Monday, April 4, 2016

Daughter of Disaster: Unsung Ankhesenamun | Ancient Origins

Daughter of Disaster: Unsung Ankhesenamun

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We have all watched numerous documentaries on the lives of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun. These prominent players from the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt have also been the subject of countless publications over the years. All this has served to keep the mystique of the Amarna royal family alive in public consciousness.

However, another key figure from this period is either ignored or given little prominence in most narratives. Even if this lady finds a mention in mainstream literature or docu-dramas, it is usually a “blink and you’ll miss her” appearance. Further, she is generally revealed to us in fictional and kitschy Hollywoodized portrayals in myriad ways―a terrified and hapless youngster; a power-hungry murderess; or a loathsome vixen who will stop at nothing to achieve her devious ends.

Very few characterizations concentrate solely on the real person. But then, with irrefutable facts hard to come by, the imagination tends to run wild; so any soap opera can be built around an ancient individual such as she was. In my opinion, this once-powerful queen of Egypt has suffered vastly at our hands, and deserves a far better study of her personage.


Ankhesenamun managed to prevent a dynasty from imploding on itself, by offering herself in marriage to a succession of pharaohs over nearly a decade-and-a-half.

Born Ankhesenpaaten in regnal Year Five or Six of her enigmatic father, pharaoh Akhenaten, this girl would shape the fortunes of her family, and ensure that they consolidated their hold on the throne against tremendous odds. She was the third of six daughters of the heretic ruler and his enchanting wife, Nefertiti; and was probably born in the new capital Akhetaten―‘Horizon of the Aten’ (modern el-Amarna).

Ankhesenpaaten was raised in an opulent, but heavily-guarded environment; for in his overweening idealism, her father had dared to annul centuries-old religious beliefs by discarding the pantheon of deities, including the majestic state god Amun, and proclaiming that there was but one god, Aten―the radiant solar disc.

Small statue of Akhenaten wearing the Egyptian Blue Crown of War. (Jon Bodsworth)

One of Ankhesenpaaten’s titles that can be found on some Amarna monuments reads: King’s Daughter of his body, his beloved Ankhes-en-pa-aten, born of the great royal wife, his beloved, Lady of the Two Lands (Neferneferuaten).

The idyllic, paradisiacal life that the art of that age depicts seems to have been a conscious effort to announce the glories of the grand monotheistic experiment at Amarna. In reality, however, it was but an astute facade for the terrible inner tumult. Matters were soon to plummet inexorably.

Temple of the Aten, Akhetaten, (Amarna). (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Not long after the dazzling Durbar in Year Twelve of Akhenaten’s reign, a tragedy of immense proportions struck Akhetaten. Scenes in the communal royal tomb in the desert cliffs of Amarna show evidence of several burials having taken place. Archaeologists attribute it to a plague that swept the city, consuming scores of citizens in its wake. The Queen-Mother Tiye also apparently passed away at about this time, but not in Amarna. Within a few years, one after another all of Ankhesenpaaten’s sisters died.

While these events must have caused Akhenaten great sorrow; sadder still he must have been over his inability to produce a male heir to inherit the throne. Somewhere along the line, Ankhesenpaaten is conjectured to have married her own father in the hopes of ensuring the continuance of the royal bloodline. But this union failed to produce the desired result.

Queen Tiye, whose husband, Amenhotep III, may have been depicted to her right in this broken statue (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

It was a minor wife Kiya who ultimately bore Akhenaten a son, Tutankhaten; before disappearing from the records in regnal Year Twelve. This boy would return his people to the old gods in a few short years upon assuming the throne of Egypt.

Tutankhaten, or as he later became famously known, Tutankhamun. Death mask. (CC BY 2.0)

Meanwhile, little Ankhesenpaaten’s ordeals were far from over, in fact, they were just beginning. In the seventeenth year of his reign the monarch was no more, creating a power vacuum which the young Tutankhaten could not fill immediately because his legitimate ascent was blocked by extremely powerful individuals within his family―most notably his step-mother Nefertiti, according to some scholars.

Iconic bust of Nefertiti. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is where matters become even more hazy for modern Egyptologists. We do not know for certain if Nefertiti ruled as sole pharaoh by changing her name (after all, she is depicted wearing regalia of high office and performing pharaonic duties, even while her husband was alive); or if the ephemeral Smenkhkare, purportedly Akhenaten’s male coregent who preceded Neferneferuaten, assumed office. What’s more, some historians speculate that Smenkhkare was actually Nefertiti in a new guise.

If indeed it was Nefertiti who took over the reins of power at this juncture, she would have married Ankhesenpaaten symbolically; and if Smenkhkare was a separate individual, the wedding would have been all the more necessary. So, by these accounts we can deduce that the girl child was thrust into a second marriage.

But this shadowy figure did not last very long, and after no more than a couple of years Egypt was once more in the dark. Something had to be done to salvage the situation quickly. Enter Ankhesenpaaten, the last surviving daughter of Akhenaten; once again the only beacon of hope for her family.

The bust of an Amarna Princess. (Public Domain)

As a child of twelve, she was married to her half-brother Tutankhaten, a nine-year-old who was subsequently coronated. Marriage number three.


