To me the story of Tutankhamun is like a play whose ending is still being written. The first act of the drama begins in about 1390 B.C., several decades before Tutankhamun's birth, when the great pharaoh Amenhotep III assumes the throne of Egypt. Controlling an empire stretching 1,200 miles from the Euphrates in the north to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the south, this king of the 18th dynasty is rich beyond imagining. Along with his powerful queen Tiye, Amenhotep III rules for 37 years, worshipping the gods of his ancestors, above all Amun, while his people prosper and vast wealth flows into the royal coffers from Egypt's foreign holdings.
If Act I is about tradition and stability, Act II is revolt. When Amenhotep III dies, he is succeeded by his second son, Amenhotep IV—a bizarre visionary who turns away from Amun and the other gods of the state pantheon and worships instead a single deity known as the Aten, the disk of the sun. In the fifth year of his reign, he changes his name to Akhenaten—"he who is beneficial to the Aten." He elevates himself to the status of a living god and abandons the traditional religious capital at Thebes, building a great ceremonial city 180 miles to the north, at a place now called Amarna. Here he lives with his great wife, the beautiful Nefertiti, and together they serve as the high priests of the Aten, assisted in their duties by their six cherished daughters. All power and wealth is stripped from the Amun priesthood, and the Aten reigns supreme. The art of this period is also infused with a revolutionary new naturalism; the pharaoh has himself depicted not with an idealized face and youthful, muscular body as were pharaohs before him, but as strangely effeminate, with a potbelly and a thick-lipped, elongated face.
The end of Akhenaten's reign is cloaked in confusion—a scene acted out behind closed curtains. One or possibly two kings rule for short periods of time, either alongside Akhenaten, after his death, or both. Like many other Egyptologists, I believe the first of these "kings" is actually Nefertiti. The second is a mysterious figure called Smenkhkare, about whom we know almost nothing.
What we know for sure is that when the curtain opens on Act III, the throne is occupied by a young boy: the nine-year-old Tutankhaten ("the living image of the Aten"). Within the first two years of his tenure on the throne, he and his wife, Ankhesenpaaten (a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti), abandon Amarna and return to Thebes, reopening the temples and restoring their wealth and glory. They change their names to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun, proclaiming their rejection of Akhenaten's heresy and their renewed dedication to the cult of Amun.