Ancient History & Civilisation


Statues of Memnon in Thebes.

THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF AMARNA, FORMERLY THE ANCIENT Akhetaten, is some three hundred miles south of Cairo, where the desert cliffs come right up against the Nile’s eastern bank for a stretch, plummeting straight down into the water. Then suddenly they recede in a semicircle or arch, only returning to the riverbank ten miles downstream.

When Egypt was the mightiest power on earth, in the fourteenth century BC, this remote, desolate spot suddenly became the new capital. The pharaoh, Akhenaten, had chosen the place not for political or strategic reasons, but because it was in harmony with his speculations about the nature of the world. There was a break in the cliffs here where the sun could be seen rising at dawn; and this break exactly resembled the hieroglyph for “horizon”—the moment of the sun’s daily rebirth, when it returns from the land of death, chaos, and night. At pharaoh’s command, a city arose quickly under the “sign”—priests, architects, artists, soldiers, tradesmen, and courtiers suddenly appeared on the barren plain.

The site was inhabited for only two decades: during Akhenaten’s seventeen-year reign and then for the three years his mysterious successor, Smenka’are, was on the throne. At the beginning of the following reign—Tutankhamun’s—Akhetaten was abandoned and the court returned to Wast (Thebes, Luxor).

In 1892, Carter, mere copyist no longer, debuted as an excavator in Amarna under the direction of the terrible Flinders Petrie. Carter’s great “guess”—that Tut’s tomb still remained to be discovered—began here, as he immersed himself in this ancient moment in time, making it his own.

The cast of characters at Akhetaten:

Tutankhaten, Living Image of the Aten (later changed to Tutankhamun, Living Image of Amun). Son of Akhenaten by the snub-nosed, carefree-looking royal favorite nicknamed Kiya, or “Little Monkey.” Though Tutankhamun passed only his childhood at Akhetaten—he was a bit player here, waiting in the wings—its religious, political, and artistic milieu formed him and determined the main events of his reign. It was the world into which he was born. Without understanding Akhenaten’s revolution and the reaction against it that followed, one may be dazzled by the beauty and splendor of the objects in Tut’s tomb, but one will not understand the tale they tell.

Queen Tiye, mother of Pharaoh Akhenaten and great wife of his father, Amenhotep III. She came to live at Akhetaten during the reign of her son. Tiye was in the tradition of strong women going back to the beginning of her dynasty (the Eighteenth). She followed in the footsteps of Queen Aahmose, for example, who was awarded the golden flies, the medal for military valor; and Queen Hatshepsut, who usurped the throne and ruled alone for thirty years. Tiye was given extraordinary prominence in the records of the time and was a power to be reckoned with in her own right.

During the thirty-eight years of the reign of her husband, Amenhotep, there was peace. No other kingdom dared challenge it. It was unnecessary for Amenhotep III to engage in long military campaigns or to cultivate the martial virtues of ancestors. Instead, he covered Egypt with magnificent temples—and devoted himself to the concubines of his huge harem (on one occasion alone, 316 Mitannian beauties were received into the harem).

The pet names of his favorites, recorded on cosmetic palettes and perfume jars, show him to have been an old voluptuary. However, neither “Little Miss Whiplash” nor any of the other harem ladies presented a challenge to Queen Tiye—they were mere diversions for the debauched king, shown in a late portrait as obese and wearing a woman’s gown.

In his perceptive article “Hair Styles and History,” Amarna expert Cyril Aldred took up the gender-bending aspect of life at Akhetaten. Describing two Amarna portraits (carved canopic vase stoppers), he remarked, “What may capture our interest in these two heads of royal sisters is the side light they throw upon the character of the age … in which members of the royal family exchange each other’s clothes, the kings wearing a type of woman’s gown and appearing with heavy hips and breasts; and the womenfolk wearing their hair cut in a brusque military crop.”

Aldred might have added that the women’s hairstyle, “the Amarna look,” was created by chic court ladies who copied the wigs of the Nubian soldiers—and not even the officers’ wigs, but the coarse head coverings of the lowly infantry, who must have caught a princess’s eye.

It was a sign of the times. At the beginning of the dynasty, some two hundred years earlier, the preoccupation was with creating a vast empire. For the first time, Egyptians looked beyond the Delta and the narrow Nile valley. Now, however, the players at pharaoh’s court—wealthy, secure, and sophisticated—developed a penchant for artistic, philosophical, and sexual experimentation (a situation similar to our own times, in fact, which is perhaps why the era has provided so much food for thought for modern figures ranging from Freud to Philip Glass, who used Amarna texts, verbatim, in his opera Akhnaten).

But if Tiye’s husband had given himself up to sexual preoccupations, and if her son was now obsessed by God, the queen was interested in politics, remaining an important political influence during both reigns (in fact, we find the king of Mitanni writing to her on Akhenaten’s accession to assure continued good Mitannian-Egyptian relations, an unprecedented situation). Her establishment at Akhetaten was a large one—palace, gardens, stables—but her body did not remain there after death.

When Akhetaten was abandoned, her grandson Tutankhamun took her for burial in Thebes, most probably in KV tomb #55. Although when it was discovered, the tomb, pillaged in antiquity, did not contain Tiye’s body, a shrine found there indicates that it once had been there. The queen was portrayed on the gilded wood worshipping the Sun Disk together with Akhenaten (luckily, the image was recorded right away, for it soon crumbled to golden dust).

There was another burial in tomb #55 whose identity is much debated. A man in a gorgeously inlaid coffin with an intricate rishi, or feather design. He might be Smenka’are—or he might be Akhenaten, reburied here by his son. The names on the coffin were purposely destroyed in antiquity, and half of his face mask was torn off. But the style of the coffin and the canopic vases (for his viscera) were pure Amarna. And royal. The question of his identity became important to Carter when he started keeping a keen eye on which royals had been found and which had not. The idea that Tutankhamun would have brought both his grandmother Tiye and his father or brother to Thebes would suggest that his own tomb must be somewhere near theirs.

