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Egyptian Death Rituals

On a balmy November day in 1922 one of the greatest archeological finds ever would be made. It all started with the discovery of a single rough cut stone step, the first in a staircase that would lead to the most celebrated tomb of modern times. Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen would capture popular attention like no other discover before or after it. With each item brought from the tomb the public wanted to know more and more about the boy-king of Egypt.

Probably the most intriguing and perplexing question surrounding the tomb is the mystery surrounding the death of the young Pharaoh. It has been over three thousand and three hundred years since the interment of Tutankhamen. Even with the discovery of the relatively intact tomb, or knowledge of teh king is sketchy, based upon a fragment here and a fragment there. Howard Carter remarked after the discovery of the tob that, “We are getting to know to the last detail what he had, but of what he was and what he did we are still sadly to seek”(Carter 11).

Even so, the evidence left to us down through three centuries paints a picture of intrigue and strife leading to a murder committed by a trusted courtier. To understand the circumstances surrounding this murder, we must start our investigation with the reign of Amenophis III, the ninth king of the Eighteenth Dynasty and most probably the father of Tutankhamen (see note 1). The one seed event of our tragic tale is Amenophis III’s encouragement of the worship of the Aten, or the sun disk.

As a sign of his reverence for the Aten, he built a temple to the Aten and named his own private pleasure barge Splendour of Aten (Desroches-Noblecourt 114-115). Egyptian pharaohs had ther idiosyncrasies like all people, and were tolerated in the religious structure of Egypt as long as the structure itself remained. The culture of Egypt centered upon its polytheistic religion. Everything in the empire had its patron god, and all were ruled over by Amen-Re.

Every moment of their lives and on into their graves, the Egyptian lived knowing that their godes were responsible for everything in the world around them. Amenophis III would pass on his reverence of the Aten to his son Amenophis IV, and in so doing would mark the beginning of the end of the Eighteenth dynasty. When he ascended the throne, Amenophis IV was already firmly planted in the worship of the Aten. Within two years he had banned the worship of all other gods, plunging the country into panic and disarray when the people were denied the worship of their tr aditional gods.

At the heart of Egyptian culture was its religion. The polytheistic religion of the Egyptians permeated every aspect of life and death along the fertile Nile river. No other Pharaoh had ever dared upset the gods with such actions. When Akhenaten, as Amenophis IV was now calling himself, made the worship of the Aten the only official religion, he set forth a cultural shock wave that would profoundly affect his realm.

To simplify a theology inaccessible to the masses; to reconcile people and god by showing the latter as the orb shining impartially upon all; to proclaim what the priests had known “ever since the time of the gods”: that men were born equal and that only their “wickedness differentiated them”; to unite mankind by bringing it close to all other life, and reminding it of the intimate relationship between all mineral, vegetable, animal and human elements; and to suppress the practice of magic which could only paralyze moral progress– such were th eleading ideas of Amenophis IV’s great design (Desroches-Noblecourt 126-127).

Akhenaten’s reforms were met with strong oppositions by the priesthoods. With Akhenaten’s banning of their gods, they had lost much of their power. The new priests of the Aten took the tributes form the other temples and chased all the clergy who would not embrace the Aten into hiding. Akhenaten sent workers throughout the empire, removing the names of the other gods from monuments and temples. He moved the center of his empire from the traditional capital at Nut-Amen (present day Thebes) to a new capital several leagues down the Nile. Akhenaten had, for the time being at least, cut off all other gods from their worship.

His empire, however, had fallen into disarray. While Akhenaten was focusing on his religious vision, the lands of Egypt’s empire began to assert their independence. The Asian vassals of Egypt were in rebellion (Budge, Tutankhamen 11). The priesthood of Amen-Re were actively inciting dissent towards Akhenaten. In his capital, Akhenated lived peacefully according to the spirit of the Aten. His pacifist ideals ran up against the traditionalism of the scribe Paatenemheb, who had risen to the rank of general in Pharaoh’s army (Desroches-Noblecourt 207) Upon the death of Akhenaten, there was a period of brief turmoil.

The Aten factions and the traditionalist factions jumped to secure the throne. The person who succeded in gaining the throne was the boy Tutankhaten, a close relative of Akhenaten. By virtue of his marriage to the Princess Ankhesenpaaten, most probably arranged by the Queen Nefertiti and her father Ay, Tutankhamen sat on the throne of Egypt (see note 2). When a king of Egypt ascended the throne, he would have five names. The two most important were the prenomen and the nomen. The nomen was the king’s own personal name. At the beginning of his reign, his nomen was Tutankhaten, “Living Image of the Aten.

After the second year of his reign, he changed his nomen to Tutankhamen, “Living Image of Amen. ” The Prenomen, or throne name, is that name used to refer to the king as Pharaoh. Tutankhamen’s prenomen was Nebkheperure, “The lordly manifestation of Re. ” (see note 3) For the first three years of his reign, the worship of the Aten was continued. The priests of the other gods were permitted to resume worship and Tutankhaten was crowned by the priests of Amen-Re in the vast Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. In the second year of his reign, Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamen and that of his wife to Ankhesenamen (Reeves 25).

