Tutankhamun (also spelled as Tutenkhamen, or Tutenkhamon) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. His reign covered the years ca. 1332 BC – 1323 BC in the conventional chronology.

He is popularly referred to as King Tut.

His original name, Tutankhaten, means “Living Image of Aten”, while Tutankhamun means “Living Image of Amun”.

In 1922, Howard Carter and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered Tutankhamun’s nearly intact tomb – an event that received worldwide press coverage. It sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, for which Tutankhamun’s golden burial mask remains a popular symbol.

In February 2010, the results of DNA tests confirmed that he was the son of Akhenaten (designated as mummy KV55) and Akhenaten’s sister and wife (mummy KV35YL), whose name is unknown but whose remains are positively identified as “The Younger Lady” mummy found in KV35.

Tutankhamun was roughly 19 years of age, when he died – and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery, to this day.

First, His Life

Tutankhamun was the son of the pharaoh Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV), and one of Akhenaten’s sisters. As a prince he was known as Tutankhaten.

He ascended to the throne in 1333 BC, at the age of nine or ten, taking the throne name of Tutankhamun. His wet-nurse was a woman called Maia, known from her tomb at Saqqara.

When he became king, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten, who later changed her name to Ankhesenamun. They had two daughters, both of whom were stillborn.

Computed tomography studies released in 2011 revealed that one daughter died at 5–6 months of pregnancy, and the other at 9 months of pregnancy. No evidence was found in either mummy of congenital anomalies or an apparent cause of death.

His Royal Court

The young king’s powerful advisers, probably included General Horemheb, the Vizier Ay, and Maya, the “Overseer of the Treasury”.

Horemheb records that the king appointed him “lord of the land” as hereditary prince to maintain law. He also noted his ability to calm the young king when his temper flared.

His Domestic Policy

In the third year of his reign, Tutankhamun reversed several changes made during his father’s tenure.

He ended the worship of the god Aten, and restored the god Amun to supremacy. The ban on the cult of Amun was lifted and traditional privileges were restored to its priesthood.

The capital was moved back to Thebes, and the city of Akhetaten was abandoned

As part of his restoration, the king initiated building projects, in particular at Thebes and Karnak, where he dedicated a temple to Amun.
Many monuments were erected, and an inscription on his tomb door declares that the king “spent his life in fashioning the images of the gods”.

His Foreign Policy

The country was economically weak and in turmoil following the reign of Akhenaten.

Diplomatic relations with other kingdoms had been neglected, and Tutankhamun sought to restore them, in particular with the Mitanni. Evidence of his success is suggested by the gifts from various countries found in his tomb.

Despite his efforts at improved relations, battles with the Nubians and Asiatics were recorded in his mortuary temple at Thebes. His tomb also contained body armor and folding stools appropriate for military campaigns. However, given his youth and physical disabilities (of which, more later), historians speculate that Tutankhamun did not personally take part in these battles.

His Health and Appearance

Based on the forensic evidence of his mummified body, Tutankhamun was slight of build, and was roughly 180 cm (5 ft 11 in) tall. He had the large front incisors and overbite characteristic of the Thutmosid royal line to which he belonged.

He also had a pronounced, elongated skull – although it was within normal bounds, and unlikely to have been pathological.
Given the fact that many of the royal depictions of Akhenaten often featured such an elongated head, it is likely an exaggeration of a family trait, rather than a distinct abnormality.

The evidence also suggests that Tutankhamun had a slightly cleft palate, and possibly a mild case of scoliosis, a medical condition in which the spine is curved from side to side.

Tutankhamun was the result of an incestuous relationship and, because of that, may have suffered from several genetic defects that contributed to his early death.

This said, dynastic marriages of the time were of necessity incestuous (it was the tradition of ancient Egypt) – so there may have been other factors specific to this particular king.

Physiological Contributing Factors

For years, scientists have tried to unravel ancient clues as to why the boy king of Egypt – who reigned for 10 years – died at the age of 19.

Various diseases invoked as possible explanations to his early demise include Marfan syndrome, Wilson-Turner X-linked mental retardation syndrome, Fröhlich syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, and Antley–Bixler syndrome.

In June 2010, German scientists said they believed there was evidence that he died of sickle cell disease.

Several images of Tutankhamun found in his tomb show a young man with his young queen – but the same images also show him in several cases to be seated or resting on a walking stick. This has led to some speculation that the king may have suffered from a bone disease.

If Tutankhamun did suffer from a bone disease which was crippling, it may not have been fatal.

Research conducted by archaeologists, radiologists, and geneticists who started performing CT scans on Tutankhamun in 2005 found that he was not killed by a blow to the head, as was previously thought. That same team began doing DNA research on Tutankhamun’s mummy, as well as the mummified remains of other members of his family, in 2008.

The research team consisted of Egyptian scientists Yehia Gad and Somaia Ismail from the National Research Center in Cairo. The CT scans were conducted under the direction of Ashraf Selim and Sahar Saleem of the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University. Three international experts served as consultants: Carsten Pusch of the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany; Albert Zink of the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy; and Paul Gostner of the Central Hospital Bolzano.