However, through a series of exasperating ancient and modern mischances, everything relating to tomb #55 is problematic. Evidence has been destroyed, crucial pieces of jewelry stolen (by a laboratory assistant), the mummy damaged through rough handling. For a century, Egyptologists, anatomists, dentists, and DNA experts have all offered contrary theories about the royal mummy in the feathered coffin. The trouble began, in fact, from the moment the tomb was discovered. An American obstetrician who happened to be in Luxor was called in and, after examining the mummy, misidentified its sex (one has to be grateful that the young man, whoever he was, was not expecting).

Most probably, Queen Tiye’s body was removed from #55 during the next dynasty (the Ramesside era) and hidden together with a cache of other royals in KV tomb #35. She is the mummy called the Elder Lady in this group (again, most probably). Her clutched right hand is raised across her breast in royal position, her expression incredibly striking even in death. After three thousand years, the Elder Lady’s face still emanates the strength and dignity of Tiye’s statue portraits—leading one Amarna expert to call it “striking, almost beautiful.” Her reddish (hennaed?) hair flows down to her shoulders and has been matched with a lock of hair in Tut’s tomb—a keepsake found in a miniature gold coffin.

Pharaoh Akhenaten, Servant of the Aten, or Sun Disk. Revolutionary thinker or tyrannical fanatic—or both. Frequently portrayed with exaggeratedly feminine features, with heavy hips and breasts, and sometimes, like his father, in a woman’s gown.

The pharaoh’s private life: devoted husband of the famous beauty Nefertiti; affectionate images of them with their six daughters are everywhere at Akhetaten. Also gay icon: On the Pase stela (now in Berlin), Akhenaten is seen in loverlike pose with Smenka’are, his son from a minor wife. Smenka’are became co-regent late in the reign, and on inscriptions his name was followed by the epithet “beloved of the king’s body.”

After Nefertiti’s death (around year 12 of the reign), Akhenaten married their eldest daughter, Meritaten, making her great royal wife. Akhenaten’s reign lasted seventeen years and was followed by Smenka’are’s short reign. During his three years as pharaoh, Smenka’are married Meritaten, his half sister, formerly their father’s daughter-wife—making Smenka’are Akhenaten’s son, son-in-law, co-regent, and lover all in one, a real-life situation very much like one of the Marquis de Sade’s extravagant fantasies.

It should be noted that father-daughter or sister-brother marriages were de rigueur for Egyptian pharaohs and their Greek successors, all the way down to Cleopatra, who was married to her younger brother early on in her career—being gods, they emulated the incestuous gods. However, Akhenaten’s relationship with Smenka’are was unique in Egyptian history. Attempts have been made to interpret the Smenka’are figure on the Pase stela as Nefertiti in drag—that is, to identify the co-regent, later Pharaoh Smenka’are, as actually being Nefertiti in male attire and with a new name. But as Amarna expert Cyril Aldred points out, the discovery of a Nefertiti shawabti, or magical funeral figure, in a context preceding Akhenaten’s death conclusively disproves such theories: Such shawabti figures were always created after their owner’s death. Put simply, Nefertiti could not have succeeded Akhenaten since she predeceased him.

Akhenaten also married his third daughter, Ankhesenpaaten. After his death, she was married to her half brother Tutankhamun, and her name was changed to Ankhesenamun. Portraits of the beautiful young girl in Tut’s tomb are made all the more poignant by her spirited struggle to save herself after Tut’s death (an exchange of letters written on baked clay recorded the events). However, in the end she was unwillingly married to her maternal grandfather, Ay, and disappeared from sight, most probably murdered.

The pharaoh’s spiritual life. Breaking with more than a thousand years of Egyptian belief, Akhenaten’s all-consuming idea was that there was only one God. He writes “The Great Hymn to the Aten,” a paean of praise to the Sun Disk, the god who brings comfort and joy to all creatures. Its text is to be found on the huge boundary stelae of the new capital (there are some seventeen of them, many discovered by Petrie accompanied by Carter on long desert walks). The poem was suppressed during the reaction against Akhenaten. It was thus lost from the 1300s BC until the AD 1880 s, when it broke upon the modern world as a revelation, comparable to the later Hebrew Psalm 104 for its all-embracing religious feeling.

In his wonderful study of Egyptian religious texts, Jan Assman defines the new faith with precision. For Akhenaten, “visible and invisible reality in its entirety is a product of light and time, hence the sun.” Assman goes on to “place” Akhenaten in the history of ideas, remarking that “as a thinker, Akhenaten stands at the head of a line of inquiry that was taken up seven hundred years later by the [pre-Socratic] Milesian philosophers of nature with their search for the one, all-informing principle, that ended with the universalist formulas of our own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg.”

Fittingly, the pharaoh took as his motto: To Live in Truth, Ankh em ma’at—a word carrying the connotation of cosmic equilibrium. To live in ma’at was to sustain the world in the face of ever encroaching chaos and darkness; it was to perform acts of justice, to be in sync with the eternal.

But perhaps to be in sync with the eternal also means to be out of sync with one’s contemporaries. For during Akhenaten’s seventeen-year reign (1379-1362 BC), Egypt was suddenly turned inside out by royal decrees.

The old gods were no more. Fashioning their statues became not only foolish, but a crime. Their images were chiseled off temple walls and pillars by pharaoh’s “enforcers,” and we even find them fearfully erased from amulets found in private houses. What need was there to portray divinity? God was in the sky for all to see—the Sun Disk became the sole symbol of the new faith. Its rays ended in hands reaching down to the royal family, offering them the ankh, or life sign—an image that not only is omnipresent at Amarna, but also finds its way into Tut’s tomb despite his restoration of the old faith.

