Tutankhamun (Tutankhaten)

Tutankhamun (copyright Michael Reeve)

Tutankhamun (Tutankhaten), has become one of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Although he had a short reign, and is not even mentioned in the Abydos Kings list, the discovery of his tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter was a world wide media sensation.

His grave was relatively intact and crammed full of the most beautiful burial items and furniture. Tutankhamun’s funeral mask remains one of the most famous artefacts ever created by ancient Egyptian craftsmen.


He began his reign under the name Tutankhaten, meaning “Living Image of the Aten”. However, he later changed his name to Tutankhamun Heqaiunushema (“Living Image of Amun, ruler of Heliopolis of Upper Egypt“). This name was written as “Amen-tut-ankh” because of the tradition of honorific transposition (where the name of a god is written first out of respect). His name change seems to have occurred shortly before he abandoned Akhetaten (the city of Akhenaten) and returned to Thebes, reinstating the old gods.

Tutankhamun's names inside cartouches (copyright Pia L)

His throne name (or prenomen) was Nebkheperure, meaning “Lord of manifestations is Ra“, and it is thought that he is the pharaoh known as Nibhurrereya referred to in the Amarna letters. He may also be the eighteenth dynasty king named “Rathotis”, who is given a nine year reign by Manetho.


An inscription names him as the son of a pharaoh, but unfortunately it is not clear which king is referred to. Another depicts Tutankhaten with an unnamed princess. With no indisputable proof to confirm his parentage, speculation has been rife.

The general view used to be that he was the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. There were many items in his tomb naming Queen Tiye, but none make his relationship to her clear. It is also thought that she was around fifty when he was born, so she may actually have been his grandmother. Some suggested he was the son of Amenhotep III by a lesser wife.

Detail from a chair found in Tutankhamun's tomb depicting the pharaoh with his wife, Ankhesenamun. (Copyright Jerzy Strzelec)

Recent genetic testing has confirmed that his father was the person buried in tomb KV 55, now generally agreed to be Akhenaten (although there is still no direct evidence that this is the case) and that his mother was the so called “younger lady” buried in tomb KV 35. However, her identity is not so secure.

The popular modern view is that King Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and a minor wife named Queen Kiya. Kiya was given the title “Greatly Beloved Wife of Akhenaten” which she may have earned by giving him an heir. Inscriptions on the tomb wall in the tomb of Akhenaten show a royal fan bearer standing next to Kiya’s death bed, there is an image of a princess or a wet nurse holding a baby. However, there is another intriguing possibility.

In a chamber of the Royal Tomb, outside the room devoted to Meketaten (the second daughter of Akhenaten) there is an inscription of a wet-nurse holding a small child. It is sometimes suggested that this is the child of Meketaten (possibly by Akhenaten), and that the child is depicted there because she died in childbirth. However, Meketaten is though to have been around nine when she died, so doubt remains.

Some commentators have suggested that this child is the seventh child of Nefertiti, Tutankhamun. There is an inscription separated by a column which reads “…… born of ” and then “Neferneferua[ten] Nefertiti, who lives now and forever more” which could support this theory, but doesn’t prove that this is Tutankhamun.

It is proposed by some that Akhenaten chose a female co-regent named Neferneferuaten as his successor instead of Tutankhamun because he was not his son. However, there is a great deal of debate about the existence and identity of Neferneferuaten (who may or may not have been female and might have been Smenkhkare or Nefertiti).

It is occasionally suggested that Tutankhamun was the son of the short-lived king Smenkhkare and Meritaten (daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti). Smenkhkare is first referenced around Akhenaten’s fourteenth regnal year and reigned for only three years, and these may have all been in co-regency with Akhenaten. However, it is possible that he was the father of Tutankhamun.

Goods bearing his name were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but the goods may have been borrowed to fill up the tomb as Tutankhamun was so young when he died, rather than being placed there as a mark of respect to his father, as many had Smenkhare’s name excised and replaced with that of Tutankhamun.

King Tutankhaten married Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenamun), who may have been his half-sister since she was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. They seem to have been very close and were depicted together in intimate scenes in some beautiful grave goods found in his tomb. Unfortunately, it seems that their only two children were stillborn. Their tiny mummies were buried with their father.


Tutankhamun on his chariot wearing the blue war crown

King Tutankhamun is thought to have ruled from around 1334 BC – 1325 BC, towards the end of the of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. He was very young when he became pharaoh of Egypt and, because of his young age, it is generally considered that Ay (who was the vizier of Akhenaten and both the vizier and successor to Tutankhamun) was the real power behind the throne.

Shortly before Tutankhamun’s reign, Akhenaten had overseen a religious revolution, rejecting the old gods and promoting the Aten, while abandoning Thebes for a new city named Akhetaten which held no association with any god but the Aten.

During the third year of his reign (when Tutankhamun was around eleven years old) he began the restoration of the old gods. The ban on the temples was lifted; the priesthoods restored; the capital moved back to Thebes; and new temples were dedicated to AmunRa. The pharaoh and his wife changed their names removing the reference to the Aten, and instead honouring Amun.

Statue of Tutankhamun from Karnak, Thebes

A wooden box found in his tomb depicts Tutankhamun in his blue war crown waging war against both the Hittites and the Nubians, but it is considered unlikely that these battles ever took place as no independent evidence of any fighting has been recovered.

Evidence that Tutankhamun may have broken his thigh bone shortly before his death has led to the suggestion that he died of the effects of gangrene following a chariot accident. Some commentators have proposed the highly speculative theory that this injury was sustained while pursuing the Israelites out of Egypt during the Exodus, but this theory is not generally accepted.


Copyright J Hill 2010