He was the Egyptian boy-king who ruled for just ten years and died in his late teens. Yet thousands of years later his name is still remembered, despite the fact that he lay in his tomb, forgotten, for about 3,200 years.
King Tutankhamun was unearthed by dogged English archaeologist, Howard Carter, in Egypt’s Valley of Kings in 1922. Since then, the mummy has spent nearly a century in the public gaze and has provided excellent fodder for generations of curators, writers and filmmakers the world over.
However, King Tut—his nickname—was little-known to the outside world before Carter’s discovery. Today, he is the Egyptian pharaoh renowned above all others, perhaps mostly because of the so-called “curse”. According to legend, some of Carter’s team and other high-profile visitors to the ancient king’s resting place died an untimely death shortly after his tomb was excavated. But his discovery was also significant because of the more than 5,000 valuable artefacts— including gold coffins, a royal chariot and the pharaoh’s death mask—that were uncovered with his remains, shedding light on how exuberant royals in ancient Egypt lived.
Now, as we approach the 100th anniversary of his discovery, many experts are looking to reaffirm Tutankhamun’s true historical worth and how his legacy remains at the top of the pyramid (pun intended).
Joyce Tyldesley, Egyptologist and author of Tutankhamun’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King, says his royal reign may have been short in contemporary comprehension, but “ten years is actually quite a long time in a country where most people failed to reach 40 years of age. By the time of his death, King Tut had nominally overseen the reversal of the Amarna experiment, and the return of Egypt’s kings to the traditional pantheon.”
The Amarna experiment, enacted under the reign of King Akhenaten—said to be Tutankhamun’s father—saw the pharaoh honour the Aten, the sun deity, as the only god, and re-locate the court to a new city, now known as Amarna. These reforms were widely controversial at the time and were reversed by Tut after Akhenaten’s death.
In fact, he even changed his name, which was Tutankhaten (“living image of Aten”), to Tutankhamun (“living image of Amun”), to reflect the restoration of the god, Amun, known as king of gods. “While it is obvious that this change must have been driven by his courtiers—Tutankhamun was just eight years old when he came to the throne—his reign was, in many ways, an important one,” Tyldesley adds.
To Egyptologist Chris Naunton, author of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, Tutankhamun was “the last ruler of a pivotal period in Egyptian history”. When the boy-king died—it’s not entirely clear how that happened, but recent tests on his remains revealed an infected broken leg, plus several malaria parasites—“Egypt had been fundamentally altered for good,” says Naunton.
“The [artefacts] in Tut’s tomb are perhaps the best source of information and are still revealing new information about the period; most importantly that, in between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, there was a female pharaoh called Ankhkheperure who was probably in fact Akhenaten’s wife, the famous Nefertiti.”
So, what was known about Tutankhamun, who while alive was riddled with infirmities, prior to his breath-taking discovery amid thousands of priceless treasures? Not much: he was a mystery in Egyptology for years. But this all changed after Carter’s dramatic find, which, according to Tyldesley, put paid to previous speculation that Tut was “an elderly member of the elite” who had seized power.
She says Tutankhamun’s decade-long reign marked him out as “the most powerful man in the ancient Mediterranean world”. This achievement, she maintains, will forever cement his place in both regional and global history.
“He deserves to be remembered. The problem is, we remember him for the wrong things. We see him as the weak and sickly ‘boy King Tut’. He, however, presented himself as a traditional strong pharaoh, the continuation of all the strong pharaohs who had preceded him.” And that’s where his legacy lies.
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