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The Pharaohs

Birth name: Tutankhaten ("Living image of the Aten")
Adopted name: Tutankhamun Heqaiunushema ("Living image of Amun, Ruler of Heliopolis in Upper Egypt")
Throne name: Nebkheperure ("Lord of Manifestations is Re") 
Rule: 1334 - 1325 BC (12th king of the 18th dynasty, New Kingdom)
Noteworthy relatives: Akhenaten (father), Nefertiti (stepmother/mother-in-law), Ankhesenamun (half-sister/wife), Smenkhkare (brother). [view family tree]


Egypt had experienced few cultural changes for thousands of years– until King Tut's father Akhenaten came along and turned everything upside down and inside out! Noticing that the influential priesthood was getting too big for its britches, he put all the priests out of work by declaring that the old gods of Egypt no longer existed. Instead, there was now only one god, the Aten, and it was the sun itself! Since the old religion was gone, the temples dedicated to the gods were closed down and the priests were suddenly unemployed.

Akhenaten moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new city called Akhetaten ("the Horizon of the Aten") were he spent most of his time writing poetry to the Aten and frolicking with his family. He neglected most of his pharaonic duties, leaving his vizier Ay and the military general Horemheb to deal with all that official stuff. Public resentment toward Akhenaten was growing, so Ay urged Akhenaten to appoint a co-regent (another pharaoh to rule simultaneously) who would go back to Thebes and keep the people in line. So Akhenaten's son Smenkhkare (whose mother was one of Akhenaten's sisters) was married to one of his and Nefertiti's daughters, Merytaten, and together they returned to Thebes to hopefully ease the escalating tensions.

The historical record gets a bit confusing here, because at around the same time Nefertiti is no longer mentioned. Then, within a just a couple years, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, and Merytaten are all dead too.

So at this point, all the powerful royals who were associated with the Aten and all the other dreadful changes that Akhenaten brought about were suddenly dead. Only the younger members of the royal family remained, including the next male heir to the throne: Tutankhaten, the very young (like eight years or so) son of Akhenaten and one of his sisters.

It was the perfect time to set things back to normal! So with the support of Horemheb and the unemployed priests, the vizier Ay quickly arranged for Ankhesenpaaten (one of Akhenaten and Nefertiti's young daughters) and Tutankhaten to be married, and made Tut the next pharaoh.

Under influence of the priests, the religion was restored and temples were reopened. Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten had their names changed to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun shortly after Tut became pharaoh. This was to show that the Aten was "out" and Amun (the king of the gods) was "in!" Ay continued his job as vizier to the king, and still was making all the decisions— after all, Tut was only a small child and not exactly capable of running an entire civilization.

Tutankhamun died at a very young age— only 18 or 19. For many years, some archaeologists thought he had been killed by a head wound, based on an old x-ray of Tut's head that was taken decades ago. However, a reexamination of his mummy in early 2005 has revealed a clearer picture of what caused the death of King Tut. CT scans showed that he had badly broken his leg shortly before death, and that the infection that set in had killed him. The CT scans were also used to generate images of what King Tut would have looked like when he was alive. 

Tutankhamun had no male heirs to take his place. Even though Ankhesenamun had been pregnant twice, both babies were girls and they died before birth. Soon after Tut's death, Ankhesenamun remarried the vizier Ay and he became the new pharaoh, making Ay the 13th king of the 18th dynasty.

Archaeologists agree that she did not want to marry Ay but that she was forced to do it. She sent a letter to the King of the Hittites, begging him to send a prince for her to marry. In the letter, she said "I don't want to marry a commoner. I am very afraid." The Hittite prince was sent, but he was murdered right outside the edge of Egypt. There is speculation that Ay may have had the prince killed to prevent his marriage to Ankhesenamun.

Computer generated reconstruction of Tutankhamun. AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities and the National Geographic Society

Ay had probably always been ambitious and power-hungry. He must have enjoyed running Egypt during Akhenaten's reign, and would have thought of himself as the ideal replacement for Tutankhamun. The only way Ay could become the next pharaoh would be to marry Ankhesenamun. She was scared and alone, probably feeling quite helpless and hopeless after the death of her parents and husband in such a short time span, so she reluctantly took him as her husband. Ay's dream came true: he was now the head honcho of Egypt, no longer ruling from the sidelines. 

But Ay only reigned for 4 years– by this time he was very old. The military general Horemheb stepped in to replace Ay as pharaoh. No one know what happened to Ankhesenamun though... she was no longer mentioned in any historical documents shortly after her marriage to Ay.


Despite the interesting history of Tut's family, he was a very insignificant king in Egypt's history. He built no spectacular monuments, nor did he wage any major wars. Tutankhamun's claim to fame is his intact tomb, which was discovered in 1922 by an English archaeologist named Howard Carter. 


Tutankhamun was the only pharaoh whose tomb hadn't yet been discovered and Carter had spent several years looking for it with no luck. His digging expeditions had been paid for by Lord Carnarvon, a rich Englishman who was interested in ancient Egypt. After five digging seasons without any luck, Carnarvon was starting to lose hope but Carter managed to get him to pay for one last excavation. Their final chance would be to dig in an area near the tomb of Ramses VI.

As luck would have it, Carter arrived at the dig site one morning to find the digging crew strangely quiet. A young Egyptian boy, who had been hired to carry large clay jars of drinking water, had made an accidental but important find. While kicking aside some sand to prop up the jars so they wouldn't spill over, he had struck something hard. It turned out to be the first step leading downward to Tut's tomb!

