The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story

The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story

by Bob Brier


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425166895
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/1999
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.83(d)

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Chapter One

The King Must Die

Stay away from hostile people,
Keep your heart quiet among fighters.

--The scribe Ani
circa 1400 B.C.

We possess a remarkable amount of evidence about Tutankhamen-- enough to re-create what his last days may have been like. So let's start with a fictional account, but one that is probably very close to the truth.

    Sometime in late autumn, during the eighteenth year of his life, Tutankhamen went to bed alone. Although peasant husbands and wives slept in the same room, Egyptian pharaohs lived in separate palaces from those of their queen and the ladies of the harem. Conjugal visits were one thing, sleep was another. Tutankhamen reposed in a large room, sparsely furnished--a few stools, tables, and a single wood bed with feet shaped like lion's paws. Fish, ducks, and marsh grasses painted on the room's plastered walls glowed spectrally in the dim light.

    In the depths of this night the door slowly, silently opened, just wide enough for a single man to creep through before closing it behind him. Somehow he had slipped past the sentries. Had they been told to look the other way? Stealthily the night intruder made his way to Pharaoh's bed, the sound of his steps perhaps obscured by the drip, drip of a water clock. He found the king sleeping on his side, his head supported by an alabaster headrest. From under his clothes the man drew out a heavy object, possibly an Egyptian mace that joined a solid three- inch stone to the end of a substantial two-footstick. After a single deep breath, he swung the heavy object at Tutankhamen's skull.

    Waiting just a moment for the sudden sound in the night to be forgotten, the intruder retraced his steps through the Royal Bedchamber, out the door, and stole through the palace to the safety of night.

    The next morning servants discovered the unconscious, but not yet dead, pharaoh and quickly summoned the vizier, Aye, and Tutankhamen's wife, Ankhesenamen. A priest-physician skilled in head injuries was ordered from the temple. The physician has seen many trauma injuries. Blocks of stone sometime fell on workmen during construction; infantrymen received blows to the head. But this was the pharaoh; the physician must be very careful what he does and says. He instructed his assistant to shave Pharaoh's head so a proper diagnosis could be made. As the bronze blade removed the fine dark hair, the surgeon was already thinking about the consequences of treatment--both for the pharaoh and for his own career. If he took decisive action and Tutankhamen died, he could be blamed. Now the head was shaved, revealing one wound, a large, warm swollen mass. It was in an unusual place for such an injury, at the back of the head where the neck joins the skull. The great surgical papyrus did not describe how to treat such an injury.

    The blow has caused unconsciousness, but only a slight fracture to the skull. There are no bone fragments that must be removed. Relieved, the surgeon replaces his bronze probe and tweezers in their wooden case. Still, blood is oozing from the pharaoh's nostrils, a sign that the meninges, the skin enclosing the brain, has been damaged. Aye, the prime minister, stands silently next to the bed, calm, weighing what the pharaoh's death will mean to Egypt and himself. Ankhesenamen, frightened, looks to the physician for his prognosis. He has been trained to give one of three responses: 1) "this is an ailment which I will treat," 2) "this is an ailment with which I will contend," and 3) "this is an ailment not to be treated." If he says the ailment can be treated, he implies that the treatment will be successful. If he instead says he will merely contend with it, he implies an uncertain outcome.

    The physician quickly evaluates the situation. With no splinters to remove, no bones to set, there was little he could do physically for the king. To say that he will treat the ailment asserts that the king will survive, and of this he is not sure. Should Tutankhamen die, the physician will be blamed. There are only two real alternatives, and given the importance of the patient, it is safer to say that this is an illness not to be treated. Better to hand the fate of the king over to the gods.

    The predicament faced by this priest-physician was no different from modern physicians called to treat a famous patient. Doctors in emergency rooms around the world have observed and named it the "famous-patient syndrome." When confronted with a famous patient, medical personnel are afraid to act quickly, to do instinctively what they have been trained to do. Junior staff members defer to senior staff members, discussions take place before actions are taken. Tutankhamen was probably not the first ruler to suffer the consequences of his exalted position, and he was certainly not the last.

