Cartouche of Amenhotep II


We have exhausted our superlatives on Thutmose III, but that is all right; we won’t be needing them for a while. Not that the Conqueror’s son was not a fair enough fighter himself. If we can believe the stories that have come down to us—which we probably should not—he surpassed even his renowned father in feats of arms. Thutmose III had driven an arrow nine inches out of the back of a copper target two inches thick; Amenhotep II drove his arrow clean through a target three inches thick. He trained his horses so ably that they did not sweat, even when galloping. He rowed a boat (with a thirty-four-foot oar) four miles without stopping, and then landed it alone; his two-hundred-man crew had collapsed long before. He could outrun anyone in Egypt, and no man could draw his bow.

All this braggadocio is harmless, though a psychologist might wonder whether Amenhotep II was trying to surpass an impressive father. But Amenhotep II was not a Nice King. Soon after his father died, he had to lead a campaign into Syria to suppress a “rebellion” of the local princes there; these worthies soon acquired the habit of trying out a new king to see whether he would be as competent or as interested as his ancestors had been. The account of Amenhotep’s first Syrian campaign leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Probably the actual events did not differ greatly from what had happened under his father; but there is a difference in the selection of the details which Amenhotep II wished to commemorate. After capturing seven of the rebel princes, Amenhotep brought them back to Thebes, hanging head down at the prow of the royal barge. He then bashed in their heads personally and hung six of the bodies on the walls of Thebes. The seventh was sent down into Nubia to be draped over the battlements of the city of Napata as a lesson to the Nubians.

As an act of barbarity, this is pretty tame compared with the daily activities of the Assyrians or the morning prayers of the Aztecs. The technique was still being used in enlightened En gland, during the enlightened eighteenth century A.D. The English were more economical with their corpses; they cut them to pieces in order to spread the effect—a head here, a torso there—it all added up. A popular artistic motif in Egyptian reliefs was the bashing of captives by the king; he holds not one but several victims by their hair, which presumably saved time in the long run. However, one may reasonably doubt that the king performed this deed in person. Like so many other rituals, it was either delegated or not done at all; the representation became the deed. So perhaps I am being unfair to Amenhotep II when I suggest he enjoyed hitting people over the head.

What ever his methods, they were successful—in large part, perhaps, because of his father’s previous prowess. A few campaigns into Syria and Nubia convinced the regions in question that it didn’t do to mess with Amenhotep, and the king spent the rest of his life in a normal royal fashion—quarrying obelisks, building at Karnak, excavating his tomb—and, one presumes, shooting arrows through targets. He also amused himself with certain pursuits which might be genteelly summarized as “wine, women, and song.” One day when Amenhotep was sitting around in the palace, making a happy hour for himself (as the saying went), he got to feeling nostalgic and decided to dash off a note to an old comrade and drinking companion. This official, who was at one of the forts in Nubia, was so impressed by the letter, written in the king’s own hand, that he had it reproduced on stone. It was found by George Reisner at Fort Semna.

I do not propose to translate this text. Authorities differ as to the interpretation of some of the more interesting sections, and the whole document gives an impression of remarkable incoherence. We often have this feeling about mutilated inscriptions, but in this case I am inclined to wonder how much of the incoherence might be due to Amenhotep’s condition when he wrote it. What are we to do, for example, with the ladies who are familiarly referred to as a servant girl of Byblos, a little maiden of Alalakh, and an old woman of Arapha? Is Amenhotep insulting his rivals, the princes of these cities, by derisive epithets, or is he reminding the friend of his youth of certain memories they have in common? I suppose this peculiar letter could be interpreted more favorably as a touch of good fellowship from one jolly soldier to another; but I am prejudiced against Amenhotep II. We should, however, say one nice thing about him before we leave the subject. So let us add that there may be a grain of truth in the king’s claims about his archery.

His bow was buried with him in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings where his body was found, one of the few royal mummies that survived to our times in their original burial places. Tomb robbers had been at it and had removed everything of value from coffin and body. Then, when Egypt went into its last illness, and the depredations at the royal tombs passed the bounds of endurance, priests moved the bodies of the kings into secret hiding places, after removing anything of value overlooked by the ancient tomb robbers. One of the places chosen was the tomb of Amenhotep II, and eventually he had fourteen other bodies for company. When this cache was discovered in 1898, Amenhotep’s mummy was left in its sarcophagus, and the other royal remains were crated and about to be sent off to Cairo, when orders came to return them to the tomb. There has always been a vociferous minority who feel that the mortal remains of Egypt’s kings should be left in honorable burial, not exposed to the gaze of curious sightseers. The procedure ought to be safe, since everyone knows that nothing worth stealing would be left on the mummies. However, the ancient and honorable profession of grave robbing is one Egyptian tradition that has been handed on from father to son, down to the present day; and some of the boys near Luxor evidently failed to read the newspaper accounts which explained that Amenhotep no longer owned anything worth stealing. They broke into the tomb again in 1901 and slit through the mummy wrappings, to find nothing but a mummy. It is surprising that they bothered, since the grapevine among the brothers of the less legal crafts operates more efficiently than archaeological newsletters, and thieves, of all people, ought to “case” a place before they rob it. Perhaps it was just a matter of old habits, which reputedly die hard. They did make off with Amenhotep’s bow, however.

