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King Tut
JUNE 2005
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Unraveling the Mysteries of King Tut


Official Tut Exhibition Companion Book

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King Tut

By A. R. Williams
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

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After Akhenaten's death, a mysterious ruler named Smenkhkare appeared briefly and exited with hardly a trace. And then a very young Tutankhaten took the throne—King Tut as he's widely known today. The boy king soon changed his name to Tutankhamun, "living image of Amun," and oversaw a restoration of the old ways. He reigned for about nine years—and then died unexpectedly.
 
A crisis of succession gripped the royal court. With power plays and intrigues surely seething around her, Tut's widow, Ankhesenamun, appears to have launched a coup of her own, sending desperate letters to the king of the Hittites in Anatolia. "My husband is dead," she wrote. "Send me your son and I will make him king." It was an unprecedented request, but understandable. "Her grandmother was Queen Tiye, one of the most powerful queens Egypt ever saw," Ray Johnson explained. "Her mother was Nefertiti. They ruled as living goddesses, so of course Ankhesenamun felt she had the same power. And she found out that she didn't."
A Hittite prince, Zannanza, was eventually sent south to marry her, but he was killed—by a hit squad, some speculate—as he entered Egyptian territory. An elder courtier named Aye, possibly Ankhesenamun's grandfather, then became pharaoh. Was he an honorable official who stepped into the top job in the sudden absence of an heir? Or did he callously plot Tut's death for his own advantage? Either way, he reigned for only three or four years. When he died, army commander Horemheb took control.
 
The new ruler, a man of great ambition, had risen to the throne from obscure beginnings. Did he conspire with the aged Aye to eliminate Tut and the Hittite prince, and then bide his time until Aye's death? He had the motive, the opportunity, and the power. In any event Horemheb, still sadly childless late in his reign, named as crown prince his old army buddy Ramses, who became the founder of a new dynasty.
 
Egyptologists put little stock in conspiracy theories, but tales of intrigue have captured the imagination of countless King Tut sleuths, who cite the circumstantial evidence against Aye, Horemheb, and even Tut's wife, Ankhesenamun, as well as clues from the burial. For start-ers, Tut's tomb is unusually small for a king, and its contents were crammed in. Carter noted that the nested shrines surrounding the sarcophagus "had obviously been banged together, regardless of the risk of damage." In addition, workmen had hacked at the mummy-shaped outer coffin to make it fit into the sarcophagus. These factors, and more, make a litany of haste—but do they testify to murder?
 
King Tut could easily have succumbed to an infection or illness. Letters from that era record that a plague—as yet unidentified—ravaged Egypt and its neighbors. An accident is another possibility. It's easy to imagine Tut at the reins of a chariot feeling a young man's need for speed. He hits a bump, flies through the air, and lands with a deadly crunch. Could such a fall have damaged his breastbone and ribs so badly that the embalmers had to remove them?
 
Regardless of his fame and the speculations about his fate, Tut is one mummy among many in Egypt. How many? No one knows. The Egyptian Mummy Project, which began an inventory in late 2003, has recorded almost 600 so far and is still counting. The next phase: scanning the mummies with a portable CT machine donated by the National Geographic Society and Siemens, its manufacturer. King Tut is one of the first mummies to be scanned—in death, as in life, moving regally ahead of his countrymen.
 
The night of the scan, workmen carried Tut from the tomb in his box. Like pallbearers they climbed a ramp and a flight of stairs into the swirling sand outside, then rose on a hydraulic lift into the trailer that held the scanner. Twenty minutes later two men emerged, sprinted for an office nearby, and returned with a pair of white plastic fans. The million-dollar scanner had quit because of sand in a cooler fan. "Curse of the pharaoh," joked a guard nervously.
 
Eventually the substitute fans worked well enough to finish the procedure. After checking that no data had been lost, the technicians turned Tut over to the workmen, who carried him back to his tomb. Less than three hours after he was removed from his coffin, the pharaoh again rested in peace where the funerary priests had laid him so long ago.
 
Back in the trailer a technician pulled up astonishing images of Tut on a computer screen. A gray head took shape from a scattering of pixels, and the technician spun and tilted it in every direction. Neck vertebrae appeared as clearly as in an anatomy class. Other images revealed a hand, several views of the rib cage, and a transection of the skull. Analysis by a team of radiologists would take several weeks to complete—and would reveal no conclusive evidence for murder. But for now the pressure was off. Sitting back in his chair, Zahi Hawass smiled, visibly relieved that nothing had gone seriously wrong. "I didn't sleep last night, not for a second," he said. "I was so worried. But now I think I will go and sleep."
 
By the time we left the trailer, descending metal stairs to the sandy ground, the wind had stopped. The winter air lay cold and still, like death itself, in this valley of the departed. Just above the entrance to Tut's tomb stood Orion—the constellation that the ancient Egyptians knew as the soul of Osiris, the god of the afterlife—watching over the boy king.
 
Treasures of a Golden Age
Tut's throne shows a rare intimate scene: his wife rubbing him with perfumed oil. For the first time since 1981 some of the masterpieces from his tomb are now on tour. "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," a National Geographic exhibition, opens June 16 in Los Angeles and includes his diadem, gilded statues, and an alabaster cup inscribed with hieroglyphs that read: ". . . may you, who love Thebes, spend millions of years with your face to the north wind, and may your eyes see joy."


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