By the end of the next day, the workers had uncovered all the steps and even arrived at the sealed doorway at the bottom. Carter knew they were in luck when he noticed that the plaster coating on the stone doorway was embedded with a special stamp that was only used on royal tombs. He was thrilled to find that the tomb hadn't even been broken into.

As anxious as he was to enter the tomb, Carter decided to wait for Carnarvon to arrive from England so he could witness the opening as well— after all, he did pay for the search. So he had the workers refill the descending set of stairs and sent a telegram to Carnarvon to summon him to Egypt. Two and a half weeks later, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn arrived in Egypt to witness the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb. The workers had cleared out the entire staircase and the area surrounding the plaster-covered stone doorway. To Carter's dismay, he noticed that there were patches in the plaster, which must have been meant that the tomb had indeed been opened in ancient times, but was later repaired. He was very nervous that the tomb would be empty after all.

Behind the stone doorway was a long sloping passage packed to the top with limestone rubble, which took two days to clear out. At the end of the 30-foot hall was yet another plaster-covered stone door, which had signs of entry and repair, just like the first one. Carter chipped a small hole through the upper corner of the doorway, held a lit candle inside, and became the first person in over three thousand years to glimpse the inside of Tutankhamun's tomb.

With only four rooms, Tut's tomb was actually pretty small compared to other pharaohs' tombs. The room that Carter was looking into was the antechamber. It was a mess! The ancient tomb robbers had thrown things all over the place in their frantic quest for gold. Carter could see gilded couches in the shapes of animals, trumpets, chests of clothing, chariots, baskets, furniture, statues, and vases.

Underneath one of the animal-shaped couches was a hole in the wall that led to another room: the annex. Carter and Carnarvon crawled through and discovered another jumbled mess. Food baskets, wine jars, and furniture such as chairs and stools were tossed all over.

Standing against one of the walls of the antechamber were two ka statues. Between them was yet another plaster-covered doorway. This one led to the most important room of all: the burial chamber. When they broke through, they were faced with what appeared to be a wall of gold. It was actually the first of four gilded shrines, each a bit bigger than the one inside it. Together, they nearly filled the entire room! The shrines were disassembled to reveal a quartzite sarcophagus decorated with carved hieroglyphs and beautiful images of four winged goddesses (Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selkhet) wrapped around each corner.

The outermost shrine on display in the Cairo Museum. By Gérard Ducher.

Howard Carter and his workers opening the shrines that contained the sarcophagi of Tutankhamun. By Harry Burton (1879–1940) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cross-section of Tutankhamun's sarcophagi and shrines. By Hotepibre at Italian Wikipedia (Own work (Original text: Autore: Hotepibre)) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When the sarcophagus was finally opened, Carter found three mummiform coffins. The outer two were made of wood gilded with gold, but the innermost coffin (the one that held Tut's body) was crafted from solid gold. Finally, inside all these layers of protection, was Tutankhamun's mummy. It was wearing a gold funeral mask with inlaid glass, lapis lazuli and red carnelian. Gold bands, inscribed with magical spells to guarantee entrance to the afterlife, surrounded the linen bandages. Gold hands holding the crook and flail were sewn on to the wrappings over the chest.

Tutankhamun's funeral mask. By Carsten Frenzl from Obernburg, Derutschland (TUT-Ausstellung_FFM_2012_47) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The innermost coffin that held Tutankhamun's mummy. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

The mummy of Tutankhamun. By Howard Carter

Many aspects of Tutankhamun's tomb show that his unexpected death at such a young age required hasty funeral preparations. His tomb probably wasn't even meant for him:

  • it was much smaller than a typical pharaoh's tomb

  • only the burial chamber was painted

  • many of the items placed in the tomb were crafted for other people, so their names were removed and replaced with his

  • the face on the middle coffin doesn't resemble the others, so it was probably intended for someone else

  • the sarcophagus was also carved for someone else, so it was cut deeper to change the writing on the outside

  • the lid of the sarcophagus was made of a different type of rock— it didn't match!

In fact, this small tomb was probably created for Ay when he was a vizier, and the tomb that Ay actually was buried in (KV23) was most likely originally built for Tut. KV23 is located near the tomb of Tutankhamun's grandfather, Amenhotep III. Being buried nearby would have been further demonstrated the return to the good old days before Akhenaten messed everything up.


On the eastern wall of the burial chamber is the entrance to the last room, the treasury. Guarding the entrance to the room was a wooden statue of a jackal to represent Anubis, the god of mummification. Inside the treasure were models of boats, more statues, more chests, the two mummies of Tutankhamun's daughters, and a large gilded canopic chest that held his four canopic jars.

Looking in to the Treasury. A shrine topped with a statue of Anubis contained jewlery and everyday objects.

No, there is no curse, no matter what you may read or hear or see on TV. There was no curse written on the door of his tomb, or anywhere else for that fact. The whole story of a curse was started as a rumor. Howard Carter had sold the rights to report on the opening of the tomb to just one newspaper. Rival papers felt like they were missing a piece of the action, so they concocted the story of a curse to sell more papers and cash in on the opening of Tut's tomb.

A series of coincidences (some of which can't even be verified) seemed to support the hysteria. On the day Carter's workers first found the steps that led down to Tut's tomb, his pet canary got eaten by a cobra, an ancient symbol of the pharaoh's power. Lord Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite shortly after the discovery, and supposedly at that exact second all the lights went out in Cairo and Carnarvon's dog keeled over dead.

Watch: "King Tut Unwrapped"

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