Some years ago I had to teach a unit on Ancient Egypt to a class of third graders, and naturally most of the lesson revolved around King Tut. In order to prepare–I knew nothing of Ancient Egypt at the time–I read the course materials and looked at the worksheets and activities provided in the syllabus. The lesson boiled down to this: Tutankhamun was crowned as a boy, died a few years later, and did nothing in between that matters. Because of his insignificance, his grave was obscure and remained untouched until some Englishmen dug it up in the 1930s. End of story, now let’s mummify an apple.
But I knew my students would ask questions, so to protect myself I dug a little deeper–not even much deeper, mind you–and ended up with my mind blown. The lesson was entirely rewritten, and a three-day unit ballooned into a two week long meditation on one of the most dramatic and difficult episodes in human history, peopled with fascinating characters and lingering mysteries.
With full apologies to proper Egyptologists, any sort of historian, and all elementary school teachers, here is the gist of my version of the Tutankhamun story, minimally researched and approved by nobody before being presented to unsuspecting children:
Firstly, it isn’t Tutankhamun’s story. Placing Tut at the center of his story is like teaching the American revolution from the perspective of the person who owns the largest colonial rag doll collection. The story begins earlier, with Amenhotep IV, who became pharoah and, thus, the living god Horus. I don’t know what triggered his revelation or how long it took, but somewhere along the way he realized that he was no god. For starters, he was sick, afflicted with a bizarre genetic disorder. It also probably didn’t help that as the religious figurehead he had an in-your-face understanding of the pomp and subterfuge that masked the human toil that the temples passed off as divine guidance. Whatever the reason, he abandoned the already-ancient religion entirely, devoting himself instead to the Sun, whom he called Aten. History records him as the first monotheist. Out of respect for his god he renamed himself Akhenaten.
What followed was the most ambitious religious and social reformation undertaken up to the point in history. Akhenaten broke with the old religion, eventually attempting to suppress it. Customs and conventions regarding his own holiness were abolished: he was no longer a deity, and artists were ordered to draw him as he was, weird body shape and all. His wife Nefertiti took on a prominent public role, perhaps even serving as co-ruler. He moved the capital to a planned city far from Egypt’s established power centers.
And provoked a ghastly split in Egyptian society. As pharaoh he had the power to shake things up, but people–then as now–take their religions seriously and don’t abandon belief easily. He won over many converts, but could he win over an entire nation?
In short: no. He died. And the attention now shifts to the queen, Nefertiti, and the princess Ankhesenpaaten.
The historical record here is very hazy. Nefertiti’s position in the government isn’t quite clear. (Even her status as an Egyptian may be in dispute. Her name means “The beauty that has come,” but come from where? How figuratively should that name be taken?) She may have attempted to rule in her own right after he died. She may have disguised herself as a man to appease conservatives. She may have fled, or died of plague, and been recalled to whatever planet she came from. She vanishes from the historical record shortly after his death, and in the tumult that followed there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to erase them both from history.
Ankhesenpaaten was their third daughter. The oldest was married off to a man who briefly ruled as pharaoh before dying suddenly; the second one had probably died a few years earlier. Ankhesenpaaten was third in line. Somewhere between eight and twelve years old when her father died, she would have been a powerful rallying point for fellow Atenists: the daughter of the religion’s founder, and one of the very few people alive brought up entirely in that religion. With her two older sisters she had shared the rank of “Senior Princesses” and appears to have had a role in both the government and the religion.
With her father dead and her mother, um, somewhere, the old religion surged back, and Ankhesenpaaten was trapped in her own palace, surrounded by people who would probably not guarantee her safety.
She married her younger half-brother Tutankhaten, and both had their names changed in order to remove the references to Aten: he became Tutankhamun, and she Ankhesenamun. I assume her survival depended on her good behavior.
When he was eighteen and she perhaps twenty-one, Tutankhamun died–probably fell off a horse, though foul play might not be ruled out–and Ankhesenamun was in a dire situation. No heir, no protector, the last link of a failed revolution.
She disappears from the record around this time.
In the records of the nearby Hittite kingdom there is a letter to King Suppiluliuma from an unknown Egyptian queen, asking if she can marry one of his sons. The letter cryptically adds, “I am afraid.”
The queen isn’t identified. For decades we assumed it was from Ankhesenamun; now some think it may have come from Nefertiti. Suppililiuma did send a son to rescue the queen/conquer the country, but he died along the way, possibly murdered.
With all the key Atenists dead, the old religion was able to reimpose itself. The new capital was abandoned, and everyone carried on as before. The tombs of Nefertiti and Ankhesenamun have never been found.
The story is King Tut is of a boy king who was too insignificant to have his tomb properly robbed. I wonder why we know him so well, then, but know so little about the rest.
Okay, okay, I admit it didn’t take much digging for me to find the story. Everyone knows Nefertiti, and Akhenaten is well-known to anyone with even a passing interest in antiquity, but these are not household names like Tut. Certainly not a normal part of the third-grade curriculum.
By the time I was done my students only wanted to talk about Tut’s treasures in relation to how they illuminated the story of the rise and fall of Atenism. They completely geeked out on the differences between Akhenaten’s “Amarna period” art and the traditional art forms that it challenged. (We digressed a little at this point to show some pictures of the experimental artists of the early twentieth century and discuss accordingly.)
More than a few girls noted that Nefertiti and Ankhesenamun had been powerful women in their time but had been erased from history (except for Nefertiti, today remembered for being pretty).
Mostly, though, the kids seized on Ankhesenamun and her story. Classroom discussions spilled over to lunch time and the playground. What would they have done in a similar situation? How did Ankhesenamun deal with the double trauma of losing her parents and becoming a political flashpoint, not to mention marrying a goofy-looking kid who was probably being blatantly manipulated by his most conniving advisors? What of the pressure of being the de facto leader of a dying religion?
One of the kids came in the next day with story she had written the night before, imagining Ankhesenamun escaping to find freedom somewhere far away. We read it out loud at lunch time, and the next day about a half-dozen other kids brought in their own stories. I decided to make it an extra credit assignment, and if memory serves all but about two or three of them took me up on it.
Revolution, religion, children in danger…all of this is way more interesting than a couple of Englishmen digging holes in the desert. I wonder if we tell the wrong story because Tut has all those shiny things, or if there’s something else at play. Are we underestimating children and their ability to discuss fairly sophisticated concepts? Are we uncomfortable talking about death and politics to eight-year-olds? Do we just instinctively erase women from our historical narratives? Or does the religious upheaval of Akhenaten still resonate uncomfortably with us as we struggle to reconcile what we believe with what we can see?