This was a time when the empire was in utter disarray. The religious revolution of Akhenaten had failed deplorably. There might have been murmurings of dissent among the confused masses at Akhetaten. There are faint indications that the disgruntled populace had had enough of this obscure new god, whom they could not worship directly anyway. Therefore, in Year Two of his reign, Tutankhaten’s regents who controlled the country on behalf of the young king decided that the experiment in Atenism had run its course. In order to quell a possible revolt from rearing its ugly head, the royal court deserted the Sun City. Subsequently, Malqata palace in Waset (Thebes) that was abandoned by Akhenaten may have been re-inhabited by Tutankhaten, when the traditional religion and administrative capital were restored.

The next path-breaking change arrived when the royal couple altered their names to Tutankh-amun and Ankhesen-amun, signaling a return to familiar gods. Inscriptions of the boy king from this era record his deep anguish at being bequeathed a country in economic and spiritual ruin, by his father. The systematic obliteration of Akhenaten’s memory had begun, albeit gradually.

Detail; Gold plate depicting Pharaoh Tutankhamun and consort, Ankhesenamun.  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These tectonic shifts and proclamations were surely not the doing of either Tutankhamun or Ankhesenamun, but that of Grand Vizier Aye believed to be the latter’s grandfather (son of Yuya and Thuya, and therefore a brother of Queen Tiye; father of Nefertiti). This wily and exceedingly powerful man had served under Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Smenkhare/Neferneferuaten (possibly), and now Tutankhamun too. One of Aye’s many titles under Akhenaten was “it-netjer” which means the "Father of God”.

Portrait study thought to be of Aye from the studio of the sculptor Thutmose. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Equally competent was Horemheb, the loyal military general who had served as the Commander-in-chief of the army of Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, and now, that of Tutankhamun. The child pharaoh officially designated him the “iry-pat” ("Hereditary or Crown Prince") and “idnw” ("Deputy of the King" in the entire land).

However, I highly doubt this because for one so young, Tutankhamun clearly could not have been able to understand the full import of these titles, let alone grant them willfully. It could well be that Horemheb arrogated these appellations unto himself, with the active support of his coterie. This surely would not have sat well with Aye, and proof of this can be found in the fact that he named his son, Nakhtmin, a Generalissimo during the reign of Tutankhamun as his heir (or “iry-pat”) when he became pharaoh later. Doubtless, Horemheb must have been enraged.

In a desire to perpetuate the bloodline, Ankhesenamun conceived two children (both girls) with Tutankhamun. Sadly, the mummified fetuses reveal that they were stillborn.


Aye had tasted power at the highest echelons for a great many years. His proximity to the royal family meant that his word was writ, in many ways; more so when Tutankhamun was pharaoh. But, even if he nursed a secret desire to lay claim to the throne, he could never have gotten very far as he was not of royal lineage. But the political climate had changed dramatically post the Amarna fiasco; and the aging Aye must have felt the throne of Egypt was now within hand’s reach. But there was one big hindrance to the fruition of his desires―Tutankhamun.

Perhaps, a youthful Tutankhamun had begun to display signs of being a chip off the old block, with steely determination just as menacing as that of Akhenaten. Maybe he was maturing as an individual and had begun to provide signs of the capacity for independent thought―there is no certainty. After ruling for ten years, the teenage pharaoh met his end. Whether the boy king died of natural causes, or was packed off to the Netherworld courtesy a convenient “accident”, we may never know. But the days of Aye playing second fiddle finally ceased.

Aye performing the opening of the mouth ceremony for Tutankhamun, scene from Tutankhamun's tomb. (Public Domain)

While still recovering from the shock of losing her childhood companion and husband prematurely, Ankhesenamun was apparently being pressured to marry Aye. One school of thought postulates that while preparations for Tutankhamun’s burial were underway, his frightened widow made a desperate plea to the rival Hittite kingdom, begging its ruler Suppiluliuma I to send one of his sons for her to marry.

In this extraordinary letter allegedly written by Ankhesenamun, she claims to be afraid and declares that she will never marry “one of my subjects” (translated at times as “servants”). This distressing episode ended on the borders of Egypt with the death of Zannanza, the Hittite prince who was dispatched to wed the unfortunate queen.

Detail; Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun as a sign of love (Public Domain)

Assuming that this is the way in which matters panned out, Ankhesenamun, who was around 22-years-old, yielded to marriage number four that cleared the route for Aye, the 70-year-old, to become the penultimate pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty.

In the spring of 1931, Professor Percy Newberry stumbled upon a finger-ring in an antique shop in Cairo, which was long thought to be apocryphal. It had cartouches of Aye and Ankhesenamun inscribed side by side―proof of wedlock. Having served her purpose, Ankhensenamun seems to have been done away with, for there exists no mention of her beyond the Cairo ring. It is Tey, the Great Royal Wife of Aye whose name and images are depicted on the walls of his tomb, not Ankhensenamun.

As none of this tragic queen’s funerary objects have turned up over the years, Egyptologists believe that her burial place awaits discovery. In my opinion, the young Ankhensenamun was the true heroine of the Amarna family. Therefore, to draw uncharitable conclusions such as, “she seems to have been the marrying type” is a gross injustice to her splendid, poignant, and enduring memory.

Featured image: A relief in the Armana style, possibly Ankhesenamun (Public Domain)

By Anand Balaji