Do you want to discover the history of Tutankhamun, the son of Akhenaten born under the name "Tutankhaten"? Know what contained Tutankhamun's treasure?
We have prepared for you an article on the origins and reign of the most famous Egyptian pharaoh: Tutankhamun.
Son of the "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten, Tutankhamun is the pharaoh who re-established the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt. Tutankhamun has intrigued the modern world by the immense treasure in his tomb and the "curse of the pharaohs" that resulted from the discovery of the tomb.
In this article, you will discover:
- The story of Tutankhamun in the religious war between the cult of Aten and that of Amun-Ra
- The causes of the death of Tutankhamun at the age of 19 years
- Howard Carter's account of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb
- The different pieces of Tutankhamun's treasure
After reading this article, the most famous pharaoh of Egypt will have less secrets for you!
Let's start without further ado!
Tutankhamun is a pharaoh with an important role in the history of ancient Egypt. It was he who re-established the worship of the ancient Egyptian animal-headed gods after they were replaced by the "absolute god" Aten, the personification of the Sun.
A) A pharaoh associated with the god Aten
I) The story of Tutankhamun's father: the pharaoh Akhenaten
To understand the history of Tutankhamun, one must go back to the religious revolution caused by his father, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten.
At the time of Amenhotep IV, the Egyptian religion was a polytheistic religion with multiple gods, each with different functions and attributes. However, also during this period, one god gradually gained prominence: the falcon-headed god Amun-Ra. Progressively, in Egyptian legends, the other Egyptian gods were seen as servants of Amun-Ra, helping him rule the Universe.
Because Amun-Ra is the god of "everything" he is also the merciful god of the poor. As a result, Amun-Ra will be very liked by the Egyptian people, and his priests will become very influential and accumulate much wealth.
In 1355 BC, Amenhotep IV came to power at the death of his father, Amenhotep III. From the beginning of his reign, Amenhotep IV had visions of the god Aten, the god-personification of the Sun. Through his visions, Amenhotep IV understands that he is destined to establish the worship of the only true god entitled to be worshipped: an Aten who replaces not only Amun-Ra but all the other gods of Egypt.
Thus, Amenhotep IV becomes Akhenaten (meaning "the envoy of Aten") and begins great works in honor of Aten throughout Egypt.
The solar disk god Aten recognizable by its multiple arms representing the Sun's rays necessary for life on Earth.
II) The cult of Aten
Akhenaten's major religious reform can be summarized in 3 main points:
- Akhenaten attributes all the functions of the ancient Egyptian gods to Aten. Initially, the other gods are tolerated as "servants or avatars of Aten". However, they were soon banned, and their worship was punished. It is thus finished with the worship of Anubis, Osiris, Horus and even that of Set. Akhenaten goes very far: to erase the existence of the ancient gods, he goes to the point of having the name of his father (Amenhotep III) hammered on his tomb (because "Amen-hotep" refers to the name of the god "Amun-Ra").
- Akhenaten dissolves the clergy of Amun-Ra. Since the priests of Amun-Ra had accumulated great wealth in the decades before this dissolution, Akhenaten got his hands on a colossal fortune.
- Akhenaten builds the city of Amarna to the glory of Aten. This new capital of the Egyptian kingdom built in only 3 years will require all the resources of Egypt. Designed to host long processions in honor of Aten, Amarna was a long complex with multiple temples and palaces and was intended to be the new eternal capital of Egypt.
B) Tutankhamun's restoration of the ancient order
In 1336 BC, after 18 years of reign, Akhenaten died following a large epidemic that decimated ancient Egypt. Tutankhaten (the first name of Tutankhamun) thus succeeded his father.
From an economic point of view, at the end of Akhenaten's reign, the country is not in a good state. Concentrating on domestic work and religious reforms, Akhenaten neglected the protection of neighbouring countries under Egyptian protectorate. Thus, when Tutankhaten came to the throne of Egypt, the kingdom was no longer as prosperous as it had been at the beginning of his father's reign.
From a religious point of view, Aten was very poorly accepted by the people. Indeed, in spite of the ban to venerate other gods than Aten, the cult of Amun-Ra continued to gather its faithful in the shadows. Worse for the future of the exclusive cult of Aten, other Egyptian gods were never really forgotten by most Egyptian households.
