Theories Explaining King Tutankhamen's Death


Tutankhamen (ca. 1341 BC – 1323 BC) was a Pharaoh, an Egyptian king, who ruled ancient Egypt between 1332 BC and 1323 BC. His 10-year reign suddenly ended because of his untimely death at the age of 19 (Hoving, 1978). He is popularly known as King Tut. When archeologists, Howard Carter and George Herbert, discovered his jewel adorned mummified body in a tomb that was nearly intact, a worldwide public interest in the life of the hitherto little known King Tut aroused immediately. The DNA tests confirm that Pharaoh Akhenaton was his father, and his mother, whose mummified body has also been found, was his father’s blood sister (Hawass, 2008). After ascending to the throne, Tutankhamen married Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenamum), his half- sister. The couple was the parents of two stillborn daughters. It appears that among the Egyptian royalty, the incest (marrying one’s sibling or another close relative), in order to preserve blood purity, was a common practice.

Theories behind the Death of King Tutankhamen

The untimely death of the young Pharaoh has caused immense controversy and attracted attention of many scientists. Numerous theories have been brought forward to explain this event. Some historians, including Egyptologists, have arrived at the conclusion that Tutankhamen died of an illness (Pays, 2010). Various scientists have also suggested that genetic defects resulting from the incest committed by Tutankhamen’s parents was a probable cause of his death. The proponents of this theory claim that King Tut could have suffered from either Marfan syndrome or sickle cell disease. The genetic defects theory is further strengthened by King Tut’s appearance. He is said to have had an elongated skull, which could have been a result of the incest of his parents. On the other hand, it was within normal boundaries; therefore, it was very unlikely to have caused mental retardation in the young king. The research has also shown that Tutankhamen had scoliosis, a medical condition, which causes the spine to curve to one or another side.

Another theory of Tutankhamen’s death suggests that he died of malaria. Forensic experts conducted DNA analysis on his remains and found out that he had suffered from malaria; therefore, it is as likely as not that this illness killed the Pharaoh. Another popular theory of Tutankhamen’s death is that he was murdered by some palace servants who were unhappy about his domestic policy. In his policy, he pushed Egypt further into monotheism started by his father, strengthening the position of the god Amun Ra and eliminating the supremacy of the god Aten. This policy might not have gone down well with some of his citizens who wanted the status quo maintained; they plotted against Tutankhamen and, eventually, could have killed him. The major shortcoming of this theory is that palace servants held their king in high esteem, and it was highly improbable that they would kill a reigning pharaoh, a descendant of god. One more explanation brought forward is that King Tut was murdered by Ay, a senior official that succeeded Tutankhamen. He realized that since Tutankhamen did not have any children, he would become the next Pharaoh if he killed him and married his widow (Hawass, 2008). Bob Brier, an Egyptologist who lectures at the Long Island University, is a strong advocate of this theory. He points out that the marriage between Ay and Ankhesenamum was forced and undesirable by the woman. In order to prove this assertion, he presents a letter the queen sent to the king of Hittites, Suppiluliumas, begging him to order one of his sons to marry her so that she would not end up being a wife of a servant (Hoving, 1978). Scientists think that Ay was the most obvious servant, about whom she was talking. She lamented that she should never have married servant commoner; however, the son who was sent died en route to Egypt.

Some researchers have identified Horemheb, the king’s deputy and chief priest, as another possible culprit. The proponents of this theory claim that Horemheb felt insecure, as the king grew older, became more independent, and relied less on his guidance. They also point out to the fact that, in his reign as pharaoh which came after Ay’s reign, he did away with most of Akhenaten’s policies and had Tutankhamen’s name removed and replaced with his own one (Hawass, 2008). Researcher, Mohamed El-Saghir, who heads the Upper Egyptian Antiquities, considers that this evidence is insufficient to prove Homremb’s guilt, since it was common for pharaohs to try to outdo their predecessors. The murder theories were rejected by a research conducted on Tutankhamen’s body by a team of radiologists and geneticists. By performing the CT scans, the scientist arrived at the conclusion that the cause of his death was not a blow on his head as many murder theory proponents had suggested pointing at the fracture on his skull.

The Disease Theory

With the elimination of the murder theory, the disease theory remains the most plausible explanation of Tutankhamen’s death. The death was most probably caused by a combination of more than one medical conditions (Hoving, 2008). CT images have showed congenital flaws that are common in children born in the incest families. In 2010, a team of German scientists was able to pick up evidence that King Tut suffered both from sickle cell disease and Marfan syndrome, which were of genetic nature and could develop because of his parents’ incest (Pays, 2010). Ismail Somaia and Yehia Gad from the Egyptian National Research Centre, as well as other researchers from Cairo University, Eberhard Karls University, and Central Hospital Bolzano, have all concurred that Tutankhamen and his family suffered from various genetic malformations. Tests also confirmed the presence of Plasmodium falciparum, the pathogen responsible for causing malaria in Tutankhamen’s body. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that Tutankhamen died from some kind of disease. 

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