The Hunt for Ankhesenamun: A Murderess, Vixen or Helpless Child in this Ancient Egyptian Soap Opera? Part II
Ankhesenamun, wife of the boy-king Tutankhamun, is portrayed in many ways; as a terrified and hapless youngster; a power-hungry murderess; or a loathsome vixen who will stop at nothing to achieve her devious ends. Very few characterizations concentrate on the real person, sans the hype. This once-powerful queen surely deserves a closer look.
Eclipsing the Sun
The religious revolution of Akhenaten failed miserably and the empire was under great threat. Therefore, in Year 3 of his reign, Tutankhaten’s regents who controlled the country on his behalf decided that Atenism had run its course. The royal couple altered their names to Tutankh-amun and Ankhesen-amun, signaling a complete return to orthodoxy, and the court deserted the Sun City and subsequently, Malqata palace in Waset (Thebes) that was abandoned by Akhenaten may have been re-inhabited when the traditional religion and administrative capital were restored. Inscriptions of the boy king, such as the Restoration Stela at Karnak Temple, commemorate the end of iconoclasm and record his deep anguish at being bequeathed a country in economic and spiritual ruin.
Even though little remains in Akhetaten, the once-bustling, defiant capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten; its allure remains unchanged. A restored column in front of the Sanctuary of the Small Aten Temple in Akhetaten. Tell el-Amarna.
These tectonic shifts and proclamations were surely not the doing of either Tutankhamun or Ankhesenamun; but in all probability, that of Grand Vizier Aye believed to be the latter’s grandfather or great-uncle (son of Yuya and Thuya, hence, brother of Queen Tiye). This exceedingly powerful man had served under Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten, and now Tutankhamun. One of Aye’s many coveted titles under Akhenaten was “it-netjer” or “Father of the God”. Equally competent was Horemheb, the Generalissimo who had served as the Commander-in-Chief of the army of Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, and now, that of Tutankhamun. The child pharaoh officially designated him “iry-pat” (“Hereditary or Crown Prince”) and “idnw” (“Deputy of the King” in the entire land).
The entrance to KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun (Bottom right) in the Valley of the Kings – that lay undisturbed for millennia beneath debris from the tomb of Ramesses VI (Nineteenth Dynasty) over which ancient workmen’s huts were built.
However, for one so young, Tutankhamun clearly could not have understood the full import of these titles, let alone grant them willfully. It could well be that Horemheb arrogated these appellations unto himself, with the active support of his coterie. This surely would not have sat well with Aye; and proof of this can be found in the fact that he named his son or grandson, Nakhtmin, as generalissimo and heir when he became pharaoh.
Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, looking in from the Antechamber. Straight ahead, the north wall shows various funerary scenes involving the deceased pharaoh. The modest size of KV62 and its sparse and hurried decoration have for long baffled Egyptologists.
Since no secondary wives of Tutankhamun are known, it must follow that in a desire to perpetuate the bloodline, it was Ankhesenamun who conceived two girls. Howard Carter posited that they were “without doubt” the unfortunate daughters of the boy pharaoh and his consort Ankhesenamun. Sadly, the mummified fetuses revealed they were stillborn.
Dr Robert Connolly, a leading anatomist who analyzed the mummified remains of Tutankhamun and the stillborn children in 2008 observed: “The two fetuses in the tomb of Tutankhamun could be twins despite their very different sizes, and thus fit better as a single pregnancy for his young wife. This increases the likelihood of them being Tutankhamun’s children.”
A statuette of Horemheb shows the King holding a pillar that is decorated with inscriptions, notably his coronation name. Horemheb launched the destruction of all vestiges of the Amarna interlude; and was particularly harsh with the memory of Akhenaten, Aye and Ankhesenamun. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
End Game in Sight
Aye had tasted power at the highest echelons for a great many years. His proximity to the royal family meant that his word was writ. But, even if he nursed a secret desire to lay claim to the throne, he could never have gotten very far as he was not of royal lineage. But the political climate had changed dramatically post the Amarna interlude, and the aging Vizier must have fancied his chances. Tutankhamun died suddenly at the tender age of nineteen, and the days of Aye playing second fiddle finally ceased.
As it shows an elderly individual, this limestone or calcite head of a statuette has been identified as Pharaoh Aye. The royal uraeus would have probably been added after completion. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
While still recovering from the shock of losing her childhood companion and husband prematurely, Ankhesenamun was apparently pressured to marry Aye. Dr Ray Johnson eloquently explains the loneliness of the widow: “Her grandmother was Queen Tiye, one of the most powerful queens Egypt ever saw. Her mother was Nefertiti. They ruled as living goddesses, so of course Ankhesenamun felt she had the same power. And she found out that she didn’t.”
The astute and stern matriarch: Small greenstone head identified as Queen Tiye by her cartouches and distinctive uraei headdress. Found by Flinders Petrie in the Sinai (1904). Petrie Museum, London (Original artifact at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.)
Even as preparations for Tutankhamun’s burial were underway, the frightened queen made a remarkable plea to the rival Hittite king, Suppiluliuma I to save herself and Egypt—though the true author of this letter is still hotly debated: “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 very afraid!” Jared Miller avers: “‘Servant’ is likely used in a disparaging manner, rather than literally, and probably with reference to real person(s) who indeed were being put forth as candidates.”
Painted limestone relief of a royal couple in the Amarna style. Some experts believe they portray Smenkhkare and Meritaten. This claim is tenuous at best because of the gait, and more importantly, the walking stick that we have come to associate with Tutankhamun is not a part of the iconography of any other individual from this period. Neues Museum, Berlin.