    Abraham Lincoln may have died because of his fame. After the President was shot in the head, the young surgeon attending him at Ford's Theater did everything right. He examined the entry hole with his finger, determined there was no exit hole, and let the president rest. Then the Surgeon General was summoned, while President Lincoln was removed to a nearby boardinghouse. The Surgeon General was a bureaucrat who had not treated a patient for years, but he immediately took control of Lincoln's treatment. He inserted a probe into the entry hole and slid it in, almost up to Lincoln's eyes. The Surgeon General did not know that the latest medical wisdom, taught in medical schools, was not to probe--the brain is so soft you can't tell if you are following the path of the bullet or causing additional damage. Recent reevaluation of the case suggests that Lincoln might have survived with the bullet lodged in his brain. He was a victim of famous-patient syndrome.

    So the surgeon-priest turned to Ankhesenamen and spoke the very words she feared: "This is an ailment not to be treated." As Ankhesenamen sobbed, the surgeon's assistant was instructed to clear the king's nostrils of blood. The pharaoh breathed more easily now, lying peacefully on his low bed. Magician-healers would be called to assist the king.

    By afternoon the healers had gathered the ingredients for their poultice: equal parts of berry of coriander, berry of the poppy plant, wormwood, berry of the sames-plant, berry of the juniper plant. Mixed with honey, it formed a paste that they spread on the wound and covered with a square of finely woven linen on which had been drawn the Eye-of-Horus symbol. Horus the falcon god had lost his eye in the battle with Seth, but it was magically regenerated by Toth, god of magic. The markings around a falcon's eye became a sign for healing.

    For the first few days there was optimism. Tutankhamen briefly regained consciousness and was able to eat. Ankhesenamen brought him chopped figs mixed with eggs because eggs had regenerative properties. The magician-healers placed "flour of egg"--powdered egg shells--in Tutankhamen's wine, so the damaged skull would knit smooth, like an eggshell. Yet, as days became weeks, the pharaoh, drifting in and out of consciousness, weakened. His vision blurred and the pain in his head became almost unbearable, as if something were pressing on every part of his skull. To dull the pain, Ankhesenamen brought more and more of his favorite wine, made from grapes from his own vineyards. When winter came, Tutankhamen lapsed into final unconsciousness and could receive tiny amounts of wine through a straw only with difficulty.

    The wailing started with Ankhesenamen, who was with Tutankhamen when he died, spread through the female servants in the palace, then across the river to Thebes, uniting rich and poor in the primal ritual mourning cry that told Osiris, god of the dead, to expect another Westerner. Within a few hours of the shock, Aye began the plans to prepare Tutankhamen's burial.

    Our account above of Tutankhamen's death is fiction, but is based on evidence that has survived 3,300 years since his death. We are in an even better position to reconstruct his burial.

    The tomb that Tutankhamen had been preparing for himself, next to his grandfather's in the western spur of the Valley of the Kings, was far short of completion when the boy-king died. There was, however, a nearly complete tomb in the main valley that had not been used. Originally intended for a private person, a rare but not unprecedented honor, Aye decided to appropriate this small tomb for his pharaoh. Artists commenced painting appropriate scenes on the walls immediately; there was no time to carve the scenes. As the tomb was being readied, embalmers prepared Tutankhamen's body for eternity.

    Mummification was primarily a physical process, but every stage of the embalming was accompanied, by religious rituals. The most important step was to remove all moisture from the body as quickly as possible. Bacteria need moisture to destroy tissue; if there is no water, the body will not decay.

    Both the brain and the internal organs are extremely moist, so to avoid putrefaction, they had to be removed soon after death. When Tutankhamen's body was brought to the royal embalmers, it was placed on an alabaster mummification table, inclined so that as work proceeded on the body, the fluids would run off into a basin below. The brain was removed by inserting a long wire into the nostril, breaking through the ethmoid bone into the cranium. The wire was then rotated--used as a whisk--to break down the brain tissue into a semi-liquid state that would drain out through the nostrils when the body was turned upside down. The embalmers preserved almost every part of the body so Tutankhamen would be complete when he resurrected in the next world. However, they discarded the brain, unaware of its function. Egyptians believed that you thought with your heart, not your brain, since it is the heart that beats rapidly when someone is excited, not the brain. In the Bible when pharaoh stubbornly refused to let the Israelites go, we are told "pharaoh's heart was hardened."

    After Tutankhamen's brain was removed and discarded, an incision was made in the lower left side of his abdomen so the internal organs could be reached. The stomach, liver, intestines, and kidneys were carefully removed and placed in shallow bowls. Later the desiccated organs were deposited in four miniature gold coffins in preparation for the day the king would resurrect in the next world. Only his heart was left in the body, so that he would be able to remember and retire the magic spells that would reanimate his corpse.