It was a remote, abstract symbol compared with the gods the Egyptians had always turned to—the grotesque squat Bes, who helped women through childbirth; or the ram’s-headed Amun, who led the country in war; or the cow-eared Hathor, goddess of love. How can the woman in labor, the soldier in battle, the unrequited lover, cry out to an idea?

However, Akhenaten decreed that they must, and the old temples were closed. The images of the gods were no longer carried forth on festival days amid feasting and song. The oracles that explained the inexplicable were likewise silenced. A feeling of foreboding and a sense of apocalypse spread throughout the land. “O Amun,” reads a graffito scratched on the cliffs, “how I long to see you once more….”

To fully appreciate the shock all of this caused, one must keep in mind that the function of these temples was different from that of modern houses of worship. They were not meant to serve the populace (who were forbidden access beyond the outer courtyards). Rather, they had been built to honor the gods upon whom existence itself depended.

The Apis or Mnevis or Buchis bulls had always dwelled in their sacred precincts. Divine incarnations, the god-beasts (chosen for their markings) were pampered until death—when they were given elaborate state funerals in many-ton sarcophagi (together with their mothers). Their vast tombs contained generations of the holy animals. In Sobek’s shrines, the pools were filled with divine crocodiles glittering with jewels sewn into their tough hides. By night, temple recluses slept by the pools, hoping for prophetic dreams. By day, priests and priestesses danced and sang as the creatures fed on the choicest meats—paid for by pious donations, by state support, and by the fees of temple prostitutes.

In Amun’s dark holy of holies, priests washed, anointed, dressed, and “fed” the images with sacrificial food. Chanting spells and burning incense, they then resealed the chamber, having assured the renewal of creation—more, having participated in it with their service.

As a perceptive contemporary Egyptologist (James Peter Allen) puts it, for the ancient Egyptians the cosmos was “marvelous but vulnerable … a bubble of air and light within an otherwise unbroken infinity of dark waters.” The sunrises and sunsets, the yearly overflow of the Nile, the growth of the crops, all depended on the temple service performed since time immemorial. Without it, the dispossessed priests of the old order predicted, disaster would follow. And it did, in fact, follow—though perhaps more from human error than divine displeasure.

For while Akhenaten wrote his lyrical poem to the Sun Disk, his Asian provinces fell to the enemy one by one. His vassals sent desperate letters, begging for soldiers:

“Rib Hadda says to his lord, King of all lands: I fall at the feet of my Lord, my Sun, seven times and seven times! Why does the King, my Lord, write to me: Guard! Be on your Guard! With what shall I guard? Who would guard me? …”

“Gulba is in danger. The children and wood are all sold to Yarmiata for food. The Khabiri killed Adma, King of Irgate….”

“If this year there are no archers, then all lands will be joined to the ’piru.”

“Rib Hadda says: whenever the king of Mittani was at war with your fathers, your fathers did not desert my fathers. Now the sons of ‘Abdi-Ashirta, the dog, have taken the cities….”

But the pharaoh had put his army to a better purpose—quarrying stone and raising temples to his great new idea. The empire was crumbling, the irrigation canals were neglected, the old temple bureaucracy upon whom so much depended no longer functioned.

Even if they could somehow know it, Akhenaten’s suffering subjects would not have been consoled by their ruler being first in a line of thought that ends with Einstein! They would have infinitely preferred his “normal” older brother (who died young)—even if his only accomplishment had been to leave behind him, as he did, a tomb for his cat inscribed “MIEU,” meaning “Kitty.”

When the boy Tutankhamun became pharaoh, the powers behind the throne (the priest Ay and the general Horemheb) presented him as Egypt’s savior. A stela (the restoration stela) proclaimed that he had come to redeem the ruined land—which in a pragmatic sense was certainly true. A new era began as Tutankhamun sailed away from his father’s phantasmagorical city. The populace followed, taking everything that could be carried and leaving the city to the vultures, jackals, and white ants that devour whatever is made of wood (thresholds, window grilles, doorjambs, lintels, tables, roofing materials—Petrie was severely disappointed by the total lack of everyday implements in the ancient houses).

Once the “great criminal” Akhenaten died, his magnificent city died with him. The enormous palaces that had arisen here overnight were stripped of their fine stone facings. The colossal gilded pillars sparkling with colored glass and faience inlays were carted away. The pavements covered with brilliant mosaics and painted with trompe l’oeil scenes slowly sank beneath the encroaching desert sands. The aviaries, gardens, and zoos were destroyed. The thousands of small stones (talatas) on which intimate royal family scenes were painted were taken downriver to be used as fill in the thick gates (pylons) at Karnak and Hermopolis. The royal statues were shattered. The barracks were deserted, as were the artists’ studios, the officials’ offices, the royal stables, and the immense open-air temples dedicated to Akhenaten’s new god.

All memory of the pharaoh was suppressed. If he was remembered at all, it was in the form of a strange myth passed down to later generations. Like a troubling nightmare, the tale was told of a city of lepers gathered together by a king who sought to see God. And how this king brought years of suffering and desolation to Egypt (a story later writers such as Manetho and Josephus will conflate with that of Moses). Three millennia would pass before the archaeologists arrived to piece together broken jars and fragments of friezes and an equally fragmentary understanding of the truth.

Last, but not least: Amarna’s artists and architects.

At Amarna, the hitherto unbreakable rules of Egyptian art and architecture were broken—splendidly. A naturalistic spirit suddenly breathed into the friezes, wall paintings, and portrait sculptures.

