Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Little Egyptians

Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Little Egyptians

Article excerpt

Tutankhamen, now the most famous of the pharaohs, was virtually unknown in his own time. After all, he came to the throne at the age of eight, and was dead before he was 19. The cause of death is unknown; it could have been an accident, such as being thrown from his horse. Some historians have pointed out that it could have been murder. The problem is that there has so far been no conclusive evidence.

The child pharaoh inherited the problems created by his eccentric father-in-law, the pharaoh Akhnaten. Anyone who has ever been to see the statue of Akhnaten in the Cairo Museum will remember the striking impression it makes: the long face, the scrawny neck, the pot belly and the oddly feminine thighs. This pharaoh is obviously not going to be a great soldier, like his forebears. And in fact he caused nationwide dismay and scandal by introducing a new religion that turned its back on the older gods in favour of the sun god Aten, whose son he claimed to be. He also moved his capital from Thebes (now Luxor) to a site over 200 miles downriver. He was universally detested, and no one was surprised when he died in the 16th year of his reign.

During his final years, he had been obliged to rule with a co-regent named Smenkare, who was a mere teenager. Smenkare died equally suddenly at about the same time as Akhnaten. Tutankhamen was Smenkare's younger brother, and when he became pharaoh, he was married off to Akhnaten's daughter Ankhesnamen, who was three years his junior. He was obviously under the thumb of his advisers, the chief of whom was called Ay, and soon the priesthood got its way: Tutankhamen moved his capital back to Thebes, and restored the old religion.

Then, suddenly, he died. The Prime Minister Ay seized the throne, and ruled until his death four years later. He seems to have married the young widow Ankhesnamen, whose name subsequently vanished from history. Now, there is plenty of room here for speculation about conspiracy and murder. Akhnaten might well have been murdered, and the same applies to his teenage co-regent. By whom? The man with an obvious motive was Ay. Then Tutankhamen came to the throne, stayed around long enough to undo Akhnaten's reforms, and then was also despatched. …

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