The team discovered DNA from several strains of a parasite proving that Tutankhamun was infected with the most severe strain of malaria several times in his short life.

Malaria can trigger circulatory shock or cause a fatal immune response in the body, either of which can lead to death.

A New Theory

Dr. Hutan Ashrafian, a lecturer and surgeon at Imperial College London, says the key to the mystery lies in the art of the time – which depicted King Tut with highly feminine features, including enlarged breasts.

The enlarged breasts, he argues, are indicative of a condition known as gynecomastia, which indicates that Tutankhamun might have suffered and eventually died from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Ashrafian says the first clue is in the relatively early deaths of other rulers who were directly related to Tutankhamun.

“For all of them to die sequentially at younger ages is a sign of a genetic inheritance of some sort,” Ashrafian says, adding “you could argue one of them died in battle, one of them was poisoned but none of them did die in battle. They could have been poisoned, of course, but it’s very odd for sequential pharaohs who were aware that they could have been killed to be killed at such a young age.”

He also points to the great periods of religious change that Egypt went through – especially the attempts by Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, to change Egypt’s religion from polytheism to a more monotheistic one focused on the God Aten.

According to accounts of the time, these changes were made after a series of powerful religious visions had by Akhenaten – visions of the sort that are often associated with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Finally, Ashrafian highlights the manner of the death itself.

“When they did a scan on his body, they found he died from a fracture, he had a fracture on his leg.”

Ashrafian continues:.

“People who have epilepsy have a much higher incidence of dying from accidents and falls at a young age. They can also suffer from something called SUDE, Sudden Unexplained Death of Epilepsy. In general, they have a much higher incidents of dying young.”


A recent (and very sketchy) theory comes from the Egyptian state information service.

The office suggests that a forensic examination reveals “he (Tutankhamun) was poisoned and it is now suggested that the blow to the back of the head might have happened after his death, during mummification”.

There is even a suspect named ­Tutu (or Dudu) who first appears as an official in the court of Amenhotep III, later in the court of Akhenaten and finally in that of Tutankhamun.

Tutu is described as non-Egyptian, an unsavory character who caused friction at court.

Foul Play?

In a recent book ‘The Murder of Tutankhamun’ by Bob Brier, a more sinister method for Tutankhamun’s death is suggested.

Brier uses his medical knowledge to look more closely at the young King’s skull.
Here he finds evidence that leads him to declare that the bumps and marks found there are the reason for Tutankhamun’s early death.

Brier argues that these same marks were most likely caused maliciously, as­ the area of the head which was damaged could only have been reached by someone who had ready access to the King – a servant, or member of his household, for example.

Interestingly, both Ay and Horemheb have left literary works absolving themselves of any wrong doing. ­
A text from Horemheb’s statue warns ‘Egyptian brothers, don’t ever forget what foreigners did to our king Tutankhamun’.

Or An Accident?

The marks and damage to Tutankhamun’s skull, and his subsequent death may have been caused accidentally. The usual theory offered is a spill from a moving chariot.

From the forensic evidence, there are indications that some of these bumps show signs of healing; other damage to the skull could have been caused during the embalming procedure.

His Death

There are no surviving records of Tutankhamun’s final days.

Although there is some speculation that Tutankhamun was assassinated, the consensus is that his death was accidental.

A CT scan taken in 2005 shows that he had badly broken his leg shortly before his death, and that the leg had become infected.

DNA analysis conducted in 2010 showed the presence of malaria in his system.

It is believed that these two conditions (malaria and leiomyoma) combined, led to his death.

Zahi Hawass, archeologist and head of Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquity sums it up:

“Perhaps he struggled against other [congenital flaws] until a severe bout of malaria or a leg broken in an accident added one strain too many to a body that could no longer carry the load.”

Post Script

With the death of Tutankhamun and the two stillborn children buried with him, the Thutmosid family line came to an end.

The Amarna letters indicate that Tutankhamun’s wife, recently widowed, wrote to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, asking if she could marry one of his sons. The letters do not say how Tutankhamun died.

In the message to the Hittite king, Ankhesenamun says that she was very afraid, but would not take one of her own people as husband.

The requested son was killed before reaching his new wife.

Shortly afterward Ay married Tutankhamun’s widow and became Pharaoh, as a war between the two countries was fought. Egypt was left defeated.

The fate of Ankhesenamun is not known, but she disappears from record and Ay’s second wife Tey became Great Royal Wife.

After Ay’s death, Horemheb usurped the throne and instigated a campaign of damnatio memoriae (sullying the memory of someone, especially after their death) against him. Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, stepmother Nefertiti, his wife Ankhesenamun, half sisters and other family members were also included.

Not even Tutankhamun was spared. His images and cartouches were erased.

Horemheb himself was left childless and willed the throne to Paramessu, who founded the Ramesside family line of pharaohs.

And here ends our tale.

See you soon.