Who was the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun?
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?
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.
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 MaskClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.
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.
- Tony Mulholland, writer, Egypt - Rediscovering a Lost World, Episode 1: The Search for Tutankhamun, BBC Documentary, 2005.
The complete six-part BBC documentary series.