Tutankhamun: The Seated King
By Anand Balaji
Pharaoh Tutankhamun, by all counts the lone son of the heretic king, Akhenaten, shot to prominence in unlikely fashion. The young ruler who presided over the end days of Aten worship that his father had introduced is known throughout the world today not because of his exploits on the battlefield, such as a Thutmose III or Ramesses II achieved, but because his tomb survived largely unmolested down the millennia.
Alas, the “glint of gold” may make for fine copy, but treasures seldom shed light on an ancient person’s life; and so it was with the boy-king too. Yet, this is not entirely true, because, on studying the bullion entombed with the last Amarna scion, Egyptologists gleaned valuable nuggets about his personal life. In that vein, even though books and documentaries have all along attempted to portray Tutankhamun as a vigorous and energetic monarch who defended Egypt against her enemies during a turbulent phase in her history, the information to hand dictates otherwise.
We know a little more about the activities of two other men in court – Aye and Horemheb (and Maya to some extent) – during the twilight years of the Eighteenth Dynasty than we do about the Pharaoh. Based on a formal reading, it appears that while the ‘God’s Father’ Aye handled day-to-day administration, the generalissimo and crown prince Horemheb ensured that the wheels of the military machine were well-oiled.
This begs the question: what necessitated these twin powers to operate behind the throne of Tutankhamun? A ready-made answer could be that all the adult family members such as Queen Tiye, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Meritaten had perished by the time he was crowned king. Also, his consort and half-sister, Ankhesenamun, was but a child herself. These explanations sound way too simplistic, because child-pharaoh’s in the past had powerful courtiers (sometimes their own mothers as in the case of Pepi II and Amenhotep III) who conducted affairs of state on their behalf, but none aspired for the throne himself or herself.
It could be said that since Tutankhamun died without issue, it was natural for individuals in the coterie to stake claim to high office. Think again: Horemheb was declared crown prince almost as soon as Tutankhamun became king. Why? Was there a tacit understanding that he would become the ruler at some point—even if Tutankhamun had sons of his own? How many records do we have of crown princes stepping down in ancient Egyptian history as Horemheb did? Something bizarre was surely afoot.
There seems to have been some indication that little Tutankhamun’s reign would not last long. The answer could probably lie before our very eyes in the form of artwork depicting him on shrines and boxes discovered in KV62. The imagery of a seated pharaoh is not unique; Akhenaten is shown seated along with Nefertiti and their daughters in several instances in intimate family-scenes. However, what is stunning is a pharaoh depicted in this manner indulging in not just leisure activities within the royal palace, but while he was out hunting too. Add to this the fact that Howard Carter found 130 partial or whole walking sticks and canes, some of which showed clear signs of use. What conclusion will, say, a layperson draw when presented with such evidence?
Having studied the objects associated with Tutankhamun closely, I can state with a great degree of certainty that barring his double and war crowns, almost all other royal paraphernalia that the ancients showed present on Tutankhamun’s person were found in his sepulcher. So why would they represent their all-powerful sovereign holding a cane in multiple instances? If untrue and unreal, would Tutankhamun approved such portrayals of himself?
There are those who believe that these weren’t walking sticks but staffs and canes that were viewed as status symbols. Biblical sources inform us that Moses carried a staff or a rod, not a walking stick in the way in which we interpret it. Thanks to in depth studies using the latest techniques, that Tutankhamun suffered a debilitating physical condition that afflicted his foot is not suspect anymore. Therefore, the walking sticks discovered in his tomb, in my opinion, were not symbols of power or worse, some kind of “style statement”. We may never know if similar canes were deposited in the tombs of Ramesses II who lived to a ripe old age; and Siptah, who had a deformed left foot. A few were discovered in tombs of nobles, but largely in poor condition. I am unsure if walking sticks were discovered intact in the Tanis tomb of Psusennes I. It seems unlikely, for a photograph or two would have surfaced by now.
It is time to stop romanticizing Tutankhamun as having been a strapping youth who died on the cusp of coming into his own. Given his sickly disposition and physical infirmities, his death always seems to have been imminent. The charade to portray him as a robust individual was well-orchestrated to observe Ma’at — Order; and was in all probability aimed to infuse confidence in the unlettered masses – an overwhelming majority of whom never glimpsed their king in flesh and blood.
It is only fitting then to conclude this article with an eloquent and poignant quote about Tutankhamun by Dr Nicholas Reeves: “We see only the face of a sweet, innocent, young boy whose days were sadly numbered. Nothing more than a cipher for the deeds and aspirations of others.”