Howard Carter believed that Ankhesenamun was no shrinking violet, but a woman of substance: “She was, it seems, a lady of some force of character. The idea of retiring into the background in favor of a new queen did not appeal to her, and immediately upon the death of her husband she began to scheme… one of Ankhesenamen’s sisters had been sent in marriage to a foreign court, and many Egyptologists think that her own mother was an Asiatic princess. It was not surprising, then, that in this crisis she should look abroad for help.” This distressing episode ended on the borders of Egypt with the murder of Zannanza, the Hittite prince who was dispatched to wed Ankhesenamun.
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Paintings on the walls of the burial chamber of Aye’s tomb in the Western Valley of the Kings (WV23). J.G. Wilkinson said that the tomb, “Contains a broken sarcophagus and some bad fresco painting of peculiarly short and graceless proportions”. (Mutnedjmet/CC BY-SA 2.0)
If this was indeed the way in which matters panned out, Ankhesenamun, who was around 22-years-old, married Kheperkheperure Aye, the 70-year-old, who became the penultimate pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. This wedding must have happened rapidly, for Aye officiated at Tutankhamun’s Opening of the Mouth ceremony, thus legitimizing his claim to the throne. In the spring of 1931, Professor Percy Newberry stumbled upon a faience finger-ring in an antique shop in Cairo. It had cartouches of Aye and Ankhesenamun inscribed side-by-side—proof of wedlock, according to a section of Egyptologists—though traditionally, marriage scarabs were issued by rulers. Nevertheless, Ankhesenamun vanished at this juncture, for there exists no mention of her beyond the Cairo ring. It is Tey, the Great Royal Wife whose name and images are depicted on the walls of Aye’s tomb.
Originally from his tomb in Tell el-Amarna, this limestone relief depicts Vizier Aye and his wife Tey receiving the Gold of Honor from Akhenaten, at the Window of Appearances. It was extremely rare for a woman to be bestowed with this honor. King Tut exhibit, Pacific Science Center, Seattle. (Photo: Dmitry Denisenkov/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Game of Smoke and Mirrors?
In 1816, Giovanni Battista Belzoni discovered the sepulcher of King Aye (WV23). It is now believed to have been the tomb intended for Tutankhamun, built close by to that of Amenhotep III (WV22). Peter Clayton believes the location was, “… Probably chosen with a propaganda motive, to bury the king fairly close to his grandfather… thereby underlining the return to old ways and the old religion.” The following year, the Italian explorer found a second tomb – WV25 – that provided evidence of intrusive burials from the Twenty-Second Dynasty. This uninscribed and unfinished burial place holds special significance, for it is purported to have been abandoned while in the process of being prepared as the final resting place of Akhenaten before he ‘upped-sticks’ and left for Akhetaten. Therefore, it would have been appropriate for Ankhesenamun to be buried near her second husband and illustrious grandfather.
The Red colored circle indicates the entrance to the tomb of Amenhotep III (WV22) in the Western Valley. Foundation deposits revealed that work on the tomb was initiated during the reign of Thutmose IV. WV22 was ‘officially’ discovered by Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, engineers with Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, in August 1799.
Following the discovery of KV63 in 2005 by a team of archaeologists led by Dr Otto Schaden, speculation arose that it was designed for Ankhesenamun due to its proximity to the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62). Though no mummies were found, the chamber yielded coffins, storage jars, and natron that indicated it was likely an embalmers’ cache. Clay seal impressions with the partial name ‘Pa-aten’ were discovered. The only royal person known to bear this name was Ankhesenamun in her earlier avatar as Ankhesenpaaten.
On July 7, 2017, National Geographic Italia published an interview-article about the discovery of a new tomb in the Western annex of the Valley of the Kings.
The report claimed that based on the four foundation deposits containing votive objects such as pottery vessels, food remains, and tools, archaeologists suspected that it was the site of a tomb construction. Thus far, only a handful of foundation deposits have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings; and a minuscule percentage have been retrieved intact. The article also revealed that ground-penetrating radar tests detected “a substructure that could be the entrance of a tomb”. Apparently located near the burial of King Aye (WV23), this mysterious construction was identified outright as Ankhesenamun’s sepulcher.
This splendid alabaster vase from KV62 has three cartouches bearing the names of Tutankhamun and his consort and half-sister, Ankhesenamun. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
While sections of the mainstream media went into overdrive with the story, official confirmation from the Ministry of Antiquities wasn’t forthcoming. The deafening silence fueled unprecedented rumor-mongering and wild speculation. However, in an update to Live Science, Former Minister of State for Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass who heads this project, explained that until excavations get underway it cannot be assumed that a tomb has been discovered, for there may not be one at all. Egypt enthusiasts across the globe are extremely disheartened with the lack of clarity from the authorities concerned—the many U-turns, retractions, promises, and flip-flops—right from the Tutfertiti saga down to the alleged discovery of the tomb of Ankhesenamun now.
Recently, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Dr Khaled El-Anany made a cryptic announcement stating that he is privy to news of a spectacular archaeological discovery “that will astonish the whole world”. While we wonder what the latest pronouncement could possibly hint at—words that are pregnant with the hope for a resurgence in Egyptology—one fervently wishes that the final resting place of the last Sun Queen will come to light soon.
*The author expresses his gratitude to Professor Jiro Kondo, Director, Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan for granting exclusive permission to use a photograph of the WV22 expedition.*
[The author also thanks Dr Chris Naunton, Heidi Kontkanen, Margaret Patterson, Richard Dick Sellicks, Dave Rudin, A. K. Moyls, Leslie D. Black, Julian Tuffs and Amber St. Clare for granting permission to use their photographs.]
Top Image: This head of indurated limestone is a fragment from a group statue that represented Amun seated on a throne, and Tutankhamun standing or kneeling in front of him. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo credits: Margaret Patterson); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
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