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Sculptures from Luxor prove the "Boy King" was the scourge of Egypt's foes


A painted wood box from Tut's tomb shows him vanquishing Nubians and Syrians. (Araldo De Luca)

Little was known about Tutankhamun when his tomb was discovered in 1922. He ruled sometime after the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten--who abandoned the traditional Egyptian pantheon headed by the god Amun in favor of Aten, a solar deity--and presumably died young after an insignificant reign. Since then, the "boy king" tag has colored our understanding of the young king. But new discoveries contradict that early assessment. Recent CT scanning of his mummy shows that Tut was no boy at death, but was a grown man by the standards of the time and may have been 20 years old. And his 9- to 10-year reign toward the end of the 14th century B.C. was one of the greatest periods of restoration in the history of Egypt. Under Tut, the damage caused by Akhenaten's iconoclastic fury against the state god Amun, which tore the country's social, political, and economic fabric asunder, was repaired and Amun's cult restored.

The rich array of objects found in Tutankhamun's tomb speak to the opulence of the Egyptian court and the young king's pampered life. But other items, including numerous throwsticks (sort of non-returning boomerangs), spears, bows and arrows, and chariots--many inscribed with his name and clearly used--attest his athleticism and youthful energy. Today, new evidence of Tutankhamun's reign has emerged that shows he was much more active than was thought, and may have led military campaigns against the Syrians and Nubians before he died.


Carved sandstone blocks--apparently from Tut's funerary temple--suggest the battle scenes record real events. (Courtesy W. Raymond Johnson)

For 20 years the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has worked in Luxor Temple, copying and publishing its inscribed walls.The survey has recorded hundreds of broken wall fragments from the temple that had been reused in medieval buildings. The temple walls from which they had been quarried and recycled originally depicted rites celebrated at Luxor Temple, including the great river procession of Amun and his divine family from Karnak Temple to Luxor and back during the annual festival of Opet, during which the god and king experienced rebirth.

Along with sandstone blocks from Tut's additions to Luxor Temple, identifiable by their lively carving style in light raised relief, we discovered blocks from a completely different temple of Tutankhamun, recognizable by the carving style and the presence of his name. These blocks and fragments preserved offering and barge procession scenes, rituals associated with the cult of the king, and even what appeared to be military scenes, but all smaller in scale. Further inspection revealed the surprising fact that they were all talatat, the small blocks favored by Akhenaten for quick building construction (about 20 x 9 x 10 inches). Many of them preserved relief decoration typical of Akhenaten's period, often upside down, on the backs. It was clear that Tutankhamun had not simply added scenes to an existing structure of Akhenaten but had actually taken down one of his buildings dedicated to the solar god Aten and reused the blocks! Many believe Akhenaten was Tut's own father (my own belief, however, is that they were brothers). This proves that Tutankhamun himself, and not his successors, began reversing his Akhenaten's religious changes on a large scale, even demolishing his temples.

We now know that these "Tutankhamun talatat" were quarried from Karnak Temple's second pylon or gateway (where some can still be seen), and that the small blocks and a series of larger blocks came from a temple of Tutankhamun called "The Mansion of Nebkheperure [Tut], Beloved of Amun, Founder of Waset (Thebes)," or for short, "The Mansion of Nebkheperure in Waset." The scenes suggests that this was Tutankhamun's mortuary temple, completed after his death as a memorial by Ay (Tut's immediate successor and possibly his grandfather). This temple was later dismantled by Horemheb, who was Tutankhamun's general before he later became pharaoh himself, for reuse as fill in the second gateway of Karnak Temple.


Tutankhamun, shown as a sphinx, tramples Egypt's traditional foes, a Syrian or Asiatic and a Nubian. (Araldo De Luca)

Two sets of battle-themed carvings from Tut's mortuary temple survive, one depicting a Nubian campaign, and one larger group that shows several episodes of Tutankhamun in a chariot leading the Egyptian forces against a Syrian-style citadel. Other blocks depict the king receiving prisoners, booty, and the severed hands of the enemy dead, as is traditional, though in this case the hands have been strung on spears like shish kabobs, a detail that is unique in Egyptian art. The second set shows a royal flotilla returning up the Nile, with a manacled Syrian prisoner hanging in a cage from the sailyard of the king's barge. Pieces of a concluding scene show the king offering prisoners and booty to the divine family of Amun, his wife Mut, and son Khonsu. Before now, we thought that Sety I of the 19th Dynasty invented this genre of battle narrative, but it is now clear that the tradition goes back at least to Tutankhamun and the late 18th Dynasty, and probably earlier.

The historical implications are profound. Contemporary reliefs in the private tomb of Horemheb preserve scenes showing Syrian and Nubian prisoners being brought before Tutankhamun, as well as a military camp scene. The grisly details in the Tutankhamun mortuary temple battle narrative suggest that they were observed and recorded on the battlefield during real campaigns. Egyptian art at this time stressed truthfulness. Tut's presence in these scenes indicates that the young king participated in these campaigns.

The recent reexamination of Tutankhamun's body suggests that his death was the result of an accident that injured his leg, leading to a fatal infection. An accident of this sort might have taken place while the young king was on a military campaign, but we will probably never know, because on matters such as the accidental death of a king Egyptian sources are traditionally silent.

But the battle reliefs now being reassembled from Tutankhamun's mortuary temple and from the painted casket from his tomb may commemorate the king leading Egypt's armies into battle against Syrians and Nubians. It is clear from them that the young king was considerably more active than has been assumed, and it is also possible that this cost him his life. Tutankhamun's social status and wealth couldn't save him from the mortality of all men, even those who considered themselves to be gods.

W. Raymond Johnson is director of the Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

  • For more on Tutankhamun and the exhibition, see TutWatch.