The creative spirit was freed, and great works were produced. The famous bust of Nefertiti was only one of fifty works of art, many unsurpassed for beauty, found in the atelier of the artist Thutmose—who was well rewarded, if the luxury chariot he drove was any indication. (His name was inscribed on an ivory horse blinder: “praised together with the perfect god, the Chief of Works, the Sculptor Thutmose.”)

In a letter from Amarna, Carter described a carved tablet he had just unearthed (now in the Louvre). On one side was a vase filled with fruit and flowers, next to which “Khuenaten [Akhenaten] is seated upon a throne dancing the Queen upon his knee with the two Princesses upon her lap…. Petrie says he does not know of anything like it in Egypt….”

And there was nothing like it, or like the other exuberant, sensitive Amarna portraits, especially the king and queen, who in previous reigns had always been depicted in one or another of the traditional poses (smiting the enemies or standing before the gods). At Amarna, however, we see Akhenaten relaxing en famille—the queen dines, holding a duck in her hands; the king embraces his daughters or holds hands with his wife. The young princesses play with pet gazelles or make music or, adorned with jewelry and wearing red nail polish, sit naked by the riverside.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the pharaoh’s sanction. And, in fact, we are told that it is Akhenaten himself who showed the way: “I was one who was instructed by pharaoh,” the architect Bek declared in a biographical inscription from a stela, under which he had carved an unsparing, realistic image of himself. Potbellied, flabby breasted, bald, middle-aged, with sunken cheeks, spindly legs, and a worried expression, Bek is no beauty—but his work was marvelously beautiful and new.

Garis Davies, who spent six years recording the Amarna tombs in the early 1900s, wrote in his monumental survey, “The rows of complex columns [papyrus shaped with bud capitals] finishing at the wall in pilasters with cavetto-cornice, and carrying either a simple or a corniced architrave, is an architectural element which, by its harmonious blending of straight lines with curves and of the plain with the broken surface, may bear comparison with features of classical architecture that have become imperishable models”—a judgment that would have gratified Bek.

Finally, there was the huge crowd of extras at Amarna, some fifty thousand of them:

Scribes writing in the new manner Akhenaten decreed to bring the written language closer to the spoken one.

Large numbers of soldiers bivouacked in the center of the city to crush any opposition to the unpopular regime. They could be seen accompanying Akhenaten on the friezes: When the pharaoh rode out, he was always surrounded by his bodyguards. Their outlook posts and patrol paths surrounded the city.

Courtiers raised up from obscurity to ensure their loyalty to the pharaoh who made them.

These, then, were the players at Akhetaten/Amarna. It was a daunting place for the eighteen-year-old Carter to begin his career: rich in disturbing images, inversions, ironies, beauty, and drama—that is, rich in history.

Not to mention a certain tomb that lay hidden in a wild ravine in the eastern desert—empty except for mud and rubble. Given the number 27, it is the tomb of Tutankhamun—his first tomb, that is.



WHO WAS THAT YOUNG JUNKY ROLLING A CIGARETTE NEXT to the Great Aten Temple? He looked so pale and exhausted, in another world as he stood there next to the excavation pit. The abysslike ditch got deeper every minute as the sweating, singing workers threw up more and more earth—looking for the past, which, like the truth, was at the bottom of a bottomless well. And the junky became more and more nervous, from time to time shouting out commands in halting Arabic and then stopping to go through the spoil that had already been gone through. First by the reis, the chief of the workers and guards; then by the under-reis, the one-eyed, split-nosed Mohammad; and then by the under-under-reis, Ali Es Suefi Hussein.

But the junky must have been too high to notice this. He pushed aside a basket boy, got on his knees, and went through the upturned earth with his hands, hoping for something more than the rubble and sand that ran through his fingers.

What was wrong with him? He was probably high as a kite, having stumbled on a stash in one or another of the tombs (as sometimes happened). For sure he’d found some high-quality Balanites aegyptiaca sycamore seeds among the grave goods of some brother-junky (who’d planned on staying stoned for eternity).

But no, the young guy was not a junky: It was Carter—and so changed after a month with the slave-driving Petrie that it was hard to recognize him (his first patrons, whose lapdogs he had sketched at Didlington Hall, showed up at Amarna on their luxurious dahabiyya; and as Alicia Tyssen-Amherst noted, they were shocked by his appearance). And though some Balanites aegyptiaca sycamore seeds would probably do him good, it was only Turkish tobacco he’d indulged in, the one luxury available to him here. What was more, he’d indulged in it furtively—ready to toss away his cigarette should his boss show up.

For though Carter had now climbed a rung on the ladder of success from “assistant archaeological artist” to excavator; and though he now received a meager salary for the first time since coming to Egypt (fifty English pounds a year)—he realized that his future depended on acquitting himself well at Amarna.

Forget the terrible extravagance of Turkish tobacco, Petrie did not approve even of using a donkey on their long desert treks. Carter had rashly suggested it, as he recorded in his unpublished memoirs (still remembering the awkward moment some thirty years later): “I had to run almost to keep up with Petrie’s long quick strides. Once I murmured that a donkey would be useful. My request was received by a dead silence. It temporarily upset the mutual equanimity. But no man is wise at all times, perhaps least of all when he is tired.” And the fledgling excavator was very tired! “Excuse my shaky handwriting,” he wrote to his Beni Hasan colleague Percy Newberry, “but I have just been out on a walk with Petrie that lasted from 8am to 8pm.”

The two formed a curious pair as they roamed the Amarna desert—the older man sparse, athletic, and so ragged and unkempt that the Bedu children taunted him with cries of “Beggar!;” the younger man meticulously dressed and struggling for breath as he tried to spot Akhenaten’s boundary stelae amid the barren cliffs. Which was how Carter spent his day off—sometimes. Other Sundays, he scoured the desert alone, at Petrie’s request mapping the ancient roads, paths, and tracks where Akhenaten’s soldiers had once circled.

