Thursday, May 19, 2011

Smenkhkare: The Phantom Pharaoh

Photo of the famous bust of Nefertiti in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin by Philip Pikart, courtesy of Wikipedia

This last semester I taught a class on deciphering ancient writing systems. In preparing my classes on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs I bought a couple of new books by Aidan Dodson, a popular British Egyptologist working out of Bristol University. I eagerly await his forthcoming book on the Third Intermediate Period, which is essentially the eleventh through the eighth centuries B.C., and has proven to be one of the most confusing and poorly understood periods of Egyptian history. In the meanwhile, he has two recent books that have been published by the American University in Cairo, both of which address other difficult periods in Egyptian history. The earlier of these two, published in 2009, is entitled Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. The full citation can be found below.

First, a few basic notes. I have the hardcover version and it is printed on high quality paper, and is an attractive volume. However, the book itself is relatively small, rendering the critical details in the illustrations oftentimes difficult to see and evaluate. The book appears to have been published in some haste as there are a number of typos and grammatical mistakes, especially in the early chapters. The maps at the beginning of the book also leave a lot to be desired, and certain places referred to in the text (eg// Isuwa, p. 54) are not found on any of the maps. A series of helpful appendices are provided at the end of the book. I most appreciated Appendix 3, which provides examples of the hieroglyphic names of the major royal characters in the book. Unfortunately, these are produced at such a small scale that one’s eyes are strained badly in trying to examine them.

On to the actual contents of the book: the “counter-reformation” referred to in the subtitle is the response to pharaoh Akhenaten’s attempt to do away with the cult of all gods other than the object of his own devotion, the Aten, the physical manifestation of the Sun God as a solar disk. During his 17 year reign this king overturned two millennia of royal tradition, shutting down the numerous temples for which Egypt has been so famous, and even moving the capital city away from Thebes, home of massive state temples dedicated to the local god Amun, in his fifth year. The new capital city was established in the virgin territory of Akhetaten (today known as el Amarna), in the middle of the country. At the same time this pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten (meaning “Spirit of the Aten”, or “Effective for the Aten”), from the previous Amenhotep (which means “Amun is content”). Akhenaten’s great royal wife was the famous Nefertiti, and she gave birth to at least six daughters – in order of birth, Merytaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten Jr., Neferneferure, and Setepenre - who in ubiquitous scenes found throughout Akhetaten, are shown in intimate, familial scenes with their parents. The intimacy appears to have extended well beyond these idyllic scenes, however, for Akhenaten seems to have fathered two further daughters – Merytaten Jr. and Ankhesenpaaten Jr. – named after their mothers, his own first and third daughters.

Throughout the art of Amarna Akhenaten and his family are shown being bathed in the life-giving rays of the Aten. Late in his reign Akhenaten carried out a wave of oppression against the god Amun (and presumably his powerful priesthood in Thebes), destroying this god’s images and gouging out his name, even when found in the personal names of his royal ancestors. Akhenaten died shortly thereafter and was ultimately succeeded by the boy king, Tutankhaten, who a year or two later expressed his return to orthodoxy by changing his name to Tutankhamun. (His name was actually pronounced something like TawatanakhamAN.) Tutankhamun had a short reign of a little less than 10 years, and upon his premature death was buried in his famous tomb, KV 62 in the Valley of the Kings. His burial was overseen by his probable maternal grandfather, Ay, who acceded as the new pharaoh. Ay ruled only 4 years before he was succeeded in turn by Horemheb, who subsequently damned the memory of all of these kings by erasing their cartouches and usurping their images, and later Egyptians simply counted their regnal years as those of Horemheb himself.

That is the basic picture of this era of Egyptian history. However, numerous questions remain about this period, caused in no small part by the damnatio memoriae inflicted upon pretty much everything associated with Akhenaten, who to later Egyptians was known simply as “the criminal of Akhetaten” or even just “the Enemy”. The biggest question has been over the royal person known popularly as Smenkhkare. Since this person takes a royal praenomen (the “royal name”, taken only upon accession) and included his personal name inside a cartouche, he was clearly a pharaoh.

The Royal Name, Ankhkheperure

The Personal Name, Smenkhkare (Djoserkheperu)

However, the question remains of who this individual was and how he was related to his predecessor, Akhenaten, as well as his successor, Tutankhamun. The debate over the identity of this pharaoh has been heated for a century now, with speculation ranging from the younger brother of Akhenaten (and thus another son of Amenhotep III), an older brother of Tutankhamun (and thus either the son of Amenhotep III or of Akhenaten), Akhenaten’s homosexual lover, the Hittite prince Zananza (more on him in a later post), or even the famous Queen Nefertiti or her daughter Merytaten, disguised as a male pharaoh.

