The Death of Tutankhamun – The Zannanza Incident part 1

When Suppililiuma was notified of the joint Mittani and Egyptian attacks, he may have feared for his newly won empire. The text of the Deeds tell that Suppililiuma had just completed participating in the spring religious festival of sowing at the city of Uda. He would likely have expected a coordinated attack by Mitanni and Egypt to be followed by opportunistic revolts against the Hittites within Anatolia itself. He would also have been well aware of his vulnerable eastern front along the Euphrates. Suppililiuma himself had used the trade routes that crisscrossed the northern Euphrates valley to invade the Mitanni heartland during the Great Syrian War, and the frontier was too vast to be effectively garrisoned. Therefore, as soon as winter had passed, Suppililiuma’s response was necessarily swift.

His strategy shows his reserve and calculus as his newly won hegemony in western Syria was challenged.

“Thereupon my father mobilized troops and chariots and marched against the Hurrians. And when he arrived in the country of Tergarama, he made a review of his troops and chariots in (the town of) Talpa. Then he sent his son Arnuwanda and Zida, the chief praetorian, from Tergarama ahead into the Hurrian country.” – The Plague Prayers

Tergarama was perfectly situated to serve as a staging ground for an invasion into Syria. It controlled not only the eastern routes to another key Hittite base in Samuha, but also one of the vital corridors westward over the Taurus Mountains to the Hittite homeland. From this location Suppililiuma could have waited for reinforcements from the interior while simultaneously overseeing the counter-attack southward and safeguarding the eastern frontier.

The Hittite Counterattack

The situation along the west bank of the Euphrates was quickly brought under control by the expeditionary force under the command of Arnuwanda and Zida. Whatever force that the Mitanni commanders had used to threaten the garrison at Murmuriga was insufficient to withstand this newly reinforced Hittite field army. Suppililiuma’s hesitation to advance may indicate that he was expecting another strike from the Mitanni forces somewhere else along the front. The defeated Mitanni fighters finally took shelter in Carchemish, and Suppililiuma saw a new opportunity open before him.

The citadel hill at Carchemish.

The citadel hill at Carchemish.

The Mitanni stronghold of Carchemish controlled the flow of trade across the Euphrates between Mesopotamia and western Syria. Control of this crucial juncture had eluded Suppililiuma for several decades, possibly due, in part, to its naturally defensible position. The city was surrounded on the east and south by the river, and a canal had been dug in order to encircle the northern and western walls with water. As a result of these dispositions, Suppililiuma appears to have used a fleet of ships as part of his patient strategy to effectively besiege the city.

At the same time the siege works around Carchemish were being established, Suppililiuma sent one of his generals, Lupakki, to retaliate against the recent Egyptian assault on Kadesh. This attack is described as if it were a simple raid designed to carry off as many supplies for the main army as possible. However this attack may have been necessary to relieve Kadesh from an ongoing Egyptian siege. The text itself is unclear, indicating that;

“While my father was down in the country of Carchemish, he sent Lupakki and Tarhunta(?)-zalma forth into the country of Amka. So they went to attack Amka and brought deportees, cattle and sheep back before my father.” The Plague Prayers

Whatever the scope of the attack into Amka, one major factor to consider is the time it would have taken for forces to have been sent to Amka and then to return with plunder. A journey by the most direct route, averaging 16km per day, would still have taken Lupakki approximately two months to complete. When added to the time it took to mobilize southward from Tergarama, the length of the campaign, from its onset until Lupakki returned to Suppililiuma with the ‘deportees, cattle and sheep’, could have been no less than 90 days. This estimation of travel time is particularly relevant, as we will soon see, considering the response from Egypt to the Hittite raid.

Map of the Ancient Near East Showing the Hittite Invasion. - by Arianna Ravenswood

Map of the Ancient Near East Showing the Hittite Invasion. – by Arianna Ravenswood

The Death of Tutankhamun

The initial letter from the queen of Egypt to Suppililiuma in request for a Hittite prince is believed to have been received by him while he was in the vicinity of Karkemish. Given the distance from Amka to Egypt, a journey of at least 600km, (even more if the Egyptian Queen was in Thebes, as compared to the more northerly capital of Memphis), the letter could not have been delivered in the given time frame without a fairly rapid courier system. The return trip from Egypt to Carchemish is almost 1000 km. With conventional Bronze Age travel methods, chariots and caravans, again averaging about 16km per day, it would have taken almost two months for the response to reach Suppililiuma. Instead, there is reason to believe that the couriers who delivered diplomatic letters moved about twice as fast.

Understanding the rates of travel and the pace at which these events unfolded is necessary, particularly in regard to the temporal keystone of the entire episode; the death of Tutankhamun.

“But when the people of Egypt heard of the attack on Amka, they were afraid. And since, in addition, their lord Nibhururiya had died, therefore the queen of Egypt, who was Dahamunzu(?), sent a messenger to my father and wrote him thus: “My husband died. A son I have not. But to thee, they say, the sons are many. If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband.” The Plague Prayers

Based on the ancient texts it is then possible to determine that Tutankhamen’s death, ca. 1323, occurred in June or July of the year that Suppililiuma besieged Carchemish.

