The Life and Death of Tutankhamun

This article takes a look at the life and death of Tutankhamun, by briefly considering the boy pharaoh’s reign, as well as looking at the relationship with his wife, Queen Ankhesenamun.

The second part of the article then attempts to answer the question of how did King Tut die. It considers whether Tutankhamun died a violent death or if it was due to an illness; before finally putting forth the case for murder, by looking at the two chief suspects: Ay the Grand Vizier and General Horemheb.

The Reign of Tutankhamun

The Boy Pharaoh

The Pharaoh Tutankhamun was born around 1341 B.C. and was only nine years old when he became the pharaoh of Egypt. His young age, as well as his father’s unpopular legacy, meant that the real power would always lie elsewhere. Indeed, during most of his reign he would rely on the council of his Chief Vizier Ay, who would act as regent, and the support of the army, led by General Horemheb, who he appointed as “lord of the land” in order to maintain the law.

His father’s attempts at changing the religion in Egypt had left the country in chaos and according to the most important historical document of that time, the Restoration Stele of Tutankhamun, the early part of the young pharaoh’s reign involved his administration moving the capital from Akhenaten back to its traditional home at Thebes, as well as restoring the old religion to Egypt.

How did King Tut die? - The Life and Death of Tutankhamun
The Life and Death of Tutankhamun

It was at this time that the boy pharaoh changed his name from Tutankhaten, meaning the “Living Image of Aten” to Tutankhamun, meaning the “Living Image of Amun”.

Religious problems were not the only legacy that the “heretic king” had left his son. Egypt was also suffering economically, following years of neglect by Akhenaten, and diplomatic relations with other kingdoms were now poor. Tutankhamun and his advisers set out to restore them, which they did with some success, although battles with the Nubians and Asiatics were recorded as having taken place.

Queen Ankhesenamun

Shortly after he became pharaoh, Tutankhamun married his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten, who was the third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which meant she was also the granddaughter of Ay. Ankhesenpaaten also changed her name at the same time as her husband, when she became Ankhesenamun.

Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun
(This image is on the lid of a box found in Tut's tomb)
Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun
(This image is on the lid of a box found in Tutankhamun’s tomb)

From various objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, it would appear that he and Ankhesenamun were very much in love. There is a beautiful relief on the back of the pharaoh’s throne, where Ankhesenamun appears to be rubbing oils on her husband, and an image on the lid of a box, where Tutankhamun is receiving flowers from his bride.

Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun had two stillborn daughters together, one of whom died at 5–6 months of pregnancy, while the other went to full-term. Both daughters were mummified and placed in the pharaoh’s tomb. Tutankhamun’s own incestual heritage, added to the fact that Ankhesenamun was his half sister, may explain why the couple were unable to have children together. Whatever the reason, when Tutankhamun died, he did not have an heir to his throne, and so his bloodline died with him.

How did King Tut die?

A Violent Death or an Illness

No-one knows for certain how King Tut actually died, but as Tutankhamun was only eighteen or nineteen when he died, there has always been a certain amount of intrigue over what exactly killed him. 

Part of the problem in determining the cause of his death, is the fact that his mummy was damaged when it was first exhumed, during its removal from the sarcophagus. Later examinations may have then misread the signs of this damage as trauma to the pharaoh’s body when he was still alive.

Indeed, an x-ray carried out in 1968, revealed a bone fragment inside Tutankhamun’s skull, which led to the theory that the boy king had either been murdered by a blow to the head or had met with some other form of violent death, such as a fall from a chariot while out hunting.

However, subsequent examinations, using superior technologies such as CT scans, ruled out the possibility of a violent death and proved that the bone fragment inside Tutankhamun’s skull was in fact caused during the removal of the body by Carter’s team.

So if Tutankhamun did not die a violent death, then what did kill him? There is also a very strong case that the boy pharaoh suffered from a number of maladies, and that one of these ailments may have eventually killed him. DNA tests, published in 2010, reveal that Tutankhamun had a bone disorder, probably caused by his incestuous heritage, and was also suffering from malaria.