The daily grind of excavation, however, was even more strenuous. Standing under a burning sun, he watched through a haze of dust and blinding light as his crew, twenty-two Egyptian men, dug up—nothing. That is, so far. But his luck was bound to change, he was sure of that.

The job required all of Carter’s concentration; he couldn’t look away for an instant. Because in that instant, Petrie had impressed upon him, it would be easy for a workman, shoveling for hours, to miss a mud seal or to pocket a ring suddenly turned up in the sand—irreplaceable finds. Take a ring offered for sale by a Cairo dealer in the 1920s—stolen during an excavation? forged? The names of Tutankhamun’s young widow, Ankhesenamun, and her grandfather Ay were entwined on its bezel, giving us an idea of her fate when Ay seized the throne—if only we could trust it! If only we knew the ring’s provenance, the place and manner of its discovery.

Or take a mud seal. In and of itself worthless, it provides an even better example of the way Carter would learn to conjecture, leaping over wide gaps of knowledge on the strength of a guess. It was not only a question of knowing who was buried where and by whom—although as we shall see in a moment, that certainly was very important (if only because the process of elimination would turn Carter’s attention to Tut, among those pharaohs not accounted for).

However, the real challenge was for Carter to develop intuition—he defined it in his memoir as “a subtle recognition of the facts.” But in archaeology, “the facts” can be understood only together with the desires, fears, and beliefs of an epoch, in this case the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (Tut was the last in this line). Only a deep understanding of Tut’s time, call it “intuition,” would have enabled Carter to believe in his quest through seven long years of fruitless digging.

But to return to the nervous young excavator watching over his excavation pit for statues, jewelry—and the above-mentioned clump of mud—that is, the seal of a jar of preserved meat, perhaps; or bee honey, “sweet and of the first class;” or best of all, wine, nehimaa, twice excellent.

Its importance was inestimable, whether once or twice excellent. For wine jars almost always were dated (as mentioned, the years numbered from “1” at the time of the pharaoh’s accession and continued in sequence until his death). Thirty-eight vintages were attested to for Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father, while Akhenaten’s wine jars ended at year 17.

Let us enter Carter’s mind. “In the course of my work [at Amarna], I often perplexed myself with many conjectures,” he remembered later—and there will be no better way to understand the young excavator than by “perplexing ourselves” with one of these conjectures, too.

This was the real change that Carter went through here. It was not just that he was digging instead of drawing; what was crucial was that he was beginning to “play” with the evidence he encountered, to imagine and speculate and “perplex himself” with the many possibilities of the finds.

So, let us follow a train of thought that takes as its starting point the figure just given us by the wine jars: Akhenaten’s seventeen-year reign. First, we must take these seventeen years together with other evidence (such as the dates at which Akhenaten’s six daughters begin to appear on monuments, in the beginning as children and later with sunshade kiosks of their own in which they worship the Aten). The wine jars and the children allow us to arrive at a life span for the pharaoh: Most probably, Akhenaten died in his early thirties.

So far, so good—but typically for archaeology, there is a delay. The next step takes place fifteen years later (the blink of an eye by Egyptian time)—which is when KV tomb #55 is discovered.1* Keeping in mind the life span established for Akhenaten (that is, having kept it in mind for fifteen years), we can then rule him out as the unidentified royal mummy in #55. For when tomb #55’s young man in the gorgeously inlaid and gilded coffin is examined by the professor of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine, Dr. Grafton Elliot Smith, it is found that his epiphyses (or long bones) had not yet fused: one of several anatomical indications that he was in his late teens or early twenties at the time of death.

But can Carter rely on the anatomist’s report? Was Smith correct? From the moment Smith performed his autopsy on KV #55’s mummy, his pronouncements were questioned; in fact, Smith’s successor in Cairo, Dr. Douglas Derry—specialist in mummies, whales, and hermaphrodites—would come up with contrary proofs of his own some forty-two years later. Again typical of the way archaeological deductions proceed, feeling their way forward, step by uncertain step.

The archaeologist Arthur Weigall (present at #55’s opening) was firm in his opinion that the mummy was Akhenaten. He based his opinion on other evidence in the tomb: “magic bricks” inscribed with Akhenaten’s name and jewelry adorning the mummy. Besides this, other objections to Smith’s anatomical findings were raised: For example, can we be sure that the fusion of the long bones took place at the same age for ancients as it does for moderns? On close scrutiny, every “fact” Carter had to rely on became questionable, which was where intuition came in—knowing what to believe and what to reject.

For the moment, though, let us tentatively stick to the deduction that the young man in tomb #55 is not Akhenaten—if only because he shows none of the physical abnormalities displayed on Akhenaten’s colossal statues, the large hips and spindly legs, the breasts and elongated skull, and so on. (Not forgetting that this “proof” might also be objected to: that these statues might be not realistic portraits but simply icons conforming with Akhenaten’s new theology. Or that if Akhenaten indeed had such physical traits, they would match a sufferer of Froelich’s syndrome—indicating that he was sterile and not the father of six daughters and two sons. The back-and-forth is endless.)

But there is no going forward without a leap of faith. So let us proceed by saying: The youth in the gilded coffin was certainly not Akhenaten (clinging to those unfused long bones of tomb #55’s young mummy—and to our wine seals, the evidence that helped us establish Akhenaten’s longer life span).

Next: Let us assume that Tutankhamun had his father’s body carried to Thebes after Akhetaten was abandoned (there would be no way to ensure its safety at the deserted capital, a remote, uninhabited place; whereas the Theban valley was carefully guarded and patrolled during the Eighteenth Dynasty). So if Akhenaten’s body is not in KV #55—clearly a tomb used for reburials from Amarna—then perhaps the tomb where he was reburied still waits to be discovered. Or perhaps, again, it does not: Perhaps in ancient times vengeful priests of the old religion dug up his mummy and destroyed all vestiges of it.

