The early years of the New Kingdom of Egypt were tumultuous ones. The story of the two cities Tutankhamun lived in, reflect this.
The Pharaoh Tutankhamun grew up in the capital city of Akhetaten, which is better known as Amarna. However, he moved the capital back to Thebes, where it had been before his father moved it.
Fathers and sons often disagree. In the case of Tutankhamun, this included severe disagreements on the location of the capital and the role of the official state religion.
Akhenaten and the Foundation of a Monotheistic State Religion
Amenhotep IV was Tutankhamun’s father. He was destined to make dramatic changes to the religion and culture of the New Kingdom. He changed his name to Akhenaten to symbolize his commitment to Aten the sun disk (the name means “Effective for the Aten”).
Indeed, his focus on the sun disk was such that he altered the state religion completely. Where there had always been a pantheon of gods, Akhenaten made Aten the most prominent of the gods and eventually determined that it was the only god.
Some scholars believe this was essentially a monotheistic religion. If it is to be considered genuinely monotheistic, it is the first one on record.
Though the events of the reign of Akhenaten are unclear, it is almost certain that the change of capitals and alterations to the state religion was highly unpopular. It disenfranchised many of the elites related to other gods and religious traditions, as well as diminished those with a power base in Thebes. As another clue that these reforms were unpopular, the Pharaoh was condemned in memory and all of the changes he enacted were canceled and never revisited.
The Role of Nefertiti
In contemporary culture, Akhenaten’s queen is better remembered than her husband. Nefertiti was one of the most powerful queens in the history of the New Kingdom. Many believe that she was the driving force behind the monotheistic (or semi-monotheistic) turn which Egyptian religion took during this period.
There are indications of her importance in this religious milieu. Several temples built by Akhenaten to the sun disk were dedicated to her.
Even more fascinating is the appearance of a cult of personality dedicated to Nefertiti. Some temples have far more representations of Nefertiti than of her husband.
She is depicted in some carvings smiting the enemies of Egypt and decorating her throne with captive enemies. These are images normally associated with the Pharaoh. This has led some researchers to wonder if she was elevated to a co-regent position by Akhenaten or more likely served as head of state after his death.
Nefertiti had six daughters with Akhenaten but did not produce a single son with him as far as we know.
The Origins of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun was born to an unnamed wife of Akhenaten, whose mummy was found and labeled as “the Younger Lady.” When her mummy was found, it was assumed it was the remains of Nefertiti, but DNA analysis eventually ruled that out. It was also discovered that her husband was her brother, a common arrangement in that culture.
She seems to have died, possibly murdered as there are significant signs of violence done to her remains, before the reign of Tutankhamun.
She seems to have been a minor wife of Akhenaten and probably a rival of Nefertiti. This may help explain why her son rebelled against the religious reforms associated with the famous queen.
Another theory is that it was Nefertiti who re-established the old religion, to bolster her popularity. She may have needed it since ancient Egypt was unfortunately quite patriarchal.
The Reforms of Tutankhamun
Either way, it was Tutankhamun who made the decisive break with the religious reforms established by his father. In the second year of his reign, when he was ten years old, he moved the capital of the kingdom back to Thebes. His very young age at the time would suggest that members of the elite, possibly of the priestly class, engineered the change.
He enriched and supported the priests of other gods such as Amun (god of the sun and air) and Ptah (god of craftsmen and architects). These moves were so popular that Tutankhamun was venerated as a god even while he lived, a rare honor for a Pharaoh at the time.
Unfortunately, Tutankhamun died at the age of 18 or 19. Analysis of his mummy shows that he had several diseases, possibly caused by the prevalence of incest in his line. He was buried with his two infant daughters. His line, known as the 18th Dynasty died with him as he left no male heirs.
Tutankhamun is largely famous because finding his lavish tomb was one of the great achievements of archaeological history. But he was Pharaoh at a crucial time and played a major part in New Kingdom history by restoring the state and bringing the capital back to Thebes.