Tutankhamun's Club Foot
Tutankhamun’s Club Foot

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the pharaoh would have been out on hunting trips, as he was a frail, weak boy with a club foot, who needed a cane to walk.

Another popular medical-related theory as to the cause of Tutankhamun’s death is that he suffered from epilepsy. It is strongly believed that both his father, Akhenaten, and his great-grandfather, Thutmose IV, both suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. 

With this form of epilepsy, seizures begin in the brain’s temporal lobe, particularly after exposure to sunlight, and it has been known to cause hallucinations and religious visions. It is thought that perhaps the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of the disease, with each pharaoh dying younger than the previous one and even that it was an epileptic seizure which was the cause of Tutankhamun’s fractured leg.

The Case For Murder

Although detailed CT scans have now all but ruled out the likelihood of a violent murder, it is still not possible to rule out the chance that Tutankhamun was murdered in a non-violent manner, such as from poisoning. When speculating on who might have been responsible for such a murder, it is perhaps best to look at those who had both the opportunity to kill him and also the most to gain. 

Two chief suspects stand out in particular, both of whom wielded tremendous power while Tutankhamun was still a boy, and who may have seen their power beginning to dwindle as the pharaoh entered adulthood. The suspects in question are Ay, the Chief Vizier, and Horemheb, the Chief of the Army.

Grand Vizier Ay

Ay the Grand Vizier was regent over Egypt while Tutankhamun was a child. He had already been an important official during Akhenaten’s reign and was instrumental in the setting up of the new monotheistic religion. Many historians believe he was also Nefertiti’s father and thus the grandfather of Tutankhamun’s wife, Ankhesenamun.

Opening of the Mouth - Tutankhamun and Grand Vizier Aj
Opening of the Mouth – Tutankhamun and Grand Vizier Aj

On the surface, Ay would have been very close to Tutankhamun, almost like a father figure, and for that reason many scholars argue that it is unlikely he would have wanted to kill him. However, the truth is that the Grand Vizier Ay had the most to lose as the boy pharaoh came of age, and ultimately it was he who had the most to gain when Tutankhamun died. After all, it was Ay who succeeded him as pharaoh.

General Horemheb

In contrast to Ay, the second main suspect, General Horemheb, certainly had no obvious affection for Tutankhamun and openly detested his father and the new religion that he had forced upon Egypt. Indeed, it was Horemheb who later tried to expunge both Akhenaten and Tutankhamun from history, when he himself later became pharaoh.

General Horemheb (Used under Creative Commons 3.0 by Captmondo).
General Horemheb (Used under Creative Commons 3.0 by Captmondo).

After Ay, Horemheb wielded the most power in Egypt while the pharaoh was still a child and was actually the pharaoh-in-waiting should anything happen to Tutankhamun. For this reason, and the fact he was very much opposed to the Aten religion and the pharaoh’s bloodline, the Chief of the Army certainly had a strong enough motive to want Tutankhamun dead.

Succession to the Throne

Despite being the legitimate heir to the throne, Horemheb was effectively usurped by Ay when the Grand Vizier took the initiative over his rival and became the 14th pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He managed to achieve this by performing the Opening of the Mouth ritual at Tutankhamun’s burial, and it is also believed that Ay also took Ankhesenamun as his bride in order to help legitimate his claim to the throne. However, Queen Ankhesenamun did not live much longer, and Pharaoh Ay ended up marrying Tey, who was originally Nefertiti’s wet-nurse.

Pharaoh Ay’s reign only lasted a few years and when he died, General Horemheb managed to seize power and become the 15th and final ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. Pharaoh Horemheb enjoyed a relatively long reign, during which time he attempted to expunge Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ay from the history books, even desecrating Ay’s tomb. Fortunately, Horemheb spared the tomb of Tutankhamun; possibly because it was the boy pharaoh himself who had chosen Horemheb, a mere commoner, to be his heir in the first place.