These were the twists and turns that eventually led Carter to Tut. At Amarna, Carter was focused on Akhenaten. He was like a man courting a girl without realizing that the woman he was fated to marry was her sister (Tut), whom he’d passed by unnoticed on the front porch.

And Tut was very much on the “front porch” at Amarna—his presence was almost tangible here, though he had no great monuments or stelae. Carter walked in his footsteps practically from the moment he arrived. Slipping down to the Nile by night, the young excavator started his career ass backward, burying, not digging up treasure: Burrowing out a hole near the river, he hid whatever cash he had on him (on Petrie’s advice). The same riverbank where Tut performed a wonder some thirty-three centuries earlier.

For though he was only a child of four or five, Tut had astonished his courtiers by cutting one of the thick reeds that grow here (he could do very little that would not astonish the courtiers). “Behold! A reed cut by His Majesty’s own hand!” a scribe had recorded on the reed. Which ended up in Tut’s tomb together with a pair of narrow linen gloves he’d worn as a child.

But such mementoes, very human reminders amid the tomb’s jewels and gold, were still in his sealed tomb some three hundred miles to the south. The young Carter burying his money by moonlight as of yet did not even know Tut’s name (Nebkheperure Hekaiunushema Tutankhamun, for short)—though in the course of his career, Carter not only will discover Tut’s tomb, but will become intimately acquainted with all of Tut’s ancestors (either discovering or digging in their tombs).

Starting with Akhenaten, Carter will go back seven generations to both tombs of the regnant queen Hatshepsut. At Wadi e ‘Táqa e ‘Zeide, an isolated, inaccessible desert valley, he will have himself lowered down the sheer face of a steep plunging cliff, where he discovered her first tomb at the ending of a long winding tunnel dug deep in the cliffside.

Using a thirty-two-candlepower engine, he will electrify the tomb of Tut’s great-great-grandfather Amenhotep II (the first to be lit up in the Valley of the Kings). Out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock, he will skillfully train the light over the pharaoh’s severe face, leaving the rest of the burial chamber in shadows.

Driving through traffic in a taxi, Carter will hold Tut’s great-grandfather Thutmosis IV in his arms as he takes the long-haired, ear-pierced pharaoh to be X-rayed at a Cairo hospital.

And as that minor distraction—World War I—rages he will dig up the foundation deposits in the huge hypogeum of Amenhotep III, Tut’s grandfather, piecing together fine faience shawabtis, or magical figurines, shattered by grave robbers thousands of years before.

Throughout all his work, the experience Carter received here at Amarna was essential. His steps will be guided by mud seals and broken rings—and the archaeological intuition he was just beginning to develop. “Under his [Petrie’s] acute perspicacity my ideas, sometimes very original, generally melted into thin air, especially when he pointed out to me that there was not the slightest foundation for them. Intuition develops slowly … and with experience, knowledge also develops. Petrie’s training transformed me, I believe, into something of the nature of an investigator, [showing me the way] to dig and examine systematically.”

Looking back in this passage from his memoirs, Carter was wry about his “very original” ideas that “melt into thin air,” but at the time he was as nervous and tortured by self-doubt as an actor suffering from stage fright.

Which he should have been—for his responsibility was enormous. After only a week of watching Petrie in action, despite his inexperience he was given Akhenaten’s Great Aten Temple, while Petrie took for himself the palace and the center of the ancient city, its offices, barracks, and houses. But what did Carter know about excavating, really? Very little when it came down to it—almost nothing.

It was a situation that would not have been possible at any other time. But Egypt was a “house on fire,” in Petrie’s words. Its fragile ruins, important clues to the riddle of humanity’s past, were being destroyed by natural disasters, thieves, and fellahin. Peasants squatted in the tombs and temples, settling together with their goats and camels among the forgotten gods and the ancient dead.

They used the mummies of their ancestors for firewood, they ravaged the ruins in a search for gold and silver—or simply for sebakh, the nitrous compound formed by the ruins’ rotting mud brick they used as fertilizer. Foreign dealers conducted a brisk trade in patches of friezes and paintings (cut out from tomb walls, provenance purposely disguised)—whatever was stolen disappeared, unrecorded, into private hands; the integrity and significance of the whole was in danger of being lost.

Catching a thief hanging around the edges of the dig at night, Petrie remembered that “one worker held him down while I walloped him. He swore he would go to the Consul; that I had broken his leg. I let him crawl off on hands and knees some way and then, giving a great shout, rushed at him, when he ran off like a hare.” Other times the swift-footed Petrie chased the thieves into the desert jumping over irrigation ditches and canals. “A run of two to four miles is exercise valuable morally and physically,” he noted with satisfaction.

The ruins had to be saved and recorded, and the job had to be done quickly. There was no time to be scrupulous about a thief’s broken leg—or about Carter’s lack of credentials and experience. Working at a speed that would be inconceivable today, Petrie drove himself and his new assistant to the limit.

Carter was very much on his own here. All beginnings are hard, the saying goes, but Carter’s was more difficult than most. Petrie was often remote and withdrawn, preoccupied with excavating the huge site. Carter had to build his own dwelling himself, a mud brick house at the edge of the ruins—rough quarters where he slept on palm fronds and was plagued by insects and scorpions. His command of Arabic was not yet good enough to permit him to communicate beyond basics with the workers. Deepening his sense of isolation, he had just received word from England that his father had died, but he had to put off the mourning until after he had made a few discoveries—that was what counted now.

And the discoveries did come. Slowly, it was true, but the main thing was that one by one they emerged from the huge pit (six hundred by four hundred feet and four feet deep), the finds recorded in Carter’s precise hand.