    Even after the brain and internal organs were removed, considerable moisture still remained locked in the body's soft tissues. To eliminate this, the embalmers covered Tutankhamen's body with natron, a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride--basically baking soda and salt. After the body had rested for thirty-five days in natron almost all its water had been leached out. The mummy now weighed less than fifty pounds and was ready for wrapping. As each bandage was applied, a priest wearing the mask of Anubis the jackal, the god of embalming, read magical spells that would ensure Tutankhamen's preservation and resurrection. The priests placed more than one hundred and fifty pieces of jewelry and magical amulets within the linen bandages to ensure the boy-king's immortality.

    As the embalmers practiced their art, master craftsmen throughout the land worked to prepare his funerary goods. There were wooden shrines to be carved and gilded, a gold mask and coffins to be fashioned, furniture, linens, clothing, and jewelry to be assembled. Preparation of the ushabtis figures alone was a major undertaking. These hundreds of little servant figurines were expected to magically come alive and serve Tutankhamen in the next world, each one an individual sculpture in wood or stone carved in the likeness of Tutankhamen (fig. 19). The figures were mummiform in shape, the image of Osiris, the god of the dead. Because Egypt was an agrarian society, the work in the next world would be farming, so the ushabtis held agricultural implements in their hands. Tutankhamen had 413 ushabtis, 365 workers, one for each day of the year, 36 overseers--one for each gang of 10 workers--and an additional twelve monthly overseers. There must have been panic in the workshops of Egypt as craftsmen worked in teams through the night to prepare for the burial of the pharaoh.

    Maya, the treasurer, commissioned a beautiful miniature wooden sculpture of Tutankhamen on a funerary couch holding a tiny gold crook and flail, so the gods would know he was a great king. Along the side of the sculpture an inscription proclaimed Maya's devotion to his young pharaoh: "Made by the servant who is beneficial to his lord, doing what he says, who does not allow anything to go wrong, whose face is cheerful when he does it with a loving heart as a thing profitable to his lord."

    At some point in the preparation of Tutankhamen's funerary goods, time ran out. The seventy days had elapsed, the embalmers' work and all the coffins were complete, but other ritual objects simply couldn't be finished on time. So the tomb of Tutankhamen's brother, Smenkare. was opened and the miniature coffins that held his internal organs were reused for Tutankhamen. Inside each coffin, inscribed in gold, is a prayer from the Book of the Dead, a collection of about 200 spells, incantations, prayers, and hymns. The prayers inside refer to Tutankhamen, but beneath his cartouche are traces of the name Smenkare, his brother.

    Seventy days after Tutankhamen's death, the funeral procession gathered on the west bank of Thebes to conduct his mummy to its house of eternity. The body was placed on a sled and a wooden shrine draped with garlands was placed over it. Across the top of the shrine two rows of beautifully carved and painted wooden cobras reared up to protect Tutankhamen on his journey to the netherworld. The sled was pulled by the palace officials. Pentu and Usermont, the ministers of Upper and Lower Egypt, wore the distinctive robes of their office, and were joined by ten other officials, all wearing white mourning bands around their heads. As the procession slowly made its way over the barren land toward the Valley of the Kings, the women wailed, tore their garments, and threw sand on their heads in the traditional gestures of mourning. Among them, but feeling very alone, was Ankhesenamen.

    When the pallbearers reached the tomb, the procession paused. In the course of wrapping the mummy. Tutankhamen's mouth and nose had been covered. Now, before he entered the tomb for eternity, a ceremony was performed to magically open his mouth so Tutankhamen would be able to breathe and say the magical spells of the Book of the Dead. The pallbearers, joined by the priests and members of the funeral procession, performed the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony for Tutankhamen.

    More a mystery play than a religious ritual, a dozen participants were required for the performance. The officiating priest held a papyrus describing how things should proceed. A small group of the officials played roles of the guards of Horus, who would help Tutankhamen be resurrected like Osiris in the next world. The area in front of the tomb where the play was to be performed was purified with water from four different vases, each representing one of the four corners of the earth. Four burners holding incense were lit, and various gods were invoked. A ritual slaughter was performed, commemorating the battle in which Horus avenged Osiris's death.

