The name Amenhotep means “Amon is satisfied.” Amon had reason to be satisfied. The old provincial god of Thebes was now Amon-Re, king of the gods, and his priests controlled what was probably the richest ecclesiastical establishment in all of Egypt. To the temple of Amon, with its ever-growing circle of administrative and financial offices, came a goodly proportion of the foreign tribute. The memory of Thutmose III was still fresh in the minds of Egyptian vassal princes in Syria and Palestine; the military campaigns of his son and grandson reinforced Egyptian prestige in those areas and kept Asiatic tribute pouring south into Egypt. From Nubia and from the mines in the eastern desert gold continued to flow into the coffers of the king and the god. And to the king, besides gold and tribute, came letters from the rulers of the great powers of the ancient Near East—not only Mitanni, but Hatti, Babylon, and Cyprus—humbly requesting gold and offering their daughters for the harem of Horus.

As the head of this luxurious and wealthy society, Amenhotep III deserved the epithet “the Magnificent,” which has been given him by modern historians. In his youth he showed signs of the athletic ability which had been the boast of his grandfather, Amenhotep II; an inscription claims that he killed over one hundred lions between his first and tenth years of reign. But the third Amenhotep carried out no important military campaigns, not even the customary punitive expedition into Syria at the beginning of his reign.

Among his wives Amenhotep III numbered not one but two Mitannian princeses. They are only names to us—Gilukhepa and Tadukhepa, just for the record—but his chief queen was a more remarkable figure. Her entrance into the royal family was treated in a manner that is unique in ancient Egypt. Amenhotep the Magnificent announced his marriage in a series of commemorative scarabs, the same shape as the well-known beetle amulets, which modern tourists have carried away from Egypt by the thousands, but large enough to contain a short inscription on the flattened base. This inscription read:

May he live, Amenhotep III, given life, and the King’s Great Wife Tiye, who lives. The name of her father is Yuya, the name of her mother is Thuya; she is the wife of a mighty king whose southern boundary is as far as Karoy, and northern as far as Naharin!

This announcement can be interpreted in a number of ways, but to me it sounds like a challenge. Tiye was not a king’s daughter. The tomb of her parents was found in 1905. It had been entered in ancient times, the coffins opened and some of the grave goods stolen. A lot was left, though, and the exposed mummies were in excellent condition. Tiye’s father, Yuya, was a fine-looking man; suggestions that he was non-Egyptian, of Asiatic or Nubian origin, have no actual basis in fact. Yuya’s titles are not indicative of high rank. He is called “Master of the Horse,” and parts of a model chariot found in the tomb bear out this role. His wife had the usual titles of a court lady, in addition to being designated “Mother of the King’s Chief Wife.” Yuya’s only other title of interest is that of “Father of the God.” What god, one might ask? The king? We will defer this question until later, if you don’t mind. It’s another of those arguments Egyptologists love.

One might also ask why Amenhotep married this daughter of commoners and made her his consort. Queen Tiye was chief wife in the fullest sense, appearing conspicuously upon the monuments of her husband and receiving letters from foreign monarchs which imply that she had a voice in political decisions. There is a small head in the Berlin Museum which is usually assumed to be be a portrait of the lady; although interpretation of physiognomy is always subjective, there is no way that woman could have been a meek, submissive wife. It’s a striking face with a full, firmly set mouth framed by hard lines; the chin is outthrust and the eyes hooded. Beautiful, no; but not all the great charmers of history have been beauties.

It is pure romantic fiction to claim Tiye so captivated the youthful king that he defied convention by raising her to such a high position. There are a number of prosaic theories to account for her rise to power. Some are based on the exasperating absence of evidence about family connections and relationships. As I mentioned when discussing Hatshepsut, we know very little about the collateral branches of the royal family. How much power did such cousins have? Did they carry some of the royal prestige—and if so, for how many generations? Maybe Yuya was distantly related to Amenhotep III. Maybe he had enough personal influence with the king and the party in power to push the claim of his daughter. Such suggestions abound, and there is absolutely no proof of any of them. Yuya and Thuya had at least one other child—a son, Anen, who was second prophet of Amon. This is not a neglible title, but it is not on the same level as vizier or high priest. Unlike his parents, who were honored by a tomb in the royal valley, Anen was buried elsewhere. It’s all very confusing, but I just don’t get the impression that the king’s in-laws necessarily had much power at court.

We don’t know how old Amenhotep III was when he inherited the throne. The mummy that has been identified as his probably isn’t. In the earliest reliefs from his reign he is accompanied by his mother, which has led scholars to suppose that he was a minor when he became king. The marriage scarab is dated to his second year, and if he was hunting lions during his first years of rule, he can’t have been a toddler.

One of his first projects, perhaps, was the great colonnaded hall that stands on the east bank of the Nile, not far from the modern Winter Palace hotel. (The original structure was added onto by a later king, Ramses II.) It dominates the view of modern Luxor from the riverbank. At Karnak Amenhotep built a huge new pylon, the third, by today’s reckoning.

Though Amenhotep, like most Egyptian kings, had royal residences all over the place, his principal palace was at Thebes, on the West Bank across from modern Luxor. There’s not much left of it today, but originally it was a great sprawling structure that covered almost eighty acres and included several subsidiary palaces, presumably for his queen and his heir. Next to it the king excavated a huge harbor connected to the Nile; the resultant earth mounds are still visible, though only an informed eye would recognize them for what they are. The modern name of the site is Malkata. Amenhotep called it “The Mansion of Nebmaatre Is the Dazzling Aten.”

Nebmaatre was Amenhotep’s throne name. But who, one might ask, was the dazzling Aten?

