What Happened to Tutankhamun’s Wife After His Death?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By: Professor Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, died when he was only 18 years. He left behind his 19-year old wife Ankhesenamun, who was the last surviving member of the royal family. This put her in a precarious position. She was scared and, in an attempt to ensure her survival, she seeks the help of the Hittites king. Unfortunately, Ankhesenamun’s plan to receive help from the Hittites king failed when the prince was murdered on the borders of Egypt. This raises questions, such as who was Ankhesenamun afraid of? Who authorized the assassination?

Tutankhamun and his wife.
Tutankhamun was married to his stepsister, Ankhesenamun so that he could ascend to the throne of Egypt at a very young age. This image shows the statues of Tutankhamun and his wife at Luxor temple, Egypt. (Image: Roadwarrior Photography/Shutterstock)

Clues from Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Tutankhamun’s tomb gives some clues about his sudden death at a very young age. The walls of the tomb were hastily painted instead of being carved. The tomb had to be prepared quickly within 70 days, but there is proof that Tutankhamun was buried. Tutankhamun is seen on a sled as wheels would go into the sand. The sled is pulled by 10 palace officials. The paintings on the tomb show the officials wearing white headbands as a sign of mourning. However, there is one official missing from this painting. It was an old vizier called Aye (pronounced A-Y-E) who served as Tutankhamun and his wife’s advisor.

There is another scene in the tomb that shows Tutankhamun as a mummy. He is dressed in white like Osiris, the god of the dead. He is wrapped to show that he is now with Osiris and is going to be resurrected. The vizier Aye is seen as wearing a leopard skin and, in his hand, he has an instrument called the adze. This instrument was a wooden handle with a metal end. Aye touches Tutankhamun’s mummy’s mouth with the adze that represents the “opening-of-the-mouth” ceremony. By doing this, Aye is giving breath to the mummy so it can eat and speak in the next world and can say magical spells to resurrect in the next world. The leopard skin worn by Aye shows that he was acting as the high priest by giving life to Tutankhamun. However, if one looks carefully, one can see that Aye is also wearing the crown of Egypt on his head.  Above his head is a cartouche with his name in it that proves that he had, indeed, succeeded Tutankhamun as the king of Egypt.

Learn more about the rise of the old kingdom.

Image of Howard Carter opening the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamun's tomb.
Howard Carter, a British archaeologist, discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. This is an image of Howard Carter opening the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. (Image: The New York Times Photo Archive/Public domain)

How Did Aye Become the King of Egypt?

It is important to remember that Aye was not of royal blood; he was a commoner. So, how did he become the king of Egypt? There is a good chance that he married Tutankhamun’s widow, Ankhesenamun. This would explain why the queen was scared. She did not wish to marry a commoner after her husband’s death and to escape such a fate, she asked for the Hittites king’s help. Aye might be the commoner she was afraid of being forced to marry. This would also explain the assassination of the Hittites prince. For him to be murdered, it had to be authorized by someone who was placed in an important position in the government. There is a high chance that it was Aye who sponsored the prince’s assassination.

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

Evidence That Shows Aye Married Ankhesenamun

In the 1930s, Professor Percy Edward Newberry, an Egyptologist, was looking through an antiquities shop, Blanchard’s Shop in Cairo, when he found an ancient finger-ring. Professor Newberry, as an Egyptologist, could read hieroglyphs. The ring had the names of two people in a double cartouche together. Aye was one of the names and Ankhesenamun was the other. This meant that they were married. Therefore, it can be concluded that Aye became the King of Egypt by marrying Ankhesenamun. Professor Newberry was aware of the importance of the ring, so he wrote a letter to Howard Carter who had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, and told him of his discovery. He enquired if Carter had visited the tomb of Aye in the Western Valley and if Ankhesenamun was present there.

Everyone wondered what happened to Ankhesenamun after she married Aye. She had disappeared from history and the last thing one heard about her is this finger ring that says they were married. Professor Newberry made a copy of the ring he found and sent a drawing to Carter when he wrote to him. However, nobody had seen the ring since then. This made people wonder if the ring actually existed. In the last 20 years, a ring appeared for sale on the antiquities market, but it is not the same as Professor Newberry found. It has a different color but is very similar to Professor Newberry’s and it has the cartouches of Ankhesenamun and Aye. This just adds to the evidence that Ankhesenamun and Aye were indeed married. The ring is now in the Berlin Museum.

Learn more about the end of the old kingdom.

What Happened to Ankhesenamun?

According to Professor Newberry, Aye eventually died. He had a tomb, and in his tomb, there would be a picture of his queen. This queen should be Ankhesenamun for that was how Aye became the king of Egypt—by marrying her. However, if one went to Aye’s tomb in the Western Valley, the first thing that one would notice is that every trace of Aye and his queen have been erased. He has been chiseled out of the wall for some reason. But there are enough of the hieroglyphs left from which one can tell where the queen’s name should have gone. Just above one of the cartouches it says, “henet werit,” which means the great wife that refers to the queen.

When Aye was at Amarna with Akhenaten, he had a wife called Tiye—not Queen Tiye, just Tiye. That was the name in that cartouche that had been erased. Ankhesenamun does not appear anywhere. She is not even on the walls in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The reason why she does not appear in Tutankhamun’s tomb is that Aye intended to marry her, and he did not intend to put her on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb for eternity.

The Theory that Tutankhamun was Murdered

Copy of Tutankhamen's wooden sarcophagus
Tutankhamun died at a very young age of 19. There is a theory put forward by archaeologists that he was murdered. This image shows a modern copy of Tutankhamen’s wooden sarcophagus. (Image: Jose Ignacio Soto/Shutterstock)

There was theory put forward that Tutankhamun did not die a natural death, in fact, he was murdered. It is believed that it was the vizier, Aye, who murdered him because he wanted to take over as the king. However, with the royal couple still alive, it could be difficult to achieve his goal, especially if they had children. Ankhesenamun already had two miscarriages by this time, and if the next child was a boy, Aye’s chances of becoming king would be crushed forever. However, it is critical to remember that this is just a theory and should be taken as a fact.

Commonly Asked Questions About Tutankhamun’s Wife

Q: What does Ankhesenamun do to ensure her survival after Tutankhamun’s death?

After Tutankhamun’s death, Ankhesenamun was afraid that she might be forced to marry a commoner. She wanted to avoid such a marriage and to ensure her survival, she asked the Hittites king to help her.

Q: What is the significance of the leopard skin worn by Aye during Tutankhamun’s burial?

The leopard skin worn by Aye during Tutankhamun’s burial shows that he was acting as the high priest by giving life to Tutankhamun.

Q: What evidence did Professor Percy Edward Newberry find in the 1930s that prove that Aye married Ankhesenamun?

In the 1930s, Professor Percy Edward Newberry was looking through an antiquities shop in Cairo, when he found an ancient finger-ring that had Aye and Ankhesenamun’s names in a double cartouche together.

Q: Why is Ankhesenamun not on the walls in the tomb of Tutankhamun?

The reason why Ankhesenamun does not appear in Tutankhamun’s tomb is that Aye intended to marry her, and he did not intend to put her on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb for eternity.

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