Thus, to win the love of the people at the beginning of his reign, Tutankhaten returned to the ancient polytheistic Egyptian religion. He symbolically abandons Aten by changing his name from "Tut-ankh-Aten" (meaning "living image of Aten") to "Tut-ankh-Amun" (meaning "living image of Amun").
Tutankhamun undoes Akhenaten's achievements. The capital of the kingdom becomes Thebes again and the clergy of Amun-Ra becomes powerful again. The alliances with Egypt's neighbors are gradually rebuilt.
Representations of Tutankhamun found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
C) The death of Tutankhamun
If the life of Tutankhamun is not as illustrious as that of his father, the untimely death at the age of 19 of Tutankhamun has been much talked about since the discovery of the mummy of the pharaoh in 1922.
Undoubtedly, the signs of unnatural bone fractures on the young pharaoh's skeleton could suggest a violent death or even a murder.
The most plausible hypothesis until then was that Tutankhamun was killed by his minister and successor Ay with the aim of taking power. However, the hypothesis of an assassination organized by Ay was eliminated in 2005 after a scan of the pharaoh's mummy. Evidently, the fractures in Tutankhamun's skeleton were caused by the discovery of his body in 1922 by the team of Egyptologist Howard Carter.
Thus, the consensus among historians is that death was caused by the numerous genetic defects of Tutankhamun that led to his progressive weakening. These genetic defects are thought to be due to too many inbreeding marriages of Tutankhamun's ancestors in order to preserve the purity of the royal line that was supposed to descend from the gods.
D) Ancient Egypt after Tutankhamun
When Tutankhamun died in 1327 BC, Tutankhamun had no sons, so it was first his advisers and cousins Ay and then Horemheb who took turns to take control of Egypt. Horemheb also had no male offspring, so he determined that Ramesses (his best vizier) would succeed him.
Thus, upon Horemheb's death, the vizier Ramesses became Ramesses I and founded Dynasty 19. Unlike Ramesses I, his successors Seti I and Ramesses II were highly critical of recent Egypt's past and erased from common memory the existence of Akhenaten, who was considered a "heretic pharaoh" for his belief in the single god Aten.
Indeed, in order to strengthen their power, Seti I and Ramesses II will have the city of Amarna completely dismantled and will erase the existence of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten from all historical records. By extension, to hide the existence of Akhenaten from the world, the existence of his son Tutankhamun will also be denied everywhere.
Two columns and some ruins: here is all that we find today of the great city of Amarna after the visit of the site by Seti I and Ramesses II (and by their respective armies!).
2) Tutankhamun's tomb
You now know the story of Tutankhamun's life and the political games that led to the oblivion of his name and that of his father.
Yet, if Tutankhamun is so famous today, it is mainly because of the spectacular discovery of his tomb in 1922.
A) Howard Carter expedition
In 1917, after working at numerous excavation sites in Egypt, Howard Carter was approached by the wealthy British Lord Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon sought out the tomb of Tutankhamun, which he said was in the Valley of the Kings.
Lord Carnarvon wanted to ensure that the tomb of Akhenaten's son was found, so he enlisted the services of Howard Carter, renowned for his great knowledge of ancient Egypt.
Howard Carter and a member of his team observing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun during the discovery of his tomb.
For five years, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter worked hard to find clues to the exact location of Tutankhamun's tomb. However, at this stage of the excavations, they only succeeded in uncovering funerary urns bearing the seal of Tutankhamun.
When Lord Carnarvon returned to England on family business, Howard Carter realized that he did not have much time left.
He will therefore decide to carry out the excavations with more audacity: Howard Carter chooses to block the entrance of the Valley of the Kings to carry out special excavations. As a result, he was threatened with immediate expulsion from the Valley of the Kings by the Egyptian government (the entrance to the valley being very popular with tourists).
Yet, his gamble was successful. Howard Carter discovered that he was on the right track when he excavated pieces of wooden huts of tomb builders. As a result, he understands that the area was never excavated by modern Egyptologists.
Thus, while he and Lord Carnarvon had found only burial vessels of Tutankhamun in five years of searching, after a few days of excavation Howard Carter finds the first steps to Tutankhamun's tomb.
After a few more days, the tomb of Tutankhamun was completely cleared. The news of this discovery resounded throughout the world. On November 4, 1922, Howard Carter and his party entered the tomb accompanied by many journalists.
Together, they discovered one of the very few tombs that had never been looted in antiquity (which explains the vast amount of precious artifacts still in the tomb of the young pharaoh in 1922).