    In the myth, Seth's conspirators, after dismembering Osiris's corpse, attempted to escape Horus by changing into various animals, but Horus caught them and cut off their heads. Thus, at the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony various animals were ritually killed--two bulls (one for the south and one for the north), gazelles, and ducks. When the bull of the south was slaughtered, one of the legs was cut off and, along with the heart, offered to the mummy. By sympathetic magic, Tutankhamen became Osiris: The sacrificial killing of the animals represented the conspirators' who tried but failed to destroy the body of Osiris, and assured that the body of Tutankhamen would remain safe from such an attack. The slaughtered animals provided food for Tutankhamen's long journey.

    The high priest touched the mouth of the mummy with the leg of the bull, and then an assistant came forward with a ritual instrument shaped like an adze. Touching the mouth of the mummy with this implement, the priest recited:

Thy mouth was closed, but I have set in order for thee thy mouth and thy teeth. I open for thee thy mouth, I open for thee thy two eyes. I have opened thy mouth with the instrument of Anubis, with the iron implement with which the mouths of the gods were opened. Horus, open the mouth! Horus, open the mouth! Horus hath opened the mouth of the dead, as he in times of old opened the mouth of Osiris with the iron, which came forth from Set, with the iron instrument with which he opened the mouths of the gods. He hath opened thy mouth with it. The deceased shall walk and speak, and his body shall be with the great company of all gods in the Great House of the Aged One in Annu, and he shall receive the ureret crown from Horus, the lord of mankind.

While this ritual was being performed, Tutankhamen's body was resting inside the shrine on the sled, so a statue of Tutankhamen--one of the two life-sized guardian statues almost exactly the height of Tutankhamen--was used instead.

    At the conclusion of the ritual, the priest raised the adze and touched it to Tutankhamen's mouth, uttering the spell that would give the young king breath in the next world. "You are young again, you live again, you are young again, you live again, forever." He was now ready for immortality.

    The pallbearers carried the body of Tutankhamen-Osiris--he was now a Westerner like Osiris--down the thirteen steps leading to the tomb. At the bottom they turned right toward the burial chamber. On their left side they could see three five-foot-high ceremonial beds on which various rituals had been performed for Tutankhamen during the seventy days of mummification. At the corners of the head end of one bed were two beautifully carved hippopotamus heads covered in gold, the second bore the head of a cow with a sun disk between its horns, the third lion heads. These were the gods who controlled whether Tutankhamen could enter the next world. As the pallbearers slowly carried the mummy to the burial chamber, they took quick sideways glances, trying to take it all in--the burial treasures of a king.

    Waiting for them in the burial chamber was a rectangular stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other like Russian dolls. Their lids lay on the floor. The pharaoh was placed inside the innermost one. While the lector priest recited prayers, unguents were poured on the body to perfume Tutankhamen's way to the next world. Then the lid of the innermost coffin was placed over Tutankhamen, sending him into darkness, the last time anyone would see his face for thirty-three centuries. The lid to the middle coffin was placed on its lower half, and finally the outermost coffin lid was lowered into place. Each coffin bore a likeness of the boy-king. Once the final lid was in position, Ankhesenamen placed a miniature wreath--the "Wreath of Victory"--around the sculpted vulture and cobra protecting her husband's forehead. The tiny wreath commemorated the god Osiris's victory over his enemies. As the wreath was positioned, a priest recited:

Thy father Atum binds for thee this beautiful wreath of vindication on this thy brow. Live, beloved of the gods, mayest thou live forever.

    With that, heavy the heavy stone lid of the sarcophagus was slid into place. The sad party of mourners walked slowly up the steps of the tomb into the blinding sunlight. As soon as the mourners left the tomb, a team of workmen hurried into the burial chamber to assemble the panels of three nested shrines around the sarcophagus, as an overseer watched. When their work was completed, they were replaced by masons who constructed a plaster wall sealing the burial chamber from the rest of the tomb. The statue used for the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony and its twin were placed in front of the wall, guarding their king. The last objects for the tomb--chariots, chests of linen, ebony foot stools--were quickly carried into the antechamber by servants, watched all the while, lest the pharaoh's treasures be stolen from him. Now the antechamber was sealed by the masons, the wet plaster stamped with the seal of the Royal Necropolis, a jackal over nine bound captives, the nine traditional enemies of Egypt. Even in death, Tutankhamen was victorious.

