Out of Egypt

An educational Forum based on new
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Article # 5

Tutankhamum: Military Coup

© Ahmed Osman 2001
Ahmed Osman
Historian and Scholar


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Recent archaeological evidence indicates that Tutankhamun came to the throne as a result of a military coup. A scene on the wall on the tomb of Maya, the young king's nanny, discovered recently in Saqqara by the French mission, included the five army generals who are believed to have led the coup.

In my book Moses Pharaoh of Egypt, published in 1990, I suggested that Akhenaten did not die at the end of his 17-year reign, but was forced to abdicate the throne by an army coup. Pharaoh Akhenaten, one of the 18th dynasty kings who ruled Egypt for 17 years in the mid-14th century BC, abolished the old Egyptian gods in favor of a new monotheistic God, Aten, whose worship the king wanted to force upon his people. Akhenaten relied completely on the army's support in his confrontation with the old priesthood. Although he never took part in any war, the king is shown, in the vast majority of representations, wearing the Blue Crown or the short Nubian wig, both belonging to his military headdress, rather than the traditional ceremonial crowns of the Two Lands. Scenes of soldiers and military activity abound in both the private and royal art of Amarna. If we may take the relief's from the tombs of the nobles at face value, then his capital city was virtually an armed camp. Everywhere we see parades and processions of soldiers, infantry, and chariotry with their massed standards. There are soldiers under arms standing guard in front of the palaces, the temples, and in the watchtowers that bordered the city; scenes of troops, unarmed or equipped with staves, carrying out combat exercises in the presence of the king.

The army, loyal to the throne, carried out the will of the king without questioning. The position of Aye, Akhenaten's maternal uncle, as the Commander General of the army, assured its loyalty to the ruling dynasty. Aye held posts among the highest in the infantry and the chariotry, together with Nakht Min, another general related to him. It was the loyalty of the army, controlled by Aye, which kept Akhenaten in power in the uneasy years following his coming to the throne as sole ruler (upon the death of his father) in his 12th year. By that time Akhenaten had developed his monotheistic ideas to a great extent. If Aten was the only God, Akhenaten, as his sole son and prophet, could not allow other gods to be worshipped at the same time in his dominion. As a response to his rejection by the Amun priests as a legitimate ruler, he had already snubbed Amun and abolished his name from the walls and inscriptions of temples and tombs. Now he took his ideas to their logical conclusion by abolishing, throughout Egypt, the worship of any gods except Aten. He closed all the temples, except those of Aten, confiscated their lands, dispersed the priests and gave orders that the names of all deities should be expunged from monuments and temple inscriptions throughout the country. Army units were dispatched to excise the names of the ancient gods wherever they were found written or carved.

At least two events early in Akhenaten's co-regency with his father Amenhotep III indicated strong opposition to his rule. The graffiti of Amenhotep III's 30th year from the pyramid temple of Meidum, which would be year 3 of Akhenaten, pointed to a rejection by some powerful factions of the king's decision to cause 'the male to sit upon the seat of his father.' Again, the border stele inscription of Amarna shows that, before deciding to leave Thebes and build his new city, Akhenaten had encountered some strong opposition and had been the subject of verbal criticism. Certainly, he would not have left the dynasty's capital without having been forced to do so. The final confrontation between the throne and the priesthood was postponed simply because after he departed from Thebes, Akhenaten had nothing at all to do with the running of the country, which was left to his father, Amenhotep III. Another important factor was the complete reliance of Akhenaten on the armed forces for support. If we may take the relief's from the tombs of the nobles at face value, then the city was virtually an armed camp. Everywhere we see processions and parades of soldiers, infantry and chariotry with their massed standards. Palaces, temples and the city borders seem to have been constantly guarded.