As for dignity and honorable burial, Amenhotep II got little of either. After the 1901 break-in his body was left in his open sarcophagus, with a spotlight shining on his unwrapped face. Tourists came in droves. Eventually the king was taken to the Cairo Museum to join nine other royals from his tomb, whose remains had finally been removed in 1900. (In case you’re counting, three uncoffined mummies were left in a side chamber of the tomb, since they were assumed to be members of the family of Amenhotep II; a fourth, also uncoffined, was broken to pieces by the frustrated 1901 robbers.)

Amenhotep’s wife—one of many, no doubt—was named Tiaa. She is not called King’s Daughter, so she was probably a commoner. However, she was the mother of his heir, and that counted for a lot. The son and heir was another Thutmose—the Fourth, by modern reckoning. His is a more elusive personality that fails to convey any positive image, pleasing or the reverse. He made brief excursions into Syria and Nubia in order to put down the usual revolts, and he piously finished and erected the obelisk that his grandfather and namesake, Thutmose III, had begun at Karnak. The largest surviving obelisk, it is now in Rome and commemorates the names of both Thutmoses. The most interesting memorial left by Thutmose IV is the stela that nestles between the paws of the Sphinx at Giza. The stela tells the story of how Thutmose, as a young prince, lay down to rest in the shadow of the great stone beast after a tiring hunting trip. As he slept, the sun god, of whom the Sphinx was believed to be the image, appeared to him in a dream and begged him to clear away the sand that had covered most of the huge statue. As a reward, Re would see to it that the young man inherited the throne. Thutmose got the crown and carried out his part of the bargain. So he says, at any rate.

Some Egyptologists have interpreted this story to mean that Thutmose was not the original heir. Divine intervention was a popular substitute for legitimacy, so the theory may have some foundation. Amenhotep II had several sons, two of them probably older than Thutmose, but they may have died of natural causes before their father. There is no evidence in pharaonic Egypt of a new king executing potential rivals—brothers, nephews, uncles, and cousins—which was a popular and useful custom in the Ottoman Empire, not to mention medieval and Renaissance Europe. That doesn’t mean it might not have happened, but without specific examples it is a plot for historical fiction, not legitimate history.

By now, one point should have been made clear—it takes more than a pith helmet and a shovel to make an Egyptologist. Most of the books on archaeology that are written for the “layman”—an opprobrious epithet, for whose use I apologize—tell and retell the accounts of excavations as if that one activity were the sole source of an archaeologist’s data. Now and then an attempt is made to give the linguist his due by mentioning the Rosetta stone, and by recounting the life of Jean-François Champollion and the process by which he deciphered the hieroglyphs. Philology and excavation are certainly important subfields of Egyptology, but as I have tried to demonstrate, there is hardly any aspect of knowledge that is not grist for the mill of the archaeologist. One of the unexpected subjects he has had to contend with—in Egypt, at least—is genealogical research. Generally, family trees are interesting only to the twigs of the particular tree. But the genealogies of the ancient Egyptians can give an archaeologist vital information about such matters as inheritance, marital customs, and family life. Royal family trees, of course, are a legitimate subject of historical study. An English historian would have a hard time discussing the Wars of the Roses and the advent of the Tudor dynasty without bringing up the marital—and extramarital—activities of the sons of Edward III. In Egypt, royal genealogies are particularly important because they shed light on a problem that is still in dispute—the problem of the inheritance of the throne.

We are familiar with the relatively modern solutions to this problem, in which the right to rule descended from father to eldest son. Sometimes royal daughters were acceptable in lieu of sons, and sometimes not; but ordinarily it was the offspring of the reigning monarch, whether king or queen, who acquired the mystical sanction of the crown.

This procedure was not universal. In Nubia, to the south of Egypt, the crown went to the brothers of the king before reverting to his eldest son—a practical procedure, which avoided minority rule and the evils which attend upon it. Anthropologists have collected examples of even stranger rules of royal inheritance; there are rumors of societies in which queens were preferred to kings.

