A Return to the Old Ways: Life After Merit

Golden funeral mask of king Tutankham - photo by Mr Jon Bodsworth

Golden funeral mask of king Tutankham - photo by Mr Jon Bodsworth Copyrighted free use

With the event of Merit’s and Smenkh-ka-re’s deaths the Egyptian throne passed to Tut, possibly because he married the eldest surviving most-royal princess, Merit’s younger sister, Ankhesen. At this point Tut was only nine or ten years old, so it’s likely that his early rule—at the very least—was closely supervised by his great uncle, Ay. Though his coronation may have been held in Thebes (Luxor), for the first two or three years he ruled from Amarna. It’s been suggested, and I think it’s quite likely, that this period allowed him to grow out of childhood before having to face his angry and rebellious subjects. Then quite abruptly Tut and his wife changed their names from Tut-ankh-aton (the Living Image of the Aton) and Ankhesen-pa-aton to Tut-ankh-amun (the Living Image of Amun—the Unknown One—the Theban god whom the Aton had replaced) and Ankhesen-amun, and the court returned to Thebes. Tut began a series of devotional building projects, erecting many monuments to the old gods both in Thebes and Karnak, and reinstated some of the traditional festivals that his father had banned. As the restoration of the cult of Amun got under way, he began mending fences with a number of Egypt’s former allies, most notably the Mitanni.

Tut ruled Egypt for approximately ten years and died at the age of nineteen. There have been many suggestions as to the cause of death—including murder—but recent theories favour a combination of complications following a broken leg combined with an attack of malaria. The mummies of the two stillborn girls found in his tomb suggest that he and his wife had failed to produce a living heir, making Ankhesen the last of the dynastic bloodline. If we believe a group of tablets unearthed at a dig in Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century, what appears to have happened next is quite extraordinary and opens up a wealth of speculation. The tablets claim that she (or just possibly Merit or Nefretiti, for the queen’s name is frustratingly never mentioned) wrote to Suppiluliuma I, king of the Hittites, with the following plea:

…my husband died. A son I have not. But to thee, they say, the sons are many. If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband!…I am afraid!
[The Deeds of Suppiluliuma I as Told by His Son Mursilis II, translation by Hans Gustav Guterbock, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 10 (1965)]

Potrait study, thought to be of Ay - photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

Potrait study, thought to be of Ay - photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Why does she write to a foreign king? Although it was not uncommon for a pharaoh to take a foreign princess as a secondary wife to cement a political pact between two nations, it was unheard of for the eldest most royal princess to take a foreign prince, for in so doing she would effectively be delivering Egypt into the hands of her competitors. And why does she stress that she would never choose a servant (i.e., subject, most likely Ay) for a husband? Was it he that she was afraid of?

At first Suppiluliuma was skeptical and sent a chamberlain, a man named Hattusa-ziti, to seek out the truth. Apparently what he encountered in Egypt must have satisfied all his questions, for when he returned in the spring accompanied by an Egyptian envoy, Hani, King Suppiluliuma dispatched one of his sons, Zannanza, to marry the widowed queen. Unfortunately (at least according to Mursilis—this time from a different set of tablets, The Plague Prayers of Mursilis—though bear in mind that a death from natural causes might have been construed as something quite the opposite), Zannanza was murdered en route.

It’s likely that it is at this point that Ay married Ankhesen and legitimately took the title of Pharaoh, but now he faced a war with Suppiluliuma, a war which some historians claim Egypt lost. If this is the case, then for the Hittites it was a Pyrrhic victory. All the soldiers they took as prisoner were plague carriers. Once transported back to the Hittite capital, they began to sicken and die. Suppiluliuma’s subjects rapidly followed suit.

Ankhesen disappears from the records soon after her marriage to Ay, presumably signalling her death. Ay ruled for barely four years before he died too. Though he named a successor, the coronation was not to be. One of his colleagues, Horemheb—a powerful general in the Egyptian army—seized the throne instead. Horemheb set about erasing all mention of Akhen-aton and his family throughout the land. The country prospered under his twenty-seven year rule and he eventually died of extreme old age, but not before selecting one of his own soldiers to succeed him: a commoner named Ramesses, who, in time, would found a dynasty of his own.