Tell el Amarna, Capital of the Disk: The Historical Facts

Amenophis III was enthroned as King of Egypt in 1408 BCE. Some thirty-five years later, he allowed his son - Prince Amenophis - to share the throne, forming a co-regency that lasted four years. Amenophis, who became Amenophis IV, was to abandon the eternal order of things as inherited from his forefathers: he would change his name from Amenophis (also spelled Amenhotep) to Akhenaten, and he would leave Thebes, the official capital, to found a new domain and order. For a period of a mere twelve years, that is from 1366 to 1354 BCE, he would live in the transient capital he was to baptize Akhetaten. Thereupon he would disappear; to this day, no document has been found on which the date and circumstances of his death could be based.

Dynasty XVIII Head of a colossus representing Amenophis III - Quartzite - H 1.177 - From Luxor London, British Museum

Black basalt head of Amenophis III

The historical evidence is very scant but, luckily, a comparative interpretation of the documents that survived the post-Amarna Period repression has allowed specialists to solve some of the enigmas: Around 1425 BCE, Thutmose IV, the grandfather of Akhenaten, married a princess from the Mitanni; the latter took the Egyptian name of Mutemwiya upon arrival at the royal court. At some distance from there, in the provinces - more specifically, near to today's Akhmim, the capital of Upper Egypt's ninth nome, a local squire, Yuya, took his cousin Tuyu as spouse. The couple settled in Thebes a few months after their wedding, where both embarked on a glorious court career: in addition to his titles as Prophet and Superintendent of the Cattle of Min, Yuya became the King's Lieutenant of the Chariotry and Master of the Horse; while Tuyu took on the title of Superintendent of the Harem of Amon.

Dynasty XVIII - Head of a statuette representing Queen Tiye - Gray schist - H 0.072 - From the Sinai region, Cairo, Museum of Archaeology

Dynasty XVIII - Tiye, the wife of Ay, in festal attire - Low relief from the first corridor - Tell el Amarna, civilian necropolis, the tomb of Ay

Ay et son épouse en adoration devant Aton - Bas-relief du premier couloir - Tell el-Amarna, nécropole civile, tombe de Ay



The royal couple begat several children, one of whom, Prince Amenophis, became heir to the throne upon the death of his older brother. During the same period, Yuya and Tuyu brought forth a son, Anen, who took up the priesthood, and a daughter, Tiye, who became famous for her beauty, intelligence, and a rare gift for "reading in each person's heart." When the time came to for the young prince to be married, Tiye was offered as a wife. The actual circumstances of the marriage remain veiled in mystery. Some believe that Mutemwiya was not the daughter of the king of the Mitanni mentioned in several texts, but rather that of Yey, Commander of the Chariotry. Should this hypothesis stand to reason, then Tiye would have been the Queen's niece and thus entitled to accede to the rank of royal spouse. Those who reject her royal lineage think that Amenophis married Tiye as an act of bravado, to break with the tradition obliging heirs to the throne to marry women with blood of the gods. To prove their point, they point out how, the day after the wedding, Amenophis had a series of so-called marriage scarabs issued clearly indicating the Queen's origins. Whether bowing to family constraints or as a challenge to them remains, then, a moot question.

During the some thirty-eight years of their actual reign, Amenophis III and Tiye had a great number of descendants: first, an heir - Thutmose - who died prematurely, then Amenophis, the future Amenophis IV Akhenaten, and Smenkhkare. Their daughters included Princess Sitamun and, later, Tutankhamun, who was to succeed her older brother, and Beketaten, the youngest, "dear to his father's heart."

Dynasty XVIII - Unfinished bust of Nefertiti - Sandstone - H 0.292 - From Tell el Amarna, Berlin (East), Bodemuseum, Ägyptische Sammlung - Excavations conducted on the workshop of Thutmose at Amarna unearthed this bust, which still shows the artist's brush reference marks.

Seven years after coming of age, Amenophis, heir apparent, and subsequently co-regent, married the legendary Nefertiti. Mystery crops up again here: who was she? Some identify her with Tadukhipa, the daughter of Tushratta, King of the Mitanni, saying that her foreign origin comes through in the Egyptian name she chose upon settling in Egypt: Nefertiti, the Beauty who came, implying from elsewhere. Tempting as it might be, this hypothesis does not hold up against serious examination, for certain documents indicate that Tadukhipa arrived at Malkata in the year 36 of Amenhotep III's reign, which falls quite some time after the attested date for the marriage between Nefertiti and Amenophis. Those inclined to orthodoxy would see her rather as a late descendant of Amenophis III and Tiye - that is, a princess - in order to meet with the requirement of royal blood in one who would wed an heir to the throne: but nowhere is their mention of Nefertiti as a daughter of a king. Might she have been the offspring of the king and one of his secondary wives? Hardly, for if her mother had been of royal lineage, Nefertiti would have obeyed custom by mentioning her name in the official records, something she never did. We are thus obliged to admit that Nefertiti did not belong to the reigning family. At times, she is pictured as a young queen in company of her wet-nurse Tey, wife of the Father of the God Ay. If Ay, one of the highest ranking members of the court, received, beside the countless honorary titles and roles he accumulated, the epithet Father of the God, it is undoubtedly because he begat a child associated with the royal lineage. In fact, eveything leads us to believe that Ay was Nefertiti's father. The fact that Tey never was called Mother of the God, but wet-nurse, does not endanger this hypothesis, for she was probably Ay's second wife, playing the role of governess and mentor to the young queen. The recent discovery of a chapel devoted by Ay to the god Min in the region of Akhmim allows us to carry the hypothesis one step further: the Father of the God was undoubtedly very closely related to Yuya. Their similar careers and, even more, their shared attachment to the ninth nome of Upper Egypt, incite us to believe that Ay was Yuya's son and, hence, brother to Queen Tiye. Although not of the blood of the gods, Nefertiti would thus be nonetheless linked to the reigning family through her father, becoming Tiye's niece. Her marriage with the heir to the throne would then comply in all aspects with Egyptian custom.

Nefertiti and Amenophis IV gave birth to six daughters: Meritaten, who married one of Amenophis IV's brothers, Smenkhkare; Maketaten, who died as a young adolescent; Ankhesenpaaten, who was granted in mariage to Prince Tutankhaton, and who later became Queen of Egypt under the name of Ankhesenamun; Neferneferuaten-Tasheri; and, finally Neferneferure and Setepenre, of whom nothing is known.