Tutankhamen and Aye: A Young and an Old Pharaoh

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, moved the capital of Egypt north from Thebes 200 miles, to the middle of the desert. He established his capital, which he called Akhetaten: “the horizon of the Aten.” Akhenaten firmly believed that there was only one god, Aten, the sun god. What happened when his young son Tutankhamen succeeded him?

Digital art showing Tutankhamen's face mask.
Tutankhamen was one of the most well-known pharaohs of Egypt. (Image: Sherif Aly Mohamed/Shutterstock)

Akhenaten tried to change the official religion to monotheism, and it didn’t work. When he died after a reign of 17 years, his young son Tutankhamen succeeded him and changed his father’s decisions. Tutankhamen did not take all the decisions on his own. Someone helped him, this was the man behind the throne of Egypt.

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

The Man Behind the Throne

Tutankhamen was probably eight years old when he became king, so he could not take the decisions. It is possible that a man named Aye, who became the vizier of Egypt, guided Tutankhamen. He had already served under Akhenaten.

As soon as Akhenaten died, it was Aye who asked the people of Egypt to go back to polytheism. He was the one who made Tutankhaten change his name to Tutankhamen, replacing the Aten with the Amun. It is worth noting here that Amun was one of the major three gods of Thebes.

Aye, the 60 years old man, succeeded Tutankhamen by marrying young Ankhesenamen, the widow of Tutankhamen. Certainly, he was an older man by Egyptian standards. The life expectancy, from birth to death in the ancient world, was in the 30s. Therefore, it is not surprising that he could rule approximately for four years.

Aye’s Tomb in the Valley of the Kings

The carvings on the wall of Aye's first tomb.
Aye’s first tomb was built when he was an adviser to Akhenaten at Akhetaten, but that was not the tomb he was finally buried in. (Image: Petr Bonek/Shutterstock)

In the XVIII Dynasty, Pharaoh Tuthmosis I built the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings. After him, all the XVIII Dynasty kings were buried in the Valley of the Kings—until Amenhotep III.

The great king Amenhotep III, who was till then the greatest Egyptian king, decided to have his tomb in the Western Valley. This is where Aye too had his tomb.

One might wonder, why does Aye have his tomb with Amenhotep III? Why is it there and not in the main valley? Well, there was a political reason. The tomb was meant for Tutankhamen, and not Aye. Not only did Aye take Tutankhamen’s wife, but also took his tomb.

Learn more about Akhenaten the heretic Pharaoh.

Tutankhamen’s Tomb Site

When Tutankhamen shifted his capital from Akhetaten back to Thebes, he had to choose a site for his tomb. Aye probably told Tutankhamen to make his tomb in the Western Valley.

Aye performing the opening of the mouth ceremony for Tutankhamen, scene from Tutankhamen's tomb.
Aye made the decision to locate Tutankhamen’s tomb next to the tomb of Amenhotep III. (Image: Ancient Egyptian artist/Public domain)

It was a political statement. Akhenaten, Tutankhamen’s father, was a heretic. Nobody liked Akhenaten in Thebes. So, when Tutankhamen came back, he had to show that he was the legitimate king. But he could not identify himself with his father, the heretic.

Therefore, Aye made the decision to locate Tutankhamen’s tomb next to the tomb of Amenhotep III. Tutankhamen’s tomb was selected to be located right next to his grandfather’s. In a way it was a statement from Tutankhamen saying, “I’m a traditional king. I’m not like my father.”

But Tutankhamen died suddenly, perhaps he was murdered. His tomb wasn’t finished. So, he was hastily buried in another tomb that was at least further along in construction, in the Valley of the Kings. This left Tutankhamen’s original tomb empty. This is where Aye was buried.

Learn more about the murder of Tutankhamen.

The Details in Aye’s Tomb

Aye’s tomb is quite similar to Tutankhamen’s. It is so similar that it is almost as if he wants to identify himself with Tutankhamen. There’s a reason for that. Tutankhamen must have been a very popular king, who was known for returning everything back to the good old days.

Maybe, Aye wanted to let people of Egypt know that he was with Tutankhamen when these changes were introduced in the kingdom. For example, on one of the walls in Tutankhamen’s tomb, there is a scene of 12 baboons that were thought to guide the boat of the solar god through the sky. Aye has the exact same scene on his wall. Even his sarcophagus was like Tutankhamen’s.

Interestingly, no painting of Ankhesenamen appears on the walls of Aye’s tomb. Maybe she was already dead by the time Aye died. Eventually, Aye’s tomb was robbed. Aye’s name was carved off the wall of the tomb by his successor, the army pharaoh, Horemheb, who tried to remove all trace of the Akhetaten heretics.

Common Questions about Tutankhamen and Aye

Q: What happened after Tutankhamen became king?

After Tutankhamen became king, the capital was moved back to Thebes. Also, the king changed his name from Tuthankhaten to Tutankhamen to show that the monotheistic worship of Aten was a thing of the past.

Q: Why was Tutankhamen’s original tomb located in the Western part of the Valley of Kings?

Since Tutankhamen was trying to appear as traditional as possible, his original tomb was planned to be next to the tomb of the great Amenhotep III, who was the last traditional pharaoh.

Q: How did Aye become the pharaoh after Tutankhamen?

Tutankhamen did not have any children, so Aye became the pharaoh, after marrying young Ankhesenamen, the widow of Tutankhamen.

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Akhenaten and his New City, Akhet Aten
Architecture During the Reign of Amenhotep III
The Religious Transformations of Amenhotep IV