    Ankhesenamen's long day was not yet over. A ritual last meal in honor of Tutankhamen's victory over death had to be eaten at the entrance to the tomb. The participants wore brightly colored pectorals made of flowers and beads sewn onto a papyrus collar (fig. 16). Normally the meal was eaten by the family of the deceased, but in this instance Ankhesenamen, Tutankhamen's last living relative, was joined by the palace officials--Pentu, Usermont, Aye, Aye's wife, Tey, and General Horemheb. The servants brought a banquet of sheep, four different kinds of duck, three different kinds of geese, all washed down by considerable quantities of wine poured from an elegant long-necked vase painted with blue lotus petals. But none present were thinking about the meal. They pondered their futures. Who could have known that two of the men eating together would become kings of Egypt, and, within a very short while, one of the two women would be dead.

    When the meal was completed, servants ritually broke the dishes, cups, and beautiful wine jar, and placed the fragments, along with the bones of the meat and fowl, inside large storage jars. They then swept the area with brooms and placed the brooms in the jars. The jars were sealed, carried to a nearby pit that had been dug, and buried. The funeral was over.

    We actually have the broken dishes, collars, and brooms from the last meal. They are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is indeed a surgical papyrus that instructs physicians whom to treat and whom not. Painted on Tutankhamen's tomb wall are scenes of the funeral procession and the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony. Of course, we have the treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb, but we also have X rays of his skull.

    But before we can get to the evidence of his murder, we must first understand what brought him to this moment. We must understand the evolution of Egyptian society, religion and its pharoahs. The next chapter is Egypt 101--a crash course in the history of Egypt that made the murder of a pharaoh possible. Stick with it and you will see the forces develop that bent Egypt until it snapped.

Table of Contents

1The King Must Die1
2Egypt Before Tutankhamen13
3Tutankhamen's Ancestors: The Glorious Eighteenth Dynasty33
4Amarna--The Holy City61
5Tutankhamen's Parents77
6The Return to Thebes101
7The Most Famous Tomb in History123
8Dead Men Tell Tales: Tutankhamen's Mummy159
9A Widow's Plea175
AppendixTestable Theories215

What People are Saying About This

Margaret George

For the first time we see Tutankhamen as a real person, not just the famous boy in the gold mask....A very entertaining and readable account. -- Author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra

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The Murder of Tutankhamen : A True Story 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
denmoir on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Bob Brier knows as much about ancient Egypt as anyone but no-one knows very much. This book is of the conspiracy theory school with a little scholarship sprinkled on top.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brier does an excellent job at conducting this book in such a way that one doesn't loose interest. He adds a personal twist to his writing, and it takes on an almost novel-ish form. I would highly reccomend this book to anyone interested in mystery, murder, history,egypt, etc....
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dr. Brier does an excellent job at tackling this mystery of much controversial debate. The supposed homicide of the young 'boy king' Tutankhamen... Whilst convincing the reader that he was murdered, he also adds the opposing opinions begirding the debate, allowing the reader to come up with his or her own conjectures, based upon supporting indicia. He also takes a journey back into the sociological aspects of Ancient Egypt, allowing the reader to reach further conclusions surrounding this antediluvian conundrum. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is willing to take a leap into this dialectical topic of reasoning, or who just is interested in Ancient Egypt in general.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brier establishes neither that Tut was murdered nor that the deed was committed by Aye, his chief of staff. He does, however, raise the succinct possibility that such a crime occurred, doing so with color and contagious enthusiasm which makes this book a pleasure to read. While not, strictly speaking, a standard history of the era, Brier's effort to prove his case makes the history come alive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brier does an excellent job with an obviously controversial topic. Was Tut murdered or wasn't he? The parallels between Tut's death and President Lincoln's death is almost uncanny; severe brain injury caused by an assassin and the question of how to and whether to treat the injuries. Not only are we presented with simply the murder itself, but we are given a wonderful account of medical practices in ancient Egypt as well as a history of the kingship. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am convinced that Tut was, indeed, murdered.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Murder of Tutankhamen:A True Story is the best book I've read so far. The best part is were he asks questions which makes you think what might have happened then and gives you enough information so that you understand it better. I recommend this to anyone who likes to read about Anient Eygpt.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've been studying Ancient Egyptian civilization for 10 years and have read many books. Bob Brier's book is written in a way that draws the reader in. Every page is a joy to read. Brier talks about how everyday life must have been for this young Pharoah, allowing the reader to see a more personal side to this king. Brier does an excellent job with relating Tutankhamun's ancestry and the king's surrounding world. This allows the reader to fully understand the boy that has been dead now for over 3K years. A great book!!!!