The persecution of Amun and the other gods, which must have been exceedingly hateful to the majority of the Egyptians, was also hateful to the individual members of the army. This persecution, which entailed the closing of the temples, the dispatch of artisans to hack out his name from inscriptions, the banishment of the clergy, the excommunication of his very name, could not have been carried out without the army's active support. As the army shares the same religious beliefs as the people, it is natural that the officers would not feel very happy with the job they were doing. Thus a conflict appeared between the army's loyalty to the king and its loyalty to the religious beliefs of the nation. Ultimately, the harshness of the persecution must have had a certain effect upon the soldiers, who themselves had been raised in the old beliefs.

Archaeological evidence to support this claim came in November 1997, when Dr. Alain Zivie, a French archaeologist, announced in Cairo the discovery of a new tomb in Saqqara. In this ancient necropolis of the Royal City of Memphis, ten miles south of Cairo, Zivie uncovered the tomb of Maya, wet-nurse of Tutankhamun. The tomb, which extends 20 meters inside the mountain, was also used, from the beginning of the Macedonian Ptolemic period at the start of the 3rd century BC, for the burial of the sacred mummified cats of Bastet. When first found, the tomb was almost completely full of mummified cats, placed there more than a thousand years after the original burial. The joint team from the French Archaeological Mission and the Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities has excavated two of the three known chambers. On the wall of the first chamber is a scene depicting Maya protecting the King who is sitting on her knee. The inscriptions describe her as 'the Royal nanny who breast-fed the pharaoh's body.'

Alongside and to the left of Maya's seat are six officials representing Tutankhamun's Cabinet, two above and four below, each with different facial characteristics. Although none of the officials is named, Dr. Zivie was able to suggest their identities from their appearance and the sign of office they carry. He recognized the two above and behind Maya's seat as Aye and Horemheb. The four officials below were identified by Zivie as Pa-Ramses, Seti, Nakht Min, and Maya. Except for the last one, who is also called Maya the treasurer, the remaining five were all military generals of the Egyptian army, and four of them followed the king on the throne. This was the first time in Egyptian history that the Cabinet was composed, almost totally, of army generals, which supports my earlier view that Tutankhamun came to the throne as a result of a military coup. These generals could only have gained their positions in the cabinet, and later on the throne, as a result of a military coup.

The new evidence indicate that there must have been a kind of military move against Akhenaten, led by three army generals: Horemheb, Ramses, and Seti. Aye, the commander of the army, realized he could not crush the rebellion even with the help of General Nakht Min. When his attempt to persuade Akhenaten to allow the return of the old gods failed, he tried to save the royal dynasty by reaching a compromise with the leaders of the rebellion to allow the king to abdicate and be replaced by his son Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun left his father's capital of Amarna for Memphis in his fourth year, when a compromise was reached in which all ancient temples were reopened and worship restored. Nevertheless, Aten remained holding its supreme position, at least as far as the new king was concerned.

Aye, brother of Queen Tiye, Akhenaten's mother, is regarded as the military protector of the Amarna kings, and was responsible for the Chariots during the time of Akhenaten, while general Nakht Min is thought to have been his relative. Akhenaten used the army to destroy the old powerful priesthood and force his new monotheistic religion on his people. But the army, which shared the same old beliefs as the rest of the people, could not support the king to the end. It is clear that Akhenaten faced, in his 17th year, an army rebellion led by generals Horemheb, Pa-Ramses, and Seti. Aye, supported by General Nakht Min, not being in a position to crush the rebellion, made a deal with them to allow for the abdication of Akhenaten and the appointment of his son, Tutankhamun, as his successor. This would also explain how Aye, when he succeeded Tutankhamun on the throne, disappeared mysteriously, together with Nakht Min, after four years, while the three other generals rose to power. When Horemheb followed Aye as king, he appointed both Pa-Ramses and his son Seti as viziers and commanding generals of the army. They in turn succeeded him on the throne as Ramses I (who established the 19th dynasty) and Seti I.

Ahmed Osman

Historian, lecturer, researcher and author, Ahmed Osman is a British Egyptologist born in Cairo

His four in-depth books clarifying the history of the Bible and Egypt are: Stranger in the Valley of the Kings (1987)  -  Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990) - The House of the Messiah (1992)  -  Out of Egypt (1998)


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