It’s not often that the quiet heroics of a woman, overshadowed by her too-famous kin, get recognized. It’s even less likely when the person in question lived approximately 3,359 years ago.
If you’ve heard of Ankhesenamun at all, it’s probably as the wife of household name Pharoah Tutankhamun, or as the daughter of Egypt’s only iconoclastic pharaoh, Akhenaten, and his dazzling queen with the blue turban, Nefertiti.
She was the middle sister in a family of six daughters—a circumstance that would soon lead to heartbreak. At her birth around 1348 B.C. she was called Ankhesenpaaten, “Living for Aten.” Aten was the sun god, the deity her dad and mom decided to worship after junking the rest of Egypt’s lineup of gods and goddesses.
As a toddler, she had a sunny childhood, growing up in the sparkling new city her parents had built along the banks of the Nile. Vibrant, almost casual bas-relief portraits of her close-knit family exist, very unlike the stiff and solemn presentations of other pharaohs and their families.
Being an Egyptian princess, however, meant being a royal breeder— especially if there were no princes. The right to rule ran through the female bloodline; all too soon, Ankhesenpaaten learned about “keeping it in the family.” Somewhere around her twelfth year, her mother vanished and she was obliged to marry her own father; a year or two later when her dad passed away, she wed her uncle Smenkhkare. These marriages were starkly real; she gave birth to an Ankhesenpaaten Junior, the baby’s paternity unknown as yet but probably sired by her own dad.
While a teen, still struggling from the losses of her father, mother, uncle, and at least one sister, Ankhesenpaaten now wed her half-brother Tutankhaten, who’d stepped up as pharaoh. He was about three years younger than she, but at least she had a spouse of her own generation. As a couple, they moved back to Thebes, diligently restoring the ancient religion their parents had tossed aside. As part of that process, they changed their names, deleting the reference to Aten worship. Tut became Tutankhamun, and she became Ankhesenamun—“Living for Amun.”
She had nearly ten years to love her boyish husband. Then once again, death came to the golden palace. Ankhesenamun might have been privileged, but she’d seen far too much death in her twenty-one years. Her brother-husband Tut died suddenly, barely eighteen or nineteen. Together, they had already shared the heartbreak of two baby girls, both stillborn.
Ankhesenamun endured Egyptian dynastic incest with successive marriages to her father, uncle, and half-brother. Finally she heroically rebelled against wedlock—this time with her own grandfather!
The glittering objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb have made the name “King Tut” famous although he was still a teen, married to his half-sister, when he died.
The marriages and deaths she’d had to endure haunted her, but the grieving widow feared the future even more. There was no one else, no male of the Amarna royal bloodline, to take the throne. But someone wanted it badly: Ay, her maternal grandfather. More than once, it crossed her mind that he may have had a hand in Tut’s death. A skulking figure, Ay had served as chief minister to the royal family for years. And he had a wife. But to legitimize his claim, he’d need the royal blood of Ankhesenamun.
In desperation, the young queen put aside her bereavement. She told herself, “Do something! You only have seventy days!” That was the time it would take to embalm her dead husband and prepare him for the afterlife. In attempting to break the stranglehold of consanguinity, of familial incest, she did a most astonishing and valiant thing. In her own way, she was as iconoclastic as her father, Akhenaten.
Quickly and secretly she prepared a letter, sending it off with a personal servant she could trust. He delivered it to one of Egypt’s long-standing enemies, the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, who read its lines with astonishment: “My husband died, and I have no sons. They say that your sons are plentiful. If you send me one of your sons, then he would become my husband. I do not wish to be forced to marry a servant. I am afraid.”
King Suppiluliuma was rendered speechless by the offer; his second reaction was wariness. Was she really the Great Royal Wife? What were the Egyptians trying to pull? Instead of answering immediately, he sent an ambassador to smoke out the truth; he came back from Egypt, saying that indeed the offer—and Ankhesenamun—were genuine. With him, he brought back a tablet with another letter from the queen, saying, “If a son existed for me, would I have written about the shame of myself and of my land to another land? You did not trust me. He who was my husband died. I have not written to any other land, I wrote to you! Give me one of your sons! To me he will be husband, but in the land of Egypt he will be king!”
By now Ankhesenamun was frantic.
Finally convinced, the Hittite king sprang into action, choosing his son Prince Zannaza and hastily throwing together wedding gifts and an elaborate entourage for their sendoff.
Too late: the sands in the hourglass of the young queen’s time ran out. Perhaps it was Ay’s men who murdered the young Hittite prince en route, or perhaps he met his death via the troops of Commander Horemheb, another aspirant to the pharoah’s throne.
By the time Tutankhamun was properly mummified, Ankhesenamun had been pushed against her will into marriage with her grandfather, Ay. He gave her a ring with their names on it, and then officiated at Tutankhamun’s funeral.
Ay would rule Egypt for four years, but Ankhesenamun soon disappeared from the records. When Ay died of old age, Horemheb, the nonroyal head of the army, promply declared himself king (not pharaoh) in 1321 B.C.
And King Suppiluliuma? Outraged over the murder of his son, the Hittite king sent his armies against several of Egypt’s territories. He captured many Egyptian prisoners, who carried a deadly weapon: the plague. It tore into Hittite country, eventually killing Suppiluliuma and his successor.
The particulars of Ankhesenamun’s amazing story are now confirmed via unearthed documents and artifacts. The letters she sent to the Hittite king were preserved in the Deeds of Suppiluliuma, a compendium of primary source documents. The ring Ay gave her at their wedding has been discovered. A well-preserved mural in an Egyptian tomb shows the upstart Ay performing the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony for Tutankhamun, needed to ensure his happy afterlife.
There are still many what-ifs in Ankhesenamun’s tale; neither her burial site nor her mummy have been confirmed yet, although there are several candidates whose exact identities are still being sorted out.
Talk about things coming back to haunt us: the issue of consanguinity, once looked upon as an ancient strategy whereby rulers of Egypt and more recent regimes sought to retain their thrones, has become a modern moral dilemma. Children born from sperm and egg donors are now a significant percentage of the population. Each year in the United States alone, between 30,000 and 60,000 are born from sperm donors. As the first wave of these children have become adults, the chances of them meeting and mating become greater and greater. To date, there has not been complete transparency or reporting by either sperm banks, donors, or recipients.
And, as a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal noted, “The cost of fibbing about fertility is going up. When the science isn’t straightforward, people have to be.”