Another of the mysteries surrounding Akhenaten has to do with his wives. Of these, Kiya was the most likely mother of Tutankhamun, but the best known to us is his principal wife, Nefertiti. In 1912, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt found her bust at Amarna in the ancient sculptor Tutmosis’s studio, tucked back in a storage cabinet. After a long, long slumber, she burst back on the scene as her face captured imaginations around the world. For all its modern fame, though, that bust was among other images of the royals left behind when people abandoned Amarna and returned to their original homes. Tutmosis took his tools and other things he needed and left behind all things obsolete.

Beyond how she looked, we know comparatively little about Nefertiti. She clearly enjoyed significant power as queen, as she is often depicted on wall carvings with her husband. She also disappears from the records in Year 12 at Amarna. She might have died, she might have been killed, or she might have become a co-regent with Akhenaten and taken on another name. Soon after her disappearance, a new king and co-regent with Akhenaten appeared under the name Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten, which may have been Nefertiti.

After Akhenaten’s death, Nefertiti may have also been one of two possible rulers who took over in the three or four years before Tut ascended the throne, and shared a throne name—Ankhkheprure—with another, most likely Smenkhkare, aka Ankhkheprure Smenkhkare, who in turn might have been Akhenaten’s co-regent. “Co-regency,” explains Josef Wegner, “happened from time to time in ancient Egypt, although the reasons differed from case to case. In the case of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, it’s an open guess as to why a co-regency might have occurred. Motives could be the aging of the king, illness and fear of early death, etcetera. If Ankhkheprure is Nefertiti, then it does represent a natural extension of her already prominent religious and political role to [that of] co-king alongside Akhenaten.”

Smenkhkare also might have been Tutankhamun’s older brother, or even his father, since archaeologists are still not fully certain if Akhenaten was Tut’s father because no definitive text or inscription has yet been found that names his parents.

By the time Tutankhamun was around nine years old, he ascended to the throne. By then, the Aten was already in the process of being abandoned in favor of Amun and the traditional pantheon. The new pharaoh carried through the restoration of the old beliefs and practices, moving the capital back to Thebes and also changing his name, from the original Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, making his allegiance to Amun unquestionable. And he erected restorative and corrective inscriptions throughout Egypt, explaining that after a period of neglect, normal life was back.

Despite these efforts, Tutankhamun was too closely associated with the Amarna episode and Akhenaten to escape the connection, and his death at the young age of 19—perhaps from an infection in an unhealed injury to his left leg—didn’t help. For three years after Tut’s death, Egypt was ruled by his family’s long time advisor, the elderly Aye. Like Tut, Aye left no heir. He was succeeded by another advisor, General Horemheb, a nonroyal but a skilled military man and diplomat. Probably acting both out of pragmatism and to cement his legitimacy as pharaoh, he led the voracious dismantling of Amarna’s buildings to provide construction material elsewhere—stone blocks were turned face down to hide identifying carvings—and an empire-wide campaign to destroy any evidence of the Aten and of the names of the kings, from Akhenaten to Aye, who were affiliated with the experiment at Amarna. Subsequent kings’ lists eliminated the Amarna rulers; their names fell into anonymity. Horemheb also appropriated Tutankhamun’s restorative monuments for himself, plastering his own name over Tut’s—revealed over time in some cases, as the ancient plaster has fallen away.

Horemheb ruled for about 27 years, working hard to maintain—and rebuild where necessary—Egypt’s power by diplomatic, economic, and military means. Ironically, even his efforts to fully wipe out the Amarna royals’ names from the record may have benefited his country in the long run, perhaps protecting Tutankhamun’s tomb from plunderers both ancient and modern. Instead, Tut lay anonymous and undisturbed for more than 3,000 years until the British archaeologist Howard Carter found his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, sparking successive waves of “Egypt-mania” through the 20th century and now into the 21st.

The Radical and the Restorer By Beebe Bahrami

Photos: (Amarna) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Tom Jenkins; (Tutankhamun) © Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig.

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(Below) Diadem of gold inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones, which was around Tut’s head when archaeologist Howard Carter opened his royal coffin in 1922, more than 3,000 years after the king’s death; brilliantly colored figurine of the god Ptah, designed as part of a larger statue.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07