Fragment. Neck and shoulders of a figure. Fine limestone

Two hands with offering table

Mauve duck. Faience [nonceramic clay]

Leg, life size. Good stone. Fine work. Dry finish

Magician’s bronze serpent

Shoulder, bit of side. Double life size. Good stone. Fine work


Fragments of the king’s face: thick lips, long nose, feminine


Torso of the king. Pure white semi-crystalline limestone

Nefertiti, hands touching, offering flowers to the sun

There were broken glass vessels, imported Aegean pottery, scarabs, bezels of broken faience rings, some bearing royal names—the princess Meritaten, Baketaten, and Neferneferure-tasherit (that is, junior, to distinguish her from her mother, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti Mery-Waenre).

And there were jars—small ones for eye salve; larger ones marked honey, oil, and fat. And wine jars by the hundreds; their broken bits came up from the earth, along with their discarded seals—stamped with their day, month, and year.

There were capitals of pillars that supported the temple’s courtyard: palm leaf in form, their dazzling two-colored glazes separated by gold ribbing.

Vases were found, false necked, wide necked, and pear shaped. Bowls and jewel boxes. Amulets and whips.

Work stopped the minute there was a find. Carter climbed into the pit and had to judge how to proceed. Sometimes a delicate object would need on-the-spot conservation, without which it would turn to dust. Having the hands of an artist, Carter became known for his light touch (later, a dried floral wreath found on Tut’s coffin—a last farewell from his young wife?—survived only because of his care).

The large pieces presented different problems—the heavy, fragmented slab of a frieze with its portrait of Nefertiti on Akhenaten’s lap; or the altar table Akhenaten set up at the founding of his new capital. Moving them safely also required a skill he was beginning to acquire—God help him, he could not afford to be clumsy with Petrie just a few ancient blocks away.

The days passed to this rhythm: long periods of watchfulness followed by the sudden excitement of a find; followed in turn by the slow, painstaking process of preservation, recording, packing. Only after hours, or in the early morning before work began, could Carter relax.

Wandering among the desert cliffs, the eighteen-year-old sought the company of a group of beautiful virgins of thirty-three … centuries. For the courtiers’ tombs at Amarna were almost all virgins (in the archaeological lingo of the day)—that is, although the tombs had superbly chiseled entrances, and sarcophagus slides, and pillared chambers with friezes cut in intaglio on the plastered walls, the burials for which they were intended never occured.

On their walls, Carter could see whole the shattered faces and fragmented torsos he had been digging up. In one tomb, Akhenaten and Nefertiti rode out from the palace in gilded chariots, escorted by priests and courtiers and a heavy military bodyguard. In another, the king in the blue (khepresh) crown sacrificed to the Aten, grimacing as he severed the neck of a duck. The young princesses stood nearby, shaking the rattlelike sistrum during the sacrifice and prayer. And in all of the decorated tombs, the royal couple stood on “the balcony of appearances,” showering down golden collars to reward the tomb owners for their service: the steward Ipy #10; the general, Ramose #11; the royal secretary, Any #23; the king’s doctor, Pentu #5.

Clever, ambitious men, the courtiers abandoned Akhetaten at the death of the pharaoh, fleeing this doomed place of intellectual speculation and religious fervor. But though they returned three hundred miles south, ordering new tombs and reverting to old beliefs, even in those Theban tombs we can see that a change had taken place. Their tomb paintings displayed the new freedom of artistic expression seen everywhere at Amarna—in statue portraits of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, in the friezes from the Great Aten Temple, and most especially on a magnificent decorated pavement that Petrie uncovered one day.

So enthralled was Petrie with the discovery that from its first moments he sent away the workmen. He insisted on doing everything himself, not allowing even Carter to help.

On its painted tiles birds took flight with a vivid upward rush of motion that made the reeds tremble. Calves frolicked in the high grass and fish leapt from the waters of trompe l’oeil lakes. Amid its profusion of flowers were representations of Egypt’s enemies, Libyans, Nubians, and Asiatics, prostrate and bound.

Treading carefully on a specially constructed wooden walkway (that he himself had made), Petrie copied the scenes, though Carter, the better artist, could have produced a finer copy. While Petrie worked, Carter sat idle for once, listening eagerly to his mentor’s ideas.

For it was worthwhile to hear Petrie conjecture, Carter wrote, even about a thistle—the thistle in this case being one drawn by the ancient artist “with admirable freedom of the branching,” as Petrie pointed out. He compared it with the lotus plant next to it, drawn “with all the formality of the stiffest Egyptian [style].”

“If one plant was naturally varied, why not the other?” Petrie asked (a question that found its way into Petrie’s publication of the pavement in Tell el Amarna in 1894).

“Here the artist’s education is seen,” Petrie deduced. “The artist had been brought up to draw the stock subject, the lotus, and he could not see it otherwise; whereas on plants to which he had not been trained, such as the thistle, he threw his full attention for copying.”

It was typical of Petrie that if he was alive to every ancient nuance, he was also alive to every modern expense. He interrupted himself to mention to Carter a forgotten detail of their arrangements: The price of Carter’s monthly ration of canned food and the paraffin lamp he had been given would be deducted from his salary. Then he returned to his all-consuming task—preserving the wonderful pavement.

Despite Petrie’s care, however, it was doomed to survive only in his copy. Word spread about the amazing find, and soon the luxurious dahabiyyas of the rich came sailing down from Cairo. The aristocrats trampled through the fields on their way to the site—what were a few pennies’ worth of sugarcane to them? Finally, one night a vengeful peasant farmer, sick of the arrogant khawagas, smashed the pavement beyond repair. Only Petrie’s copy and a few tiles remain to give us a sense of what once had been.