This is our first encounter with a name—a god—who was to loom large in succeeding years. Originally aton was a common noun that referred to the sun itself. Later on the word acquired a “god” determinative and became personified during the reign of Amenhotep’s father, Thutmose IV. Just how far his prominence extended under Amenhotep III is open to question. So far as we know, Amenhotep built no temples for him and raised no statues.

Unless, as recent theories propose, he didn’t need them because Amenhotep himself was the “Dazzling Aton.”

Every Egyptian pharaoh was a god—sort of. He was the Horus while he lived and Osiris after he died. He was called “the good god,” and “Son of Re,” and like Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III carved a series of reliefs showing his mother being impregnated by none other than Amon-Re. But was Amenhotep III more of a god than other kings?

After he had been on the throne for thirty years Amenhotep III celebrated his first Heb-Sed, or Sed festival (also referred to as “jubilee.”) The ritual goes back to the earliest dynasties and was a complex performance involving a number of activities such as making offerings to the gods and receiving offerings, and running races. One can’t help wondering whether this originated as an actual test of the ruler’s vigor, which was identified with that of the tribe or city. Such procedures are known, not only from Africa, but from other parts of the world; failure could be fatal. It makes a certain amount of sense, really, if one believes in magic. A weak ruler could weaken an entire people and was replaced for the good of the group.

Be that as it may, the Egyptian version was one of rejuvenation. The king was restored, by dogma if not in actuality, to full strength. In theory the first jubilee took place after the king had ruled for thirty years and was repeated at three-year intervals thereafter. There are innumerable exceptions to the rule, however, and it may be that special circumstances required emergency treatment. Amenhotep III celebrated three such jubilees, the last in his thirty-seventh year.

During these years Amenhotep produced an enormous number of portraits of himself—statues all over the place, not to mention reliefs in the temples. Some of the earliest show a baby-faced Amenhotep, with round cheeks, a pouting mouth, and large slanted eyes. This would be in keeping with his age when he assumed the throne, but the change actually begins with his father, Thutmose IV, whose tomb images show him with similar features. Portraits from late in the reign of Amenhotep include several that seem to be more realistic, showing him as paunchy and slumped, with a lined, tired face. A letter from the king of Hatti, saying that he is sending a divine statue to help his brother king back to health, supports the idea that toward the end of his reign Amenhotep was suffering from some form of illness, and some scholars point to the mummy which was identified as his as further proof. It has horribly abscessed teeth. I, and others, doubt that this is the body of Amenhotep, but that doesn’t mean he was a healthy man. As we are constantly informed, indulgence and lack of exercise aren’t good for people.

Unfortunately the neat progression of artistic depictions, from baby-faced to aged, may not be so neat after all. Not long ago an authority on Egyptian art, W. Raymond Johnson, concluded that many of the statues once believed to date from early in the reign of Amenhotep III were actually produced during that king’s later years, after the first Heb-Sed. The change is deliberate, according to Johnson, indicating not only bodily rejuvenation but a change in the status of the king. He became a literal, living god, none other than the Aten himself, and the alteration of his features was accompanied by changes in his ornaments and attire, indicating his divine nature. Like most theories in Egyptology, this one is still being debated.

Like other kings of the Eighteenth and Nineteeth Dynasties, Amenhotep built himself a mortuary temple along the cultivation on the West Bank. Amenhotep’s mortuary temple was the largest of the lot. So badly destroyed was it that in modern times nothing remained except a vast plain covered with weeds and prickly camel grass—and two of the most imposing monuments on the West Bank, the so-called Colossi of Memnon. These giant, badly battered statues marked the entrance to the temple. Recent excavations by a German team have uncovered buried remains of the structure itself, including some fine statues.

The man responsible for the erection of these gigantic statues is an interesting character in his own right. His name was Amenhotep, son of Hapu, and like that of another great official, Imhotep, it survived in men’s memories for millennia, so that he became a demigod. His only titles were those of a scribe and he is shown in the traditional scribal position, seated, with his writing implements on his lap. But the king Amenhotep must have cherished him, for there are several such statues, carved by the king’s order, and the scribe even had his own mortuary temple, a signal token of royal favor. He was eighty years old when he died, and how we wish we knew more about him!

Amenhotep the king broke with tradition by building his tomb in the West Valley of the Kings, not the main East Valley, where his ancestors rested. It was, of course, robbed in antiquity, but it was extensive and beautifully decorated. Some scholars believe that two separate sets of rooms were intended for the burials of the great royal wife Tiye and one of her daughters, Satamon, who also held the title of chief queen, which means that Amenhotep not only married his daughter but had two chief wives simultaneously.

Satamon is another of those elusive princesses. Nothing much is known about her. Maybe she died young. That would explain why she was never married to her brother, the heir, as was customary, but it doesn’t explain why she married her father. Amenhotep may have married another of his daughters. Why? Theories abound, but they are only theories. If Satamon was buried in Amenhotep III’s tomb she didn’t stay there. Her present whereabouts, like those of many royal women of this period, are unknown. Her mother, Queen Tiye, is missing too. We will have more to say about her in the next chapter.

It may seem that we have given rather short shrift to a king who merited the appelation “Magnificent.” Yet despite his accomplishments Amenhotep III is less well known (and, to me, less interesting) than his immediate successors. The great royal wife, Tiye, had presented her husband with several daughters and at least two sons. One of the sons, a prince named Thutmose, died before his father, which made his younger brother the heir. Tiye’s second son came to the throne bearing one of the traditional names of his house, Amenhotep, which honored the great god of his city. He didn’t keep it long. As Akhenaton, the name by which he is known to history, he initiated changes in religion, art, and society that make him the most controversial and intriguing of Egyptian kings; and his successor, under the irreverent journalistic nickname of “King Tut,” is better known to the world at large than are any of the great rulers of ancient Egypt.

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