Obviously, very little is known of this pharaoh. Only one known image of the sovereign exists, a scene found in the tomb of Meryre II at Amarna, where he is shown along with his consort, Merytaten, rewarding Meryre himself. This image was only painted on the wall, and had not been carved before the tomb was abandoned, along with the city of Akhetaten as a whole, when the court relocated to Thebes and Memphis, the traditional capital cities of Egypt. Apart from this image there are half a dozen royal seals and a single wine jar label bearing this name. The latter bears a reference to “Year 1” of a pharaoh, but while this could refer to Smenkhkare’s own regnal count, it could as easily refer to Tutankhamun, who appears to have been Smenkhkare’s direct successor and in whose reign the estates established by Smenkhkare just a few years earlier would have still been functioning.

A crucial part of the puzzle, and source of the controversy, surrounding Smenkhkare is tomb KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings. This tomb was discovered in 1907 and excavated by Theodore Davis, who found the jumbled remains of a number of different objects originally from separate tombs. This material included parts of a gilded wooden shrine inscribed for Queen Tiye by pharaoh Akhenaten, her son. At some point this chamber was broken into and the image and cartouches of Akhenaten were destroyed. The tomb also contained a gilded wooden coffin, inlaid with glass and badly damaged by rot. The anthropomorphic coffin had had its face ripped off, and a hieroglyphic text naming the owner with royal titles had had the cartouches gouged out. There were also four canopic jars, with stoppers in the form of human heads in the same style as the coffin. 

As with so much of the material in this tomb, the names on the canopic jars had been abraded and are essentially illegible, although they have been argued to represent Kiya, a junior wife of Akhenaten. Four “magical bricks” were found arranged around the tomb, and at least two of these did bear the name of Akhenaten himself. A few wooden boxes in the tomb, ransacked in antiquity, had originally been sealed in the reign of Tutankhamun, informing us when this eclectic assortment of objects were moved into this tomb from their original location in Akhetaten.

The body within the coffin in KV55 was badly damaged through water seeping in from flash flooding, and was mostly just poorly preserved bones, as well as the skull. The gilded shrine suggested to Davis that this should have been the body of Lady Tiye, but Arthur Weigall, who had been working as an archaeologist for Davis, thought it was Akhenaten himself, not least because the preliminary investigation of the osteological material indicated the occupant was male. However, Grafton Elliot Smith, the renowned anatomist of the early 20th century (and one of the key men involved in the Piltdown Man controversy), declared that his analysis of the bones indicated the person was only 25 or 26 years of age at death. This was problematic if this was to be Akhenaten as this pharaoh had a 17 year reign and the dramatic and forceful events he oversaw in the early years of his reign, including his proscription against the old gods and the building of and transfer of the capital to Akhetaten all suggest the actions of an adult and not a boy. Douglas Derry carried out another examination of the bones and his estimation of age at death was even lower than that of Smith; 23 years at the oldest. This definitely put Akhenaten out of the running and so many if not most scholars identified the body as that of Smenkhkare, especially after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62) in 1922, which included the latter pharaoh’s mummy. This left Smenkhkare as the only remaining male pharaoh of this period as a viable candidate. However, it is important to note that not a single item within KV55 bears any of Smenkhkare’s names or titles, a point that is often overlooked or glossed over by scholars.

While the specific name “Smenkhkare” is known from only a few surviving references, his praenomen Ankhkheperure is associated in a number of other texts and inscriptions with another nomen, that of Neferneferuaten (see below). This would normally be interpreted simply as a name change, where a pharaoh changed one of his names (for uncertain reasons). Akhenaten did just this, changing his nomen from Amenhotep to Akhenaten but retaining the praenomen of Neferkheperure. However, as with so much of Amarna’s history, things aren’t quite so simple.

The cartouches of Neferneferuaten indicate an intimate connection with Akhenaten, as his names regularly include the epithet “beloved of Akhenaten”. In the examples below we see the royal praenomen, Ankhkheperure, is suffixed with mery Neferkheperure, “beloved of Neferkheperure”, the latter being the praenomen of Akhenaten. Neferneferuaten’s nomen reads Neferneferuaten, mery Wa’enre. The latter, meaning “the sole one of Re’”, is a ubiquitous moniker of Akhenaten, and so this name means “Neferneferuaten, beloved of Akhenaten”.

Ankhkheperure mery Neferkheperure
Neferneferuaten mery Wa'enre
   So, if Smenkhkare were a male pharaoh, he apparently had an intimate relationship with his predecessor, Akhenaten, and the idea of a homosexual relationship between the two was born, first suggested by Percy Newberry in the 1920s following his analysis of the so-called ‘Pase Stela’, an image of which can be seen here. Here we see two rulers, both clearly pharaohs by their wearing pharaonic headdresses, in an intimate embrace. The image of Aten, the sun god, above indicates that one of these rulers was Akhenaten and for Newberry the second had to be Smenkhkare. As outlined in Nicholas Reeves’ superb book Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, John R. Harris noted that on this stela there are 7 uninscribed cartouches. “Two pairs of ovals, flanking the solar disc, had clearly been meant to contain the name of the Aten – which left a block of three blank cartouches, clearly, from their positioning, intended to identify the senior and junior kings. Two kings, however, require two sets of two cartouches; three can only refer to a king and his queen – despite the kingly crowns” (Reeves 2001:168).