But still visitors continued to appear, drawn by word of another discovery: the tomb of Akhenaten found in a ravine to the east of the ancient city (a unique orientation—facing the rising, not the setting, sun). The Service des Antiquités’ old steamer arrived among the pleasure boats. It brought Professor Archibald Henry Sayce, linguist, Egyptologist, and Assyriologist, who had come to join Petrie and Carter in their first visit to the tomb. For the discovery of the tomb, announced in Cairo, had caught even them by surprise. It was an example of the fiercely competitive politics of the time. It seemed that the French, in cahoots with locals who had been “disposing” of whatever they could sell, had known about the tomb for some years, not letting the British archaeologists in on the secret.

Indignant over French duplicity and cunning, Petrie was nevertheless as eager as a boy to visit the tomb, running ahead of his colleagues to be the first Englishman to descend into it. While Sayce copied its inscriptions, Carter sketched a scene in room gamma: Akhenaten, his wife, Nefertiti, and their entourage weep for their daughter Meketaten, who has just died in childbirth. The mourners pour dust on their heads, while in the background a royal nurse looks on as she holds the child. The scene Carter drew, more than three thousand years old, made first-page news in the Daily Graphic of March 23, 1892. A media craze was created over the ancient findings, though Carter privately wrote to a friend that the tomb, greatly vandalized in antiquity, was “a wash”—an opinion that may be considered a case of sour grapes, seeing as how Carter had had his heart set on discovering it since the days of the Hatnub fiasco.

But more important than the tomb from a historical point of view were the eighteen ancient letter-fragments Petrie turned up during Sayce’s visit, along with Egyptian/Akkadian word lists, or “dictionaries” (used to translate state documents into Egyptian from Akkadian, the fourteenth century BC language of international diplomacy). They were part of a cache discovered five years before by a peasant woman searching for fertilizer amid the ruins. As she tossed the rotting mud into her cart, she noticed something hard in the earth—more than three hundred baked clay tablets covered in cuneiform, the wedge-shaped script they were written in.

A specialist in cuneiform, Sayce had been working on the letters, difficult to translate because of the diplomatic jargon employed in their writing—words that had gone out of use even in the fourteenth century BC (old Babylonian formulas and logograms from Sumerian, a language that had ceased to be spoken a thousand years before Akhenaten’s reign)—not to mention scribal errors, words borrowed from Ugaritic, and unusual Canaanite constructions.

Despite all the linguistic problems, as Sayce read Petrie and Carter his first attempts, the ancient voices miraculously came alive. Taking just one letter—say, the message of Asshurbalit, king of Assyria, to Akhenaten—and putting it together with the colors of Petrie’s glazed tiles and the shapes of Carter’s fragmented statues; with bits of gilded pillars and inlays from temple walls—a moment from the court at Akhetaten magically came alive.

A letter had arrived in Egypt sometime in the 1370s BC. The men who carried it had crossed plains and rivers. They had navigated the Great Green (the Mediterranean) and finally made the long trip down the Nile. Great Assyrian nobles, they had vied for the honor of bearing their king’s message to Egypt’s strange new ruler.

Their very un-Egyptian appearance must have caused a stir as they made their way from the quay to the Great Palace: their long, flowing hair, their curled, perfumed beards, and the rich, heavy Assyrian state robes worn on such occasions.

The chief among them had the letter-tablet tied around his neck, its baked clay envelope stamped with the heavy royal seal.

They were kept waiting in the palace’s open courtyard. Enormous gilded pillars in the shape of papyrus stalks rose on all sides, their bud capitals opening to the sun that beat down on the Assyrian messengers. They stood amid the gifts accompanying their king’s letter: exotic animals and gold vessels filled with perfumes; chariots, horses, and slaves, all duly recorded by pharaoh’s scribes.

What the message contained, we do not know. But what happened, now we know from the next letter Asshurbalit sends. Pharaoh had told the messengers to wait, and they obeyed. How long—one day? two? three? We can almost see them standing in the splendid courtyard, surrounded by their rich gifts, as one by one they stagger in their state robes, fall to their knees, and die.

Perplexed and offended, the Assyrian king wrote: “If staying out in the sun means profit for the pharaoh, then let my messenger stand in the sun till he dies. But there must be a profit to the king. Otherwise, why should he die in the sun?”

But this letter was ignored as well; for pharaoh, indifferent to politics, was obsessed by his great discovery—that there was only one God.

As Carter sat eavesdropping on the ancient voices, one wonders whether he was struck by the strangeness of his life. Only a little more than a year before, he was trudging through the English countryside, hustling to earn a living with his sketches of pet parrots and horses and dogs. And now the ancient world surrounded him; its rich fabric of human contradictions had become the subject of his waking hours, his preoccupation, and his passion.

But it was impossible to know Carter’s thoughts at this moment. Whatever they were, he kept them to himself. As Petrie later said, looking back on their time together at Amarna, “I little thought how much he would be able to accomplish.”

1* To recap: Tomb #55 was the unusual Valley of the Kings tomb in which a hurried reburial took place—actually, a double reburial. Two royals were brought here from Amarna. Presumably, these reburials occurred when Amarna was abandoned by the new pharaoh, Tut, who brought his relatives’ mummies back to the traditional burying place.

Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother and Tut’s grandmother, was one of the burials. The second is more problematic. Who is the young man in the gorgeously inlaid coffin with half the face mask ripped off and its identifying names defaced? That is the question. Could it be Tut’s father, Akhenaten? Could it be his father’s short-lived successor, Smenka’are, Tut’s brother?

At this point, before the discovery of Tut’s tomb, if it can be established that Tut reinterred his father, Akhenaten, or his brother, Smenka’are, in tomb #55 in the Valley of the Kings, then it would be likely that Tut’s own tomb would be nearby. Which turned out to be the case. Tut’s tomb was found a few steps from KV #55.

For a more detailed description of tomb #55, see Queen Tiye in the “cast of characters,” chapter 6.

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