B) The treasure of Tutankhamun
About 2000 antique objects are found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (pharaonic thrones, burial beds, ceremonial weapons, fabrics, jewelry, wine jars, toys, clothing, sculptures and food remains).
All of these items are considered to be of immense historical value because the tomb of Tutankhamun has not been opened since 1327 BC. Subsequently, when it was opened in 1922, all the antique objects in the royal treasury were found in a state almost similar to the state in which they were made.
The burial chamber of Tutankhamun of the Valley of the Kings (moved to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo after its discovery).
This treasure may seem astonishing: indeed, the vast majority of Egyptian tombs were looted soon after their creation (including those in the Pyramids of Giza).
In fact, if the treasure of Tutankhamun was so well preserved, it is because Tutankhamun was not buried in a real pharaoh's tomb.
Historians now agree that a tomb exchange took place with Ay, when the latter Tutankhamun's minister became his successor (becoming in his turn pharaoh). Indeed, already very old when he acceded to the throne, Ay would have been afraid that he would not have time to have a tomb worthy of a pharaoh built for him. Then, he would have decided to give his smaller tomb of "notable Egyptian" to Tutankhamun and to keep his large pharaoh's tomb already built.
Even more surprising, it is estimated that 80% of the treasure found in Tutankhamun's burial chamber was not intended for him. For example, one of the three sarcophagi containing the mummy of Tutankhamun was intended for ... an Egyptian queen.
This can be explained by the fact that Ay simply "stole" treasures from other tombs of the family of Tutankhamun and Akhenaten and placed them in Tutankhamun's tomb (although this can be seen as an important sacrilege, for this act is nothing less than a desecration of tombs!)
C) Tutankhamun's treasure items
Whether these treasures were intended from the outset for the tomb of Tutankhamun or were stolen by Ay from the surrounding tombs, one thing is certain: these treasures are exceptional.
Here are the most important of the treasures found in the chamber of the ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt from 1335 to 1327 BC.
I) Protective sarcophagi
Recolored image of Howard Carter discovering the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.
Egyptian sarcophagi were intended to protect the bodies of the deceased who could afford one (a very small proportion of Egyptian citizens, the majority of Egyptians being poor farmers).
In the case of Tutankhamun, his wealth as a pharaoh entitled him to special treatment. The mummy of Tutankhamun is protected by three nested sarcophagi.
The first two sarcophagi are made of wood and are decorated with gold and precious stones. The last sarcophagus is made of solid gold and represents the young pharaoh with his scepter of command and his royal scourge. Today, it is considered the most prestigious discovery in Egyptian archaeology.
II) Funeral mask
Inside the last gold sarcophagus, the face of Tutankhamun's mummy was decorated with a funerary mask depicting him himself again. On this mask, he is shown wearing the ceremonial headdress of the pharaoh, the Nemes, the Egyptian crown in the shape of a lion's mane.
On the forehead of this gold and lapis lazuli funerary mask are representations of Nekhbet and Wadjet, respectively vulture goddess of Upper Egypt and cobra goddess of Lower Egypt (showing that Tutankhamun is king of all Egypt's lands).
Finally, one can also see on this mask the "false beard" that proves the pharaoh's divine character. This beard remains straight and does not fall off when the wearer lies down or raises his head (unlike a normal goatee that is subject to the earth's gravity!).
III) Statue of Anubis
Anubis is the jackal-headed god of the dead. This statue of Anubis is intended to honor the god of the dead so that he will be more favorable to Tutankhamun when the jackal god weighs his soul to determine whether it is sinful.
Thus, this statue is supposed to enable Tutankhamun to ensure that he will be able to reach the heavenly paradise of the resurrection god Osiris.
IV) Throne of Tutankhamun
This royal chair (made of solid gold) represents Tutankhamun and his sister and wife, Ankhesenamun.
As it can be seen on this chair, during the reign of Tutankhamun, the existence of the god Aten (the Sun at the top of the picture above) is not suppressed to counterbalance the overemphasis that this god had taken on under Akhenaten. Aten simply becomes again a god among the others.
V) Tutankhamun's chest
This majestic decorative chest depicts Tutankhamun in various battle scenes. Tutankhamun is shown in most of these scenes as leading his troops (on his chariot and with a bow) against invaders from Egypt.