Akhenaten’s chief queen was the famous Nefertiti and it so happens that when her husband changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten she changed her own name to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. Could Nefertiti be the real identity behind Smenkhkare? Certainly this would handily explain a whole series of puzzles about the end of the Amarna period in Egypt. It would explain the Pase Stela depiction, which would show Akhenaten and Nefertiti, both wearing royal crowns, in a loving embrace, typical of how this royal couple was depicted at Amarna. In addition, it explains why some pharaonic statues, found usurped from an earlier ruler in the tomb of Tutankhamun, clearly depict a female ruler. (Sadly, this was one of the statues damaged in the recent vandalism in the Cairo Museum.) One can also note that some seals of Ankhkheperure are actually spelled Ankhetkheperure, which is a feminine version of the name.

It would also explain why Nefertiti seems to have disappeared without a trace after Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign. At the same time as references to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti cease there emerges the coregent of Akhenaten, Ankhkheperure. While coregent this ruler bore the nomen of Neferneferuaten, the same as taken earlier by Nefertiti. Probably after Akhenaten’s death this nomen was changed to Smenkhkare, perhaps to signal her independent rule as sole pharaoh.

This is the conclusion of Nicholas Reeves, and he in turn is following the pioneering work of John R. Harris. This is not the conclusion, however, of Aidan Dodson. Dodson, like many, seems to be in thrall of the osteological age-estimates for the body in KV55, and, by eliminating Akhenaten as a possible candidate for this individual, is forced to accommodate in his reconstruction of the dynastic history of this period a young, male pharaoh named Smenkhkare.  However, unlike many earlier scholars who saw only one, male, ruler bearing the praenomen of Ankhkheperure, Dodson accepts that Nefertiti was a coregent with Akhenaten under the name Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, but one that ruled after the earlier coregent, the male Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare. (I will leave the reader to investigate in Dodson’s book why he places these two coregencies in this order.)

The problem I have with Dodson’s interpretation is that it is entirely dependent upon the age estimates for the body in KV55 being so young. Dodson does try to bring in the only surviving image of Smenkhkare, from the tomb of Meryre II, which shows this ruler in typical male garb, but this cannot be considered anything like conclusive proof, since the earlier and certainly female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, also had herself portrayed regularly as a male. Given that the office of pharaoh was traditionally that of a male, the notoriously conservative artists of Egypt typically portrayed all pharaohs in very stylized poses and costumes and an image of a ruler as a male does not exclude the possibility that the individual was actually female. This leaves the body in KV55, and Dodson is not alone in taking these age-estimates, most of which were done half a century to a century ago, as solid and accurate data.

The trouble is that estimating the age of bodies, especially ancient remains, has always been at least as much an art as a science, and the field is fraught with examples of estimates that were subsequently proven to be quite wrong. Ironically, in Dodson’s subsequent publication, Poisoned Legacy: The Fall of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty (2010), he admits as much, pointing to the famous Spitalfields studies as reason to be wary of accepting the estimated ages of the mummies of Merenptah and Seti II (Dodson 2010:29, 80-81). When the Christ Church cemetery in Spitalfields, London, was excavated, osteologists had the chance to compare their estimates of the age of the interred against the actual burial records. Only 30% of the age estimates were correct to within 5 years, and only 50% to within 10 years (ibid). In Mesoamerican archaeology a classic example is the tomb of Pakal at Palenque. While the hieroglyphic texts indicated that Pakal was 80 years old when he died, the earliest estimates for the age of the body in his tomb were only 40 – 50 years. However, fifty years after they were first examined a more recent study has concluded that the bones are indeed those of an elderly man, and while it is very difficult to precisely age the bones of a long-lived person (they are old because their bones are comparatively young), this new examination concluded that an age of 80 is indeed consistent with the actual bones (Tiesler Blos and Cucina 2006).

In fact, just such a re-examination has occurred. Under the direction of Zahi Hawass a reanalysis of the KV55 mummy took place, indicating that this individual could indeed have been much older than previously thought. Hawass also oversaw a DNA study of a number of Amarna period mummies, but I won’t get into those details here. They can be seen in his 2010 article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (see bibliography below). Hawass has concluded from these studies, though, that the body in KV55 is none other than that of Akhenaten himself. For me the evidence regarding Smenkhkare is, while not absolutely conclusive (and circumstantial archaeological evidence never can be), very strong that this is just another guise of Nefertiti. She has long been renowned as a great beauty but can now be credited as an ambitious woman who ruled as pharaoh, likely first as a coregent under the name Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten in the later years of her husband, Akhenaten, and then (probably quite briefly) as an independent ruler under the name Smenkhkare.


Dodson, Aidan
2009            Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt.
2010            Poisoned Legacy: The Fall of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty. The American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.

Hawass, Z., Y. Z. Gad, et al.
2010            Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family. Journal of the American Medical Association 303/7: 638-647.

Reeves, Nicholas
2001            Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Tiesler Blos, Vera, and Andrea Cucina
2006            Reconstructing the Life and Death of a Maya Ruler. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

1 comment:

  1. smenkakhare was prophet joesph akenaten was the king at that time
    and he had a dream which smenkakhare explained