Exciting new findings from a DNA study of Tut have me doing my funky mummy dance!
King Tut is the biggest household name among the ancient pharaohs. This is because his tomb was discovered nearly intact. It yielded an incredible trove of artifacts that greatly enhanced our understanding of ancient Egyptian culture, including the famous solid gold death mask that's on the cover of almost every book you'll ever read about Egypt.
Yet King Tut was a pretty minor figure in ancient Egyptian history. He ruled for only nine years, and the recent genetic tests showing that he was sickly, walked with a cane, and suffered from malaria aren't really surprising. He was one of three weak, intermediate rulers who filled the gap between the crazy-religious-freak pharaoh King Akhenaten and the angry-generalissimo pharaoh King Horemheb. This is called the Amarna Period, and it is wicked cool.
King Akhenaten was born with the name Amenhotep IV. He was the son of the powerful King Amenhotep III, a strong leader who ruled Egypt for almost forty years. Amenhotep III's reign was a time of great prosperity for Egypt, and his son inherited a kingdom that was in pretty good shape for some reigning in peace. A few thousand dancing girls, some date wine, a gigantic tomb: you would have thought Amenhotep IV would just kick back and enjoy the gangsta life.
But you would be wrong. Because Amenhotep was kind of a mystical guy. He was fed up with the excesses of the priest class and with a state religion that had become highly corrupt. He had a vision for a new religion that would - shockingly - be based on only one god. He called this new god the Aten. The Aten was a sun god and was more abstract than the other ancient deities.
He changed his name to Akhenaten, smashed all the old idols, killed all the old priests, and built himself a beautiful new capitol which he called Akhetaten. The new capitol was the site of a lot of art, mystical activity, and daily sun worship. I imagine it was a little like Sedona.
King Akhenaten was into the ladies. He was sort of a momma's boy, his mother Queen Tiye remaining an unusually prominent figure during the first part of his reign. And he married the magnificent Queen Nefertiti, whose bust is probably on the cover of any book that doesn't have King Tut's death mask on it.
Nefertiti gets a lot of play in Akhenaten's monuments and decrees. She is almost as large as her husband in much of the art, breaking from the convention of displaying queens as miniature figures, and she is shown doing "kingly" actions such as bestowing wealth and smiting enemies. Akhenaten may have been the first women's rights advocate as well as the first monotheist. It seems significant somehow that he and Nefertiti had only daughters, six of them.
Here's the exciting part of the new DNA findings, are you ready? They establish that Tut is the son of Akhenaten! We always sort of thought that but nobody was sure. They also show that Tut's mother was Akhenaten's sister! (It was not unusual for pharaohs to marry their sisters, and they all had multiple wives.) This sister-wife of Akhenaten who gave birth to Tut was not Nefertiti but one of his minor wives, perhaps a woman called Kiya.
Akhenaten managed to rule for almost twenty years, a tremendous feat given the huge amount of rebellion he must have had to suppress from the followers of the old state god Amen-Re.When he died, everything fell apart.
Amenhotep IV AKA Akhenaten
There is a quick succession of three intermediate pharaohs after Akhenaten's death -- Smenkhare, Tutankamen (AKA King Tut), and Ay. Nobody rules for long, and, in fact, the identity and gender of Smenkhare are a matter of debate. Some think he is actually Nefertiti herself, who fades from the record in the later part of her husband's reign. Some think he is King Tut. Whoever he was, he only lasted a year. Tut lasted nine, which isn't too bad considering the tumult of the time and the line he had to walk between the old faith and the new. Ay ruled for four years.
During Tut's reign, the religion of the Aten was slowly abandoned. Tut changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamen (swapping out his father's "Aten" for the old god "Amen") His wife and half-sister Ankhsenpaaten changed her name to Ankhsenamen. The beautiful spa city the Sun King built was largely abandoned.
If Tut's rejection of his father's faith seems a little disloyal, it's nothing compared to what Horemheb did. The last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Horemheb was apparently of common birth and rose through the ranks of the army. He seized power and immediately destroyed all of the old Amarna rulers' monuments, smashing Akhenaten's statuary and forbidding any mention of his name.
The Amarna period has always fascinated artists with its crazy religious drama, strong personalities, violence, and sex appeal. It's the topic of the dated and yet still fabulous historical novel The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. And it will be the topic of a future novel of mine, if I can stop blogging long enough to finish it.