King Tut: The Pharaoh Returns!

An exhibition featuring the first CT scans of the boy king's mummy tells us more about Tutankhamun than ever before

Tut's head, scanned in .62-millimeter slices to register its intricate structures, takes on eerie detail in the resulting image. With Tut's entire body similarly recorded, a team of specialists in radiology, forensics, and anatomy began to probe the secrets that the winged goddess of a gilded burial shrine protected for so long. (CT Scanning equipment by Siemens AG; Data courtesy, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Arab Republic of Egypt; National Geographic magazine, June 2005)
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After Akhenaten’s death, a scramble for the throne ensued. A mysterious pharaoh named Smenkhkare may have become king and reigned for a year or two before dying himself. (It’s also possible that he was a co-ruler along with Akhenaten and predeceased him.)

As the child husband of Akhenaten’s third daughter, Ankhesenpaaten (who may also have been his half sister), Tut inherited the crown circa 1332 B.C., when he was 8 or 9 years old (about the same age as his bride). The couple were probably married in order to legitimize the boy’s claim to rule.

Although Egypt, a superpower with a population of 1 million to 1.5 million, commanded territory stretching from Sudan almost to the Euphrates River, the empire under Akhenaten, “had crumpled up like a pricked balloon,” according to Howard Carter in his 1923 book on the discovery of Tut’s tomb. Merchants railed at the lack of foreign trade, and the military, “condemned to a mortified inaction, were seething with discontent.” Farmers, laborers and the general populace, grieving the loss of their old gods, “were changing slowly from bewilderment to active resentment at the new heaven and new earth that had been decreed for them.”

Carter believed that Akhenaten’s wily adviser, Ay (who may have been Nefertiti’s father), was responsible for installing Tut as a puppet pharaoh as a way to heal the divided country. When Tut and his wife were both about 11, Ay moved the court back to the administrative capital of Memphis, 15 miles south of today’s Cairo, and likely advised the boy-king to reinstate polytheism. Tut obliged and changed his name to Tutankhamun (“living image of the Amun”); his wife became Ankhesenamun (“she lives for Amun”).

Outside the Amun temple in Karnak, Tut erected an eight-foot-tall stela as an apology for Akhenaten’s actions and a boast of all Tut had done for the Egyptian people. “The temples . . . had gone to pieces, the shrines were desolate and overgrown with weeds,” the stela proclaimed. But the pharaoh now has “filled [the temple priests’] workshops with male and female slaves” and all “the property of the temples has been doubled, tripled, quadrupled in silver, gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise . . . without limit to any good thing.”

As Carter’s examination of Tut’s mummy revealed, the young ruler stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall. Like his ancestors, says Hawass, he was probably raised as a warrior. (His tomb contained six chariots, some 50 bows, two swords, eight shields, two daggers and assorted slingshots and boomerang-like throwsticks.) Scenes on a wooden chest found in his tomb depict him riding into battle with drawn bow and arrow, trampling hordes of Nubian infantry under the wheels of his chariot. W. Raymond Johnson of the University of Chicago says Hittite texts recount an Egyptian attack on Kadesh, in today’s Syria, shortly before the king’s death. Tutankhamun “may actually have led the charge,” he says. But other scholars, including Carter, view the militaristic images as polite fictions or propaganda, and doubt that the monarch himself ever saw combat.

Most probably, the royal couple spent much of their time in Memphis, with frequent trips to a hunting villa near the Great Sphinx at Giza and to the temples of Thebes to preside over religious festivals. The teenage queen apparently suffered two failed pregnancies: the miscarriage of a 5-month-old female fetus and a stillborn baby girl. (Both were mummified and buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb.)

Then, around 1323 B.C., Tut suddenly died. According to the recent computed tomography (CT) scans, he was 18 to 20 years old at the time of death (judging from bone development and observations that his wisdom teeth had not grown in and his skull had not fully closed). Despite the fact that Carter’s team had badly mangled the mummy, the scans indicate that Tutankhamun had been in general good health. He may, however, have succumbed to an infection due to a badly broken left thighbone. “If he really did break his leg so dramatically,” Cooney points out, “the chances of him dying from it are reasonably high.” But some members of the scanning team maintain that Carter and his excavators fractured the leg unwrapping the mummy; such a ragged split, had it occurred while Tut was still alive, they argue, would have generated a hemorrhage that would have shown up on the scans.

One theory that appears to have been finally put to rest is that Tut was killed by a blow to the head. A bone fragment detected in his skull during a 1968 X-ray was caused not by a blow, but by the embalmers or by Carter’s rough treatment. Had Tut been bludgeoned to death, the scanning report found, the chip would have stuck in the embalming fluids during burial preparations.

After Tut’s death, his widowed queen, many scholars believe, wrote in desperation to the enemy Hittite chieftain, Suppiluliuma, urging that he send one of his sons to marry her and thereby become pharaoh. (Some scholars, however, think that the letter may have been written by Nefertiti or Tiye.) Since no Egyptian queen had ever married a foreigner, writing the letter was a gutsy move. The Hittites were threatening the empire, and such a marriage would have averted an attack as well as preserving Ankhesenamun’s influence. After dispatching an envoy to make sure the request was not a trap, Suppiluliuma sent his son Zananza. But despite the chieftain’s precaution, Zananza was killed on his way to Memphis, perhaps by general Horemheb’s forces.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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