or most important of ancient Egypt's pharaohs, he is by far the most famous. When his tomb was discovered by English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, it was relatively intact, and today remains the only pharaoh's tomb ever discovered that had not been stripped of its contents centuries ago by grave robbers.

The discovery made worldwide headlines, and made Tutankhamun, or "King Tut", a household name. The treasures found in the tomb are now world famous, but what about the pharaoh himself? Most people know that Tutankhamun was a "boy king" who became pharaoh while still quite young, but few know much more than that. This hub will help answer the question: Who was Tutankhamun?

Statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father.
Statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father. | Source

Egypt's 18th Dynasty

In terms of his significance in Egyptian history, Tutankhamun was only a minor pharaoh, although he was a member of a very important family. He was the 12th (and last) pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, a family who ruled Egypt for about 250 years, beginning around 1550 BC. It was during this dynasty that ancient Egypt reached its pinnacle in terms of wealth and power.

Tutankhamun's father, Akhenaten, is one of Egypt's most infamous pharaohs. He was known as the "heretic pharaoh", because during his rule he forbade worship of the traditional Egyptian gods in favor of the god Aten. This shifted power away from religious leaders in favor of Akhenaten s government and military officials. Akhenaten also moved Egypt's capital from Thebes to Armana. All of these changes, especially his focus on religion to the detriment of other issues, resulted in social disorder, economic problems and damaged relationships with other nations of the region.

The Boy King

Tutankhamun was born around 1341 BC. His original name was Tutankhaten ("living image of Aten"), and this would not change until after he became pharaoh. DNA analysis shows his father to be Akhenaten, but his mother was not the queen Nefertiti, as had long been believed, nor was she any of the pharaoh's other wives. In fact, Tutankhamun's mother was actually a sister of Akhenaten, whose name is not known. Incest was not unusual in Egypt's 18th dynasty. It not only kept the bloodline "pure", but also prevented other families from gaining power through marriage.

Akhenaten died around 1332 BC, and Tutankhaten became pharaoh. At the time he was about nine or ten years old.

Statue of the god Amun, from the temple at Karnak in Egypt.
Statue of the god Amun, from the temple at Karnak in Egypt. | Source

Reign of Tutankhamun

Because the new pharaoh was so young, his advisers, including the Vizier Ay and military leader Horemheb, most likely did most of the planning and decision-making. Those decisions included reversing the unpopular changes made by Akhenaten. The capital was moved back to Thebes, and the traditional religion was restored. During this time the pharaoh changed name to Tutankhamun ("living image of Amun"), to honor chief god of the newly-restored religion.

International relations had suffered during the reign of Akhenaten. Tutankhamun tried to mend these relationships, apparently with some success. There were some battles between Egypt and its neighbors over territory and trade routes, but no major military campaigns took place during Tutankhamun's reign.

Death of Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun died around 1323 BC, at age 18 or 19. It was end of the 18th dynasty, as Tutankhamun had no children. He had married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun (the daughter of his father and queen Nefertiti), but she had been unable to carry children to term. Two mummified fetuses, which DNA analysis has shown to be the stillborn children of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun, were found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

The cause of Tutankhamun's death has been the subject of much speculation. Cracks found in his skull led some to theorize that he had been murdered by a blow to the head, but more recent analysis shows this not to be the case. The cracks in the skull were probably formed during the mummification process.

Analysis of his mummy shows that Tutankhamun had suffered from a serious form of malaria, as well as avascular necrosis, a serious bone disorder. He may also have had congenital defects related to his family's inbreeding (which could also explain his own stillborn children). Some now believe it may have been the combination of these factors that killed Tutankhamun.


Tutankhamun's Death Mask

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The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy. | Source
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy. | Source
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy.
The solid gold burial mask, with glass and semi-precious stone inlays, which covered the face of Tutankhamun's mummy. | Source

King Tut's Tomb

Like many pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, Tutankhamun was buried in an area known as the valley of the kings. Compared to the resting places of other pharaohs, however, Tutankhamun's tomb is quite modest. Pharaoh's tombs were usually much larger and more elaborate, requiring years of planning and labor to construct. Tutankhamun's death at such a young age was probably unexpected, however, as his proper burial place had not yet been constructed. Religious customs were quite strict as to how long after death the pharaoh must be laid to rest, so Tutankhamun was most likely buried in a tomb that had originally been intended for someone else (possibly the vizier, Ay). Some believe that even the sarcophagus itself was originally created for someone else, as it also shows signs of last-minute modifications.

It is believed that over time the Egyptians themselves lost track of the location of Tutankhamun's tomb. It was eventually covered by debris from the construction of later tombs, and huts for workers had even been built on top of the entrance at one point. One reason for this is that later pharaohs tried to erase all records of Akhenaten, the "heretic pharaoh", and of his successors in 18th dynasty. It is possible that eventually even the name Tutankhamun may have been forgotten. This explains why, unlike the tombs of other pharaohs, Tutankhamun's resting place was relatively undisturbed when Carter found it in 1922.

Interior walls of Tutankhamun's burial chamber.
Interior walls of Tutankhamun's burial chamber. | Source

It is ironic that Tutankhamun, a pharaoh whose final resting place had been forgotten for thousands of years, and whose very name was erased from history, will forever be known as the most famous pharaoh of them all.


References

  • Tony Mulholland, writer, Egypt - Rediscovering a Lost World, Episode 1: The Search for Tutankhamun, BBC Documentary, 2005.

Egypt (BBC)
Egypt (BBC)

The complete six-part BBC documentary series.

 

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    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      I was fortunate enough to visit Egypt in the 90's and visit the Cairo Museum as well as significant landmarks. Tut was still the centre of attention over there. :)

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I am absolutely fascinated by Ancient Egyptian history! (Which is why my TV almost always is tuned to History or Science channels when it's turned on.) Lovely pictures and nice summary of King Tut's reign!

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 3 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      Thank you for such a detailed hub. You have added fillers to the limited knowledge that I had concerning Tut. Even tho his life was short he did end up being the most well known.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      We went to see the second American show of King Tut's artifacts in Philadelphia but they did not have that beautiful golden mask. I was so disappointed to miss the show in DC in '76. We actually went but the lines were so long. It was raining and we had our baby daughter. It was just too much. One of my regrets!

    • Doc Sonic profile image
      Author

      Glen Nunes 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Patrice, I've never had an opportunity to see the King Tut exhibit. I hear it's amazing. Thanks for stopping by, commenting and voting the hub up! Much appreciated!

    • profile image

      PWalker281 4 years ago

      I'll never forget when the King Tut exhibit came to Washington DC's National Museum of Art back in 1976. It was one of the most visited exhibits ever, with lines wrapped around the museum for days. All I could think of as I viewed the artifacts, especially the jewelry and the wigs, was that people wore this stuff thousands of years ago. It was a little mind boggling.

      Thanks for sharing these facts about the Boy King. Voted up and shared.