Smenkhare (Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare Djeser Kheperu) was a short-lived pharaoh of the late Eighteenth Dynasty who ruled in the aftermath of the Amarna Period, before Tutankhamun. He has been the object of much speculation by Egyptologists.

Around year 14 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti “disappears” and a co-regent named Ankhkheperure Nefernefruaten is first recorded. Ankhkheperure Nefernefruaten is sometimes spelled in the feminine form (Ankh-et-kheperure Nefernefruaten), so it was proposed by some that this co-regent was a woman (either Nefertiti or Merytaten).

To complicate matters further, a male successor (and possible co-regent of Akhenaten) with the name Ankhkheperure Djeser Kheperu Smenkhkare (“Holy of Manifestations, Strength is the Soul of Re”) appeared. He apparently only reigned for about three years, and there is some evidence that he turned his back on the Aten and Akhetaten (the capital established by Akhenaten) and resumed worship of the old gods in Thebes.

For some time, experts could not agree whether Ankhkheperure Nefernefruaten and Ankhkheperure Djeser Kheperu Smenkhkare are the same person, or two distinct individuals.

Probably Smenkhare and Merytaten, but possibly Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun (copyright Andreas Praefcke)

The first reference to the male Smenkhkare was found in the tomb of Meryre II. He appears with his wife, Merytaten the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, offering rewards to Meryre. The names of the king have since been cut out but thankfully the text was recorded by Lepsius. Somewhat later, a calcite vase was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun which carries the full double cartouche of Akhenaten alongside the full double cartouche of Smenkhkare, confirming his position as co-regent.

There is also an uninscribed limestone picture of an Amarna couple thought to be Smenkhare and Merytaten (although some claim it is Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun). She may have been previously married to her father, and it is likely that she became the wife of Smenkhare to strengthen his position as co-regent and future pharaoh. Smenkhare may also have been married to Ankhesenamun (Ankhesenpaaten) the third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but it was the elder sister, Merytaten, who was his chief wife.

Aidan Dodson has proposed that Smenkhkare had a brief co-regency from year 13 of Akhenaten’s reign, as suggested by a wine docket stating “Year 1, wine of the house of Smenkhkare” and another labelled “The House of Smenkhkare (deceased)”. Subsequently, Nefertiti took over as co-regent as King Neferneferuaten (perhaps with abbreviated honors). This is rejected by those who believe that Nefertiti disappeared from the record after Year 13 because she had died. However, if Smenkhare was co-regent in year 13-14 why was the Hall of Rejoicing (an addition to the central palace dated to year 15) filled with bricks stamped “Ankhkheperure in the House of Rejoicing in the Aten”?

James Allen assumes that Nefertiti died, and her daughter became known as King Neferneferuaten (more specifically as Neferneferuaten-tasherit “Neferneferuaten the younger”). She is in turn followed by Smenkhkare after a couple of years. He further suggests that Neferneferuaten was the chosen successor of Akhenaten and Smenkhkare used the same prenomen to usurp her position. Yet, if Smenkhare reigned after Neferneferuaten, why are there references to his rule after year 15?

Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare Djeser Kheperu with his wife Meritaten in the tomb of Meryre II, line drawing by Norman de Garis Davies

Both Dodson and Allen’s theories would seem to be defeated by the discovery of an inscription dated to year 16 of Akhenaten’s reign confirming that Nefertiti was alive and still his consort (but not co-regent). Others (such as Marc Gabolde) have suggested Meritaten was Neferneferuaten and that she continued to rule as Neferneferuaten after the death of Smenkhkare. The main argument against this is the box from Tutankhamun’s tomb listing Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten and Meritaten as three separate individuals.

An inscription in Theban Tomb 139 begins

“Regnal year 3, third month of Inundation, day 10. The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands Ankhkheperure Beloved of Aten, the Son of Re Neferneferuaten Beloved of Waenre. Giving worship to Amun, kissing the ground to Wenennefer by the lay priest, scribe of the divine offerings of Amun in the Mansion [temple] of Ankhkheperure in Thebes, Pawah, born to Yotefseneb.”

The name of the king has no additional epithets, so following Allen’s distinction is most likely to be Smenkhare. As the temple was already established by the third regnal year of Neferneferuaten, this would support the suggestion that Smenkhare was on the throne before Neferneferuaten’s rule began. However, Allen has suggested that the epithets are missing because reference to Akhenaten would not be welcome in a temple dedicated to Amun.

Clearly, there is still much to be learned about the succession of rulers following Akhenaten’s demise.

Many commentators have suggested that Smenkhare was the son of Akhenaten and Kiya, one of his lesser wives, and the brother of Tutankhamun. However, Tutankhamen and Smenkhkare could also be half brothers, one born to Kiya and the other born to Nefertiti or another of Akhenaten’s lesser wives. Some argue that Smenkhkare was too old to be Akhenaten’s son, and as Kiya was married to Amenhotep III before she married his son Akhenaten, it is also possible that Smenkhare was the son of Kiya and Amenhotep III.

It is also possible that Smenkhare was not a member of the Egyptian Royal Family, but a member of another Royal line. Smenkhare had two coronation names, not one coronation name and a birth name, as would usually be the case. Unfortunately, his birth name is not confirmed, but it has been suggested (notably by Gabolde) that he was Zannanza, the son of the Hittite King Suppiluliuma.

There are a few problems with this suggestion. In particular, the fact that the Hittites recorded that he was assassinated when he went to Egypt in response to the letter from the widow, and many suggest it was Tutankhamun’s widow (Ankhesenamun/Ankhesenpaaten) who wrote the Letter to Suppiluliuma, king of the Hittites.

Tutankhamun's coffin which may have originally been made for the burial of Smenkhare

Some Egyptologists still claim that Smenkhare was actually Nefertiti (notably Nicholas Reeves), noting that there are no depictions of Nefertiti and Smenkhare together and he may have shared the name “Nefernefruaten” with both Nefertiti and her fourth daughter (Princess Nefernefruaten ta-Sherit). However, the clearly male Smenkhare appears with his wife Merytaten (daughter of Nefertiti and Akhenaten), in Meryre II’s tomb at Amarna, and a male mummy found in tomb KV55 was thought by many to be Smenkhare until recent genetic testing suggested to some that the deceased was in his fifties when he died, leading to the speculation it is in fact Akhenaten himself.

It is also notable that the name Ankhkheperure Djeser Kheperu Smenkhkare is male in gender and the female variant has not been found on any monuments or inscriptions.

The burial in KV 55 has raised more questions than it has answered. While the body seems to have been buried along with grave goods named for Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, and Queen Tiye, it appears that many of the goods buried with his successor (Tutankhamun) were in fact taken from the burial of Smenkhare and hastily renamed. In fact one of the most famous images of Tutankhamun, from his middle coffin, is now generally considered to show the face of Smenkhare with Tutankhamun’s name crudely inscribed over that of the original owner. So, if the body in KV 55 is Akhenaten rather than Smenkhare, where is the tomb of Smenkhare?

  • Aldred, Cyril (1988) Akhenaten, King of Egypt
  • Allen, James P. (2010) Middle Egyptian
  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Dodson, Aidan (2009) Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation
  • Dodson, A and Hilton, D. (2004) The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt
  • Van Dijk, Jacobus (2000) “The Amarna Period and Later New Kingdom”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
  • Van De Mieroop, Marc (1999) A History of Ancient Egypt

Copyright J Hill 2016