This may have been done because of personal preference but more probably was done to placate the priests of Amen-Re; It was undoubtedly a signal that Amen-Re had returned to favor. The first question about the death of Tutankhamen that needs to be answered is that of the nature of his death. The two examinations of Tutankhamen’s mummy found evidence that may answer this question for us. The first examination, conducted in 1925 when the mummy was unwrapped, found a dark coloroed lesion on the left cheek. It is slightly depressed from the rest of the skin, and looks somewhat like a scab (Carter 228).

They also found that the king was betwe en 18 and 19 years of age when he died. In the Thutmosid line of kings, of which Tutankhamen was a member, the average lifespan was approximately 40 years based upon the length of their reigns (See “The Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty” chart). In 1968 armed with X-ray technology, an expedition found conclusive evidence for the cause of the king’s death. Radiographs of the king’s vertebra prove that the king did not die of tuberculosis, which was a popular opinion held by many at the time. Even more substantial is a fragment of bone inside the skull of the mummy (Reeves 118).

Along with the cheek lesion, the bone fragment would be consistent with damage caused by a blow to the head. If Tutankhamen was killed by an injury to his head, then how did it happen? The most plausible theory is that he was killed by someone close to him. As the last male heir to the dynasty, he would have been under close protection by his advisers. He was probably watched over his entire life by the vizier Ay and Queen Nefertiti. As such, an accidend or being killed by someone whom he did not know is improbable. Who then killed Pharaoh Nebkheperure?

Our evidence after 3,000 years does not exactly have a “smoking gun,” but the evidence does lean in one direction; it is my belief that King Tutankhamen was murdered by the man who would become Pharaoh Zeserkheperure-Setepenre: the General Horemheb. General Horemheb was a very ambitious man of low birth who had risen fast to become one of Akhenaten’s and Tutankhamen’s closest advisors (Breasted, Records III 13). Of all the men who history has passed down to us, he was the person with the most to lose by Tutankhamen’s contitued reign. We know Horemheb was one king removed from being the successor to Tutankhamen.

During the reign of Tutankhamen he was the commander in chief of Tutankhamen’s armies. He was probably the second most trused of Tutankhamen’s advisors. But Tutankhamen growing up and out of the grasp of his advisors would be a bad omen for Horemheb. His power was built upon his proximity to the throne. Also, the Pharaohs of Egypt were warrior kings, always fighting at the front, leading their armies onward. Were Tutankhamen to assert his royal power, Horemheb would lose not only his power close the the throne but power in his base, the armies of Imperia l Egypt.

One of the most interesting things about the tomb of Tutankhamen is the number of items inscribed with the names of previous kings and courtiers. Some of the most charming pieces from the tomb have inscriptions from his advisers to the well-being of Tutankhamen in his afterlife (Carter 186-187). Of all the people whom history has passed down to us as being present in the court of Tutankhamen at the time of his death, all are reperesented in some form in the tomb execpet for General Horemheb.

In a culture where a person’s death was more important than their life, placing a memento for the dead king in his tomb would be the greated form of respect. To not do so would have been the greatest form of disrespect. Our next piece of evidence is in the acts of King Horemheb. He ordered his artisans to travel throughout the land destroying any references anywhere in the land to the Aten. The artisans were also sent with another order: any item with the names of Tutank hamen or Ay upon it would either be reinscribed with Horemheb’s name upon it or be destroyed.

He also had Akhenaten, Tutankhamen and Ay removed from the royal lists of Pharaohs. The destruction of the memory of Akhenated is understandable for an individual devoted to Amen-Re; the priesthood probably ordered it. But the destruction of the memories of Tutankhamen and Ay are quite suspicious. They were kings who had restored Amen-Re to favor. The priesthood had no ill will towards them. Horemheb must have had some personal reason for eradicating them from the record (Desroches-Noblecourt 283-284).

The final piece of evidence is a letter sent by an Egyptian Queen to the king of the Hittites. … eir master, Bibhuria [Nebkheprure, i. e. Tutankhamen] had just died and the widowed queen of Egypt sent an ambassador to my father and wrote to him in these terms: “My husband is dead and I have no son. People say that you have many sons [or that your sons are adult]. If you send me one of your sons he will become my husband for it is repugnant to me to take one of my servants [subjects] to husband” (Desroches-Noble court 275). This passage gives somewhat of an idea what the political situation was like in Egypt at the time. Desroches-Noblecourt believes that the servant mentioned in the passage refers to Horemheb (see note 4).

Horemheb probably killed Tutankhamen and went on a power grab with the backing of the army, hoping to gain the throne. We know that the embalming of Tutankhamen would take at least 70 days, a time for which he would still be Pharaoh (Carter 136-139). When no prince arrived, Ankhesenamen named her grandfather Ay co-regent (see note 5), and it is Ay whom we see performing t he “opening of the mouth” ceremony (see note 6) on the mummy of Tutankhamen in a painting in Tutankhamen’s burial chamber. With the availiable evidence, and a little imagination we can theorize the events surrounding the death of Tutankhamen.

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