Who was Tutankhamun?

King Tut did more in death for the knowledge of ancient Egypt than he ever accomplished in life.

By Kristin Baird Rattini
01-king-tut

The death mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun soon became an iconic symbol of the riches found in the boy king's tomb – and the mystique of Ancient Egypt.

Photograph by de Agostini Picture Library, G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images

If it weren’t for the discovery of his resplendent tomb, King Tutankhamun (c. 1341–c. 1323 B.C.) certainly would not be on a nickname basis with the world. The boy king’s reign was unremarkable. When he ascended to the throne at the age of nine, the country was still in chaos arising from the decision made by his late father, Akhenaten, to switch Egypt from its polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one. A royal adviser named Ay seems to have stage-managed the young royal as his puppet, particularly in his order to reverse Akhenaten’s policy and reinstate the beloved old gods and their temples.

King Tut’s sudden death remains a mystery, despite the countless theories put forth. Was he a victim of malaria? Or gangrene from a broken leg? Run over by a chariot? Perhaps gored by a hippo? Whatever the cause of his death, it seems the king was hastily buried and rather quickly forgotten.

Fast-forward 3,000 years. In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The discovery made headlines around the world. What most impressed people was not Tut’s mummy but the offerings buried with him, described by Carter as a “strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects.”

Technicians use state-of-the-art equipment to scan a wall in King Tut's burial chamber.

Photograph by Kenneth Garret, Nat Geo Image Collection

The greatest and perhaps now most iconic treasure was the king’s death mask, containing more than 9kg of gold. Other items buried with him to ensure that he remained strong, wealthy and well fed in the afterlife included a leopard-skin cloak, four game boards, six chariots, 30 wine jars and 46 bows. Carter spent nearly a decade cataloguing the 5,398 grave goods.

Two Tutankhamun treasure exhibitions took many of the artifacts on a world tour in the 1960s and the 1970s and further secured Tut’s legacy. Thanks to his glorious burial place, King Tut did more in death to advance the modern study and interest in Egyptian history than all his fellow pharaohs combined.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.

If you want to learn more about Egypt and its fascinating secrets, don't miss Lost Treasures of Egypt

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