Tutankhamun’s reign is the perfect setting for an action-packed drama: the return to religious tradition, a brother and sister ruling as king and queen, and issues of succession in the palace. The life and times of Tutankhamun’s royal court made their way into a three-part series created for Spike TV in 2015, but not always accurately. This week, the Nile Scribes review the highly fictionalised miniseries Tut and discuss the “facts” of the boy king’s famous life.
Fact: Tutankhamun married his sister Ankhesenamun
In the series, Tutankhamun marries his only sister, Ankhesenamun, with whom he will rule Egypt until his untimely death. In reality, Tutankhamun had six sisters known to us, including Ankhesenamun, who seems to have been the third-born of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. It seems likely that the two eldest princesses – Meritaten and Mekitaten – had already died by the time Ankhesenamun became Tutankhamun’s queen. No mention of the other princesses was made in Tut, and in fact their famous mother, Queen Nefertiti, does not make an appearance.
It remains unclear if Tutankhamun was also one of Nefertiti’s children: a recent DNA study identified the mummified remains of “the Younger Lady” as his mother, but her identity is unknown. Whether Ankhesenamun was Tutankhamun’s full sister or half-sister, there was good reason for the practice: marrying close relatives kept the power, wealth, and succession within the immediate family. Egyptian kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty married multiple wives and it was not unusual for them to marry their sisters, such as the famous case of Tutankhamun’s ancestors, Thutmose II and his half-sister Hatshepsut.
Fact: Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun were unable to produce an heir
A critical problem facing the boy king and his queen in Tut is the issue of their succession: without a male heir, the Eighteenth Dynasty would have to continue with a non-royal on the throne. The historical reality of this problem can be glimpsed through the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb: two mummified fetuses in tiny coffins were found beside his belongings. The female fetuses were between five to seven months of gestation when they were miscarried, giving us a rare glimpse into moments of heartbreak in the royal family.
After Tutankhamun’s death, Ankhesenamun seems to have married the new king of Egypt, Ay, an important official and advisor who had served both her husband and her father. Despite Ay’s close connection to the palace in the later stages of his career, Ay was not a member of the royal family – marrying Ankhesenamun was the surest means of remedying this shortcoming. By this point, Ay was already an elderly figure; his reign lasted only a few short years before Horemheb seized the throne.
Fact: Tutankhamun walked with a limp
Tutankhamun is well-known on account of his early death and hasty burial. The preservation of his mummy allowed for scientific investigations into his cause of death as early as the 1920s, though a large number of theories have been put forth since then. A conclusive explanation still proves elusive, but we know at least that his leg was disabled: Tutankhamun’s legs may indicate a clubfoot on his left leg – Tutankhamun must have suffered from this condition throughout his life. In the series, the young Tutankhamun walks with a limp throughout his life, but he is also shown as an athletic, energetic young man.
In the battle against Tushratta, King of the Mitanni, the young king’s leg is injured and he returns to Egypt with a crippled leg and an infection. The series has this fact right that the leg is injured – yet, whether this led to his death is worthy of more discussion. As one factor leading to his death, Tutankhamun may have fallen, broken his leg, and suffered from an eventual infection. In the end, it must have been a number of factors which led to his death and the series’ depiction of a leg injury seems plausible.
Fact: The Mittani were Tutankhamun’s greatest enemies
The villain in Tut is Tushratta, a well-known ruler of Mittani. In the mid Eighteenth Dynasty, the Mittani were in control over an area that spanned from western Syria across the Euphrates and Tigris rivers into northern Mesopotamia. During Tutankhamun’s reign, however, their influence was much diminished and parts of their western territories were now subject to the Hittites. The Hittites soon emerged as Egypt’s main competition in the Levantine regions. Egyptians under Ramesses II would meet Muwatalli II and the Hittites at the famous Battle of Kadesh in the Nineteenth Dynasty.