Egyptologists once believed that the queen held a peculiarly important position in regard to inheritance. A queen could not rule, but she alone could transmit the right to rule. By dogma, her husband held the throne only by virtue of his marriage to her, and her son had a prior claim—not on the crown, but on the next queen, who would ideally be his sister, the daughter of his mother. The mystical sanctity descended from mother to daughter; her son had no part in it. If the heiress-queen had only daughters, it was all the more incumbent on the next king—who might be her husband’s child by a lesser wife—to marry her eldest daughter, the heiress-princess.

This theory of inheritance has now been discarded by the majority of scholars, though you will still find it mentioned in older books. One of the objections to it is the fact that there is no queen’s title that distinguishes a royal heiress. If the job was that important, you would think it would have its own proper title. To go one step further—if an heiress-wife was so vital to a reigning monarch, we would expect that she would be honored by the position of chief wife. But not all chief wives were heiress-princesses, or even king’s daughters.

The trouble is that the Egyptians did not have family Bibles with pages for births and deaths. Sometimes we have the feeling that kings only mentioned their sons or daughters when they happened to think about them; additional offspring keep turning up, on newly found reliefs and inscriptions. Once in a while a king shows us a collection of sons and daughters; sometimes they are named, sometimes not. But never, or almost never, are we given all the information we would like to have—date of birth, names, parentage.

To further confuse the issue, we should note that Egyptian statements of relationship are often vague. It was recognized early in the game that the words “brother” and “sister” need not indicate ties of blood. They are terms of endearment, equivalent to “sweetheart” or “darling,” or even to “husband” or “wife.” But it took Egyptologists a few years to arrive at the dismaying conclusion that “father” and “son” are equally misleading. “Father” might be applied by a king to his grandfather, or to an even more remote ancestor; “son” seems to be used for grandson as well, and, at certain periods, as an honorary title. We are still clinging to “mother” and “daughter” as meaning what they seem to mean; but we can never be sure that a newly discovered inscription may not knock the sense out of those words too.

With these cheerful facts in mind, let us take a specific case—the marital situation of Thutmose IV. It presents some interesting problems—not to Thutmose, as far as we know, but to archaeologists. We suspect, to begin with, that Thutmose’s mother was not of royal birth. The evidence for the suspicion is negative evidence: the lady is never called “king’s daughter.”

So until we find a text that states her parentage specifically, we can establish her social status only as a probability. Let us assume that she was a commoner. The next step, for those who followed the “heiress” theory of legitimacy, was to look for a royal princess among the wives of Thutmose IV. If one existed, she would have been his half-sister—the daughter of Thutmose’s father, Amenhotep II, by a royal wife who was not Thutmose IV’s mother, because she (we think) was a commoner.

One of Thutmose’s wives was a princess of Mitanni, who could not have been an Egyptian heiress. Another wife was a woman with an unusual name, which, in view of its uniqueness, may not be a name at all. (And if you find that sentence confusing, the situation it describes is equally so.) A third queen of Thutmose IV was a lady named Mutemwiya, who was the mother of his successor; we assume that she was of nonroyal birth because she, like Thutmose IV’s mother, does not have the title “king’s daughter.”

The ambiguity of the problem may seem complete at this point, but it gets worse. For there may not be three queens involved at all; by the mental dexterity with which all true historians are endowed, we can reduce the three to one. The Mitannian princess could have taken an Egyptian name—Mutemwiya, for example. The lady with the strange name may be the Mitannian princess in disguise, and/or Mutemwiya. The titles of these ladies (however many they may be) add to the confusion. Asiatic princesses are not called “king’s daughter.” Mutemwiya is not called “king’s daughter.” The weirdly named queen is called “king’s daughter,” which makes her identification with either or both of the other two somewhat dubious. In fact, the whole business is extremely dubious, and I see no way out of it. The only point that can reasonably be made is that this is one of several cases that has led most scholars to dismiss the theory of the heiress-princess. It can, of course, be claimed that Thutmose IV had still another queen, unknown to us, who was an heiress-princess, but this is pretty weak logically. You can prove anything if you are allowed to make up the necessary evidence.

The Mitannian princess, whose name is not recorded, was the first such alliance of which we know, but it was not the last. This marriage, together with the relative absence of military activity on the part of Thutmose IV, suggests that he had come to terms with Egypt’s rival state to the north and had chosen diplomacy over conquest. His reign was peaceful and quite possibly brief; the mummy identified as his has been described as a frail young man. It was not found in his tomb, which is in the Valley of the Kings; Thutmose IV ended up, like so many of his peers, in one of the caches of royal mummies. His son and successor was destined for greater fame and fortune.

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