Most people recognize Tutankhamun as the boy-king of ancient Egypt. He is the most well-known pharaoh because his tomb was discovered apparently intact* and, more importantly, because it contained the magnificent gold mask that has become an icon of Egypt.
Tutankhamun was otherwise unremarkable, as was his mother Nefertiti, who is renowned only for her beauty. Of far greater interest, and importance, than both Tutankhamun and Nefertiti was the pharaoh who some believe was Tutankhamun’s father: Akhenaten, the so-called “heretical” pharaoh.
Akhenaten was an eighteenth dynasty pharaoh, who ruled over Egypt somewhere between 1353 – 1334 BCE. He is one of the most pivotal figures in world history – he invented monotheism, and his religion formed the basis of Judaeo-Christianity and Islam.
As well as being one of the most influential historical figures, Akhenaten is also one of the most enigmatic. His reign was a turbulent period in ancient Egyptian history, filled with deception, intrigue and murder. His true identity is still debated, and his remains have never been found.
But now, Egyptologists examining an unidentified mummy discovered in a tomb close to that of Tutankhamun’s have obtained forensic evidence which supports the theory that Akhenaten was indeed the boy-king’s father.
Akhenaten was an artistic, political and religious revolutionary, who was branded a heretic after upsetting the pre-existing religious establishment. In establishing the sun god Aten as the supreme and only deity, Akhenaten ordered the closure of all temples in which other deities were worshipped; in consequence, the corrupt high priesthood could not continue to amass riches from the god-fearing Egyptian populace.
The heretic was ousted and, along with his followers, expelled into the Sinai peninsula (leading some, most notably Sigmund Freud, to speculate that Moses was in fact Akhenaten). The priesthood installed a puppet leader – Tutankhamun – and, after regaining power, began to eradicate evidence of Akhenaten’s reign. They destroyed the institutions he had established and the works of art that he had commissioned, and erased his name from the official lists of kings.
The mummy in question was first discovered in 1907, in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings. It has been identified as Akhenaten by an international team of archaeologists led by Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (pictured at the top). Hawass and his colleagues used computed tomography (CT) scanning to look inside the mummy’s wrappings. The scans revealed that the mummy shares a number physical traits with Tutankhamun, and was therefore probably afflicted with the same hereditary conditions from which the boy-king is believed to have suffered.
Like Tutankhamun, the mummy was found to have an elongated skull due to a congenital condition dolichocephaly, in which abnormally early fusion of the bones of the skull during development restricts the width of the head. And, also like Tutankhamun, the mummy was found to have cleft palate, impacted wisdom teeth and slight scoliosis – or abnormal curvature – of the spine. It is therefore probable that the individual had a genetic link with Tutankhamun.
Finally, there are two lines of indirect evidence that the mummy is Akhenaten. The sarcophagus in which the mummy was found had been defaced, so that the face and cartouche bearing a name were obscured. This may have been done by the old priesthood during Akhenaten’s burial, in their efforts to erase all historical record of the heretic. And hieroglyphics surrounding the defaced cartouch also suggest that the mummy is Akhenaten.
Hawass and his team cautiously believe that the mysterious mummy is the heretical pharaoh. But they note that it could also be several other members of Tutankhamun’s family, and some Egyptologists suggest that the mummy is actually Smenkhkare, who is thought to have been either Tutankhamun’s brother or his son (and would therefore also share his genes). But the pharaohs are known to have married their sisters and their daughters, and did not keep records of parent-sibling relationships, so establishing the mummy’s true identity unequivocally will be very difficult.
*Tutankhamun’s tomb is generally believed to have been discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. In fact, Carter had discovered the tomb before the official discovery date, but kept his find a closely-guarded secret. At the time, tomb-hunting was a popular activity in Egypt, and Egyptian law stated that the vast majority of the contents found within newly-discovered tombs belonged to the government.
It recently emerged that Carter had plundered the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb before announcing his discovery. But he left the magnificant gold mask, and built a false wall, complete with hieroglyphics, at the entrance, so that he would later be witnessed by all to be entering the tomb for the first time. So Carter, who is generally acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest archaeologists, was, in fact, a tomb raider.