The series also dramatises a major battle between Egypt and Mittani at the city of Amurru. In fact, Amurru is generally regarded as a region to the west of the Euphrates and was a coastal kingdom in close proximity to Byblos and Kadesh. In the time of Tutankhamun, the area would have been under Hittite control following the ruler of Amurru’s defection to the Hittites during the reign of Akhenaten.
Fact: Tutankhamun could not have married his Mittani girlfriend
Aside from the drama caused by Tutankhamun’s headstrong queen, Ankhesenamun, the writers of Tut also introduced a new love interest: Suhad, a Mittani-Egyptian girl who saves the king’s life during his campaign in Amurru. A point of contention in the palace is Suhad’s apparent unsuitability to become one of Tutankhamun’s queens because of her Mittani origins. On the contrary however, Egyptian kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty often married non-Egyptian princesses to form alliances with foreign powers. Tutankhamun himself probably grew up with a foreign queen in his father’s palace: Akhenaten seems to have married Tadukhepa, the daughter of Tushratta. Tutankhamun’s grandfather, Amenhotep III, also married a Mittani princess, who was King Tushratta’s sister, Gilukhipa.
Fact: Tutankhamun wanted to continue his father’s religious agenda
In the miniseries, Tutankhamun plots with Ay and Horemheb to remove Amun, the High Priest in Thebes, from his position. Threatened by the High Priest’s clear abuse of power granted to him by the gods, Tutankhamun states his intention to follow the religious reformations begun by his father Akhenaten by expunging the prominent priestly class in Thebes. In reality, Tutankhamun’s reign is known for the very opposite: the return to Egyptian religious traditions that his father had disavowed in favor of elevating a single deity, the Aten.
Following Akhenaten’s death, the boy king (then named Tutankhaten) ascended to the Egyptian throne and it was not long before his royal court abandoned his father’s Atenist religion. Within the first two years of his reign (and no doubt through the prompting of his advisors), changed his name to Tutankhamun, moved the Egyptian capital back to Memphis, and restored Egypt’s traditional polytheistic religion with Amun-Re as chief state deity. An important text known as the Restoration Stela records the negative sentiments Tutankhamun felt about the state of Egypt in his reign:
“When his Person (NS: Tutankhamun) appeared as king, the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine [as far] as the Delta marshes… [had] become mere mounds overgrown with grass. Their sanctuaries were like something that had not come into being and their buildings were a footpath – for the land was in rack and ruin. The gods were ignoring this land.” (2)
The miniseries sidesteps the complicated issue of Queen Nefertiti’s place during this regnal transition, ignoring the ephemeral figures Neferneferuaten and Smenkhare who briefly ruled before Tutankhamun was crowned king. Nefertiti herself and Tutankhamun’s other half-sisters are conspicuously absent from the show, although otherwise the royal court is accurately populated, including Nakhtmin (called only Nakht in Tut) who may have been an adopted son of Ay. Another historical person we would have loved to see in battle beside General Horemheb was Ramesses, the troop commander who would be hand-picked by Horemheb to be the next king of Egypt and the found of the Nineteenth Dynasty. An odd person who played a leading role in the series was the enigmatic Lagus, who becomes Tutankhamun’s closest advisor and personal guard. We are not sure why the writers included this character with a Greek name at a time when the formation of the Greek city-states would still be several centuries off.
Tut was clearly intended to appeal to young adult audiences as an Egyptian version of Game of Thrones, with plenty of sand, sex, and scandals. Nevertheless, for a made-for-tv miniseries, the production value of this dramatisation is surprisingly high: the costumes, jewellery, chariots, and armour, convey a richness of textures and colours we expect to find find in film productions based in ancient Egypt.
- Frank Rühli and Salima Ikram provide a thorough overview of the many different theories surrounding Tutankhamun’s health and factors leading to his death in “Purported medical diagnoses of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, c. 1325 BC” published in HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology 65 (2014), p. 51-63.
- The map was adapted from figure 7.1 (b) in M. van den Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC. (2nd ed.), Malden: Blackwell Publishing (2007).
- Excerpt from Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stela, translated by William Murnane in Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt, Atlanta: Scholars Press (1995), page 213.