Nevertheless, although these frescoes are lavishly executed, the account of a Tutankhamun fighting with his troops is almost certainly inaccurate, since the young pharaoh is greatly handicapped by the genetic defects inherited from the consanguinity of his ancestors.
For example, it is known that Tutankhamun could not move without the help of a cane. Thus, it is very unlikely that he would be able to ride on a chariot to fight in the front line in a battle against Egypt's most dangerous opponents!
VI) Canopic jars chest
A canopic jars chest is used to collect the vases containing the organs of a deceased person. These "jars" have the function of protecting the organs of the pharaoh in the Afterlife (the organs of the dead being previously extracted and replaced by sand during the mummification ritual).
One can observe that the organs of Tutankhamun are symbolically very protected. Indeed, twenty-eight cobras uræus and a goddess Nephthys (the protective goddess of the dead) are depicted on each side of this chest.
VII) Pectoral of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun's pectoral is intended to grant him the favor of the Sun god Amun-Ra. Thus, this pectoral represents a winged beetle, the sacred animal of Amun-Ra.
Winged beetles are indeed the sacred animals of Amun-Ra for their ability to create balls of earth and waste that serve as their food supply. The ancient Egyptians believed that the beetles created these balls in honor of Amun-Ra. For ancient Egyptians, these balls echoed the Sun's path through the sky (worn on the head of the god Amun-Ra as he sailed through the heavens in his heavenly bark).
D) The curse of the pharaohs
While Howard Carter became a star Egyptologist in 1922 and lived to be 64 years old, the other members of the expedition financed by Lord Carnarvon did not have such an envious fate.
Indeed, Lord Carnarvon died on April 5, 1923, less than a year after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.
After Lord Carnarvon death, it is rumored that Susie (his dog) died at the same time, screaming atrociously. It is also rumored that all the lamps in Highclere Castle (Lord Carnarvon's castle) and all the lamps in the city of Cairo were extinguished at that very moment (though with no apparent explanation)!
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, A.K.A. Lord Carnarvon, (left) and Howard Carter (right).
Twenty-six other people closely or remotely connected with Tutankhamun's expedition also died prematurely. Rumor has it that this "curse of the pharaoh" was due to the air in Tutankhamun's chamber being suddenly released after 3,000 years when the tomb was opened.
The latter theory, however, is implausible if we believe that Howard Carter himself and several hundred workers were present and not all died prematurely. This theory is further invalidated by the fact that Lord Carnarvon was still in England when the tomb was opened.
The most likely explanation for the "curse of the pharaohs" is that all these people died of diseases that were still ignored in the 20th century. Thus, due to a science of the time that still had some progress to make, the deaths of Lord Carnarvon and the other members of his expedition were at the time passed as "deaths without apparent cause".
3) The exhibition "Tutankhamun, the Treasure of the Pharaoh"
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, built in 1902, has become too small to house all the ancient artifacts found in Egypt since then. A new, larger museum is therefore being built next to the pyramids of Giza. Most of the antique pieces from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo will be moved to this new museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is expected to be completed in 2024.
As part of this collection transfer, a portion of Tutankhamun's treasure (stored since 1922 in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) will temporarily leave Egypt. These pieces will be displayed in temporary exhibitions in several major cities around the world.
After Los Angeles (2018-2019), Paris (2019) and London (2019-2020), the exhibition "Tutankhamun, the Treasure of the Pharaoh" will visit Washington, Sydney, Seoul, Chicago, Tokyo and Osaka.
In France, this exhibition was held at the "Grande Halle de la Villette" (Paris) from March 22 to September 22, 2019. Presenting 150 objects from the tomb of the young pharaoh (including 60 exiting Egypt for the first time), this exhibition became the most visited exhibition in France (with 1,423,170 visitors).
Although the funerary mask of Tutankhamun is not shown in the exhibition "Tutankhamun, the Treasure of the Pharaoh" the exhibition still features the solid gold and lapis lazuli sarcophagus of the pharaoh.
An Egyptian pharaoh
With this article finished, you now know all of Tutankhamun's secrets!
You understand that the popularity of Tutankhamun is due to factors which are external to him (the reforms of Akhenaten, the exchange of tombs with his minister Ay, the "curse of the pharaoh").
When you arrive here, you might want to delve deeper into the heart of the memories of the Egypt of the pharaohs. To this end, you should know that we possess a vast collection of jewelry inspired by ancient Egypt.
For example, you can click on the image below to discover our Egyptian rings.