Erasing Tutankhamen: Horemheb’s Attempt to Rewrite History

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

Horemheb was the last pharaoh of the XVIII Dynasty of Egypt. He brought in a lot of changes to Egypt. But his most interesting act as the pharaoh was the attempt to remove all traces of the three kings who had preceded him. But why and how did he do this?

Wall detail at the Luxor temple, showing Horemheb offering incense.
In an attempt to rewrite history, Horemheb usurped monuments made by previous pharaohs and inscribed his own name on them. (Image: JMSH photography/Shutterstock)

The Ninth and Tenth Pylons

Like every pharaoh, Horemheb wanted to show that he is a great builder. Like other pharaohs before him, he built a great  pylon, a gateway, for himself at Karnak. He actually built two pylons, called the ninth and tenth pylons. How did he build this pylons?

Akhenaten built temples at Karnak for Aten. After Akhenaten passed away, these temples reminded people of the bad times, of how the pharaoh had tried to enforce monotheism. In an effort to erase the memory of Akhenaten’s heresy, Horemheb took down Akhenaten’s temple, and filled his ninth pylon with the blocks of this temple.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Erasing Tutankhamen’s Name

Horemheb also usurped all of Tutankhamen’s monuments. Every monument that Tutankhamen had been advised to erect, Horemheb had the young pharaoh’s name erased and his own inserted in its place. That is why it is so hard to find any information about Tutankhamen.

So, Horemheb was trying to systematically erase all trace of Tutankhamen, who was also seen as being associated with the heresy of his father, Akhenaten. There are so many monuments that were originally erected by Tutankhamen, from which the name of the young pharaoh has been obliterated.

The Restoration Stela

Tutankhamen erected a stela, like all Egyptian kings had done in the past. It is called the ‘Restoration Stela’, because of what it says. As the name suggests, the inscription on the stela talks about restoring old traditions. “When I became king, the temples were in disarray. There were weeds growing in them. All the statues of the gods had been melted down. The military was not respected. If it rode off, nobody attended.”

The photo shows the dream stela of Tuthmosis IV.
All pharaohs used to erect stelas to talk about what they thought and did. (Image: Claudio Caridi/ Shutterstock)

Tutankhamen is really saying in this inscription that Egypt had gone downhill under Akhenaten’s reign. In the end, he says, “I will restore it all. I have had new statues of the gods made. The temples are open again.” Despite the fact that Akhenaten was his father, Tutankhamen had to make this announcement because this is what the people wanted to hear.

But Horemheb, as soon as he became the king, had put his name on the stela. One will not find Tutankhamen’s name on it. If one looks at the cartouche on the stela, it will say “Horemheb”.

Learn more about what mummies tell us.

The Luxor Colonnade

There is another monument that was very important for Tutankhamen, but one cannot find Tutankhamen’s name there. It’s called the Luxor Colonnade. When Tutankhamen’s grandfather Amenhotep III died, he left a monument unfinished. He had started a hall with tall columns, which is why it is called a colonnade. He had built it at Luxor Temple.

When Akhenaten moved to Akhetaten, he left behind his father’s undecorated and unfinished monument. When Tutankhamen moved back from Akhetaten to Thebes, Aye probably advised him to finish this monument. Why? Tutankhamen would have wanted to be associated with his grandfather—whom everybody loved—rather than his heretic father. So, Tutankhamen’s major project during the 10 years of his reign was restoring and completing the Luxor colonnade.

The Opet Festival

Tutankhamen had the artists put scenes from the ‘Opet Festival’ on the Luxor colonnade. Opet festival was the most sacred festival in Egypt. He did this to show to the people of Egypt that he was a traditionalist. It can be read as his declaration of not associating himself with his father, but with his grandfather.

The three major gods of Thebes during this time were Amun, ‘the Hidden One’, Mut, his wife, and Khonsu, their ram-headed son. These gods had statues at Karnak Temple. Karnak Temple is only about a mile and a half away from Luxor Temple. And once a year, during the festival of Opet, the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, would be placed in a little boat shrine and taken from Karnak to Luxor, where they would spend a fortnight or so.

The photo shows the carvings in the  Luxor Temple, Egypt.
The work on the colonnade at the Luxor temple was begun by Amenhotep III and completed by Tutankhamen. (Image: Dmitri Kalvan/ Shutterstock)

During the festival, people saw the statues of the gods and arrangements were made for food and drink as well. And the king paid for it all. It was a wonderful town feast. That is what Tutankhamen had made the artists put on the Luxor colonnade.

The Opet festival declared to the subjects that their pharaoh, Tutankhamen was bringing back the old traditions. Tutankhamen took part in this festival. We know this from the scenes in the Luxor temple that show Tutankhamen making offerings to the gods.

Learn more about the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Rewriting History

If one looks very carefully at the Luxor colonnade, one can’t find Tutankhamen’s name. His name has been erased from the monument and one finds Horemheb’s name, instead.

Horemheb was the traditionalist who tried to restore old order in Egypt. And what he had to do for official reasons, at least what he attempted to do, was erase all traces of the Akhenaten’s heresy. So, he wiped out everything, including Aye’s name. We are left with no traces, no real official records of Akhenaten, Tutankhamen, and Aye.

Horemheb had rewritten history to erase his heretic predecessors and establish himself as a true pharaoh, who had restored the old order.

Common Questions about Horemheb’s Attempt to Rewrite History

Q: What is special about Horemheb’s pylon at Karnak?

When Horemheb built the Ninth pylon at Karnak, he took down the temple built by Akhenaten, and filled the pylon with the broken blocks of Akhenaten’s temple.

Q: Why did Horemheb try to erase all references to Akhenaten and Tutankhamen?

Horemheb was trying to systematically erase all trace of Tutankhamen and his father Akhenaten because Akhenaten was seen as a heretic king by many.

Q: What is the Restoration Stela?

The Restoration Stela was originally erected by Tutankhamen to declare his intention to restore traditional ways in Egypt. Later, Horemheb replaced Tutankhamen’s name from this stela with his.

Keep Reading
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Two Great Pharaohs of XVIIIth Dynasty: Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis IV
Akhenaten and his New City, Akhet Aten