Ankhesenamun, as the widow of Tutankhamun, was the last scion of a royal family which had ruled for two centuries and was now nearing extinction. Her request for a Hittite prince can be seen as a final, desperate attempt to maintain the diminished dynastic line. Ankesenamun was still young, by all accounts she would have been only about twenty years old at the time of her husband’s death, and she inherited a deeply factionalized court. Among the members of her court were the two men who would eventually become the next two pharaohs, as well as others who had enjoyed immense power during the deceased young pharaoh’s eight year rule. Taken together, the widow queen’s situation must have been tenuous at best.

The Contender’s for the Throne

Tutankhamen’s generalissimo, Horemheb, was stationed with the Egyptian military forces based in Memphis and was responsible for the ongoing fighting in Syria. In the south another commander, Nakhtmin, would enjoyed the title ‘Kings Son Of Kush’ and would become governor of Egypt’s wealthy southern holdings. In Thebes, where both Tutankhamun in his final years and, presumably his widow, for her brief time on the throne, held court, two men would have been supreme. The first was Maya, the overseer of the treasury. The second was the elderly vizier Aye, the primary power behind Tutankhamun’s throne and the man who was to become the next pharaoh.

The political climate inside Egypt must be considered if Ankhesenamun’s request for a Hittite prince is to be properly understood. Both Aye and Horemheb can be shown using the tile rp`t (crown prince) during the reign of Tutankhamun. This potential conflict is further revealed by evidence that indicates Aye reigned as Tutankhamun’s co-regent.

Egyptologist Alan Schulman has provided a foundational analysis of the court of Tutankhamun. He describes a situation in which Horemheb, with his Asian armies bristling from defeat and looking for a scapegoat, finds himself in a position to challenge Aye for authority within Egypt. At first Ay, and presumably Ankhesenamun as well, would have had no choice but to give in to any pressure from Horemheb, as he controlled the vital northern army which guarded against the Hittite threat. However, Aye may have soon balanced Horemheb’s undue influence by appointing the nobleman Nakhtmin to be his own heir and enhancing this rank with the additional authority also bestowed on Nakhtmin as the viceroy of Kush.

When Tutankhamun died, it would seem doubtful that his young widowed queen could do more than go along with the same powers that had been running Egypt for the past decade. To suggest that she acted independently of Ay and Horemheb would have been exceptional. However, it is not impossible to think that she might have acted with only the support of one of these men. In such an instance, that man would likely have been Ay.

Sibylla Deen as Ankesenamun.

Sibylla Deen as Ankesenamun.

Still, It is hard to ascertain what could have motivated Ay to go along with such a plan. If Ay was already co-regent, then he was in a position to become the next pharaoh, which he soon did. Furthermore, since Horemheb controlled all avenues northward, he would have at least had to consent to the plan if the couriers and emissaries were to travel through the normal pathways. Thus, we are stuck with the prospect of a diplomatic marriage negotiation of the highest possible magnitude, and no clear sign indicating who the real sponsor in Egypt was.

It is in light of this uncertainty that the final line of the Egyptian queen’s opening missive to Suppililiuma has often been seen as the most interesting. Ankhesenamun explains that she needs a Hittite prince for a husband because “Never shall I pick a servant of mine and make him my husband!” This is followed by the enigmatic plea “I am afraid!” Whether the ‘servant’ mentioned was in reference to anyone in particular, or whether it was merely meant as a way of expressing the absence of male royalty in Egypt, is not certain.

Equally unknowable are the young Queen’s fears. Possibly she and Ay were fearful that Horemheb would press for her hand in marriage and force an honoring of his rank of rp`t. Or, perhaps she was fearful of the aged Ay’s own ambitions. In arguing for either case, one encounters serious difficulties. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine why Aye would allow himself to be derided in a letter whose text he must have been aware of. On the other hand, in Horemheb’s case, why would a man with such clear ambitions, as his own inscriptions portray him to have had, take a course of action that would inevitably have ended his own career?

Nonso Anozie as General Horemheb

Nonso Anozie as General Horemheb

We can list four possible solutions to this mystery of motivation. The first and most obvious is the idea that a genuine interest in peace with the Hittites existed. Perhaps the extended royal family, including tangential members like Ay, recognized their own decline was eminent and chose to act in the best interests of the people of Egypt and the region at large. Even if power players like Ay had thought to control a fledgling Hittite pharaoh with the weight of the Egyptian bureaucracy, the mere act of ceding the throne to a son of Suppililiuma would have completely subjugated Egypt to Hatti before the entire Near Eastern world. The Egyptian court, Ankhesenamun, Ay and Horemheb must of all known how humiliating such a subjugation would have been. Considering what history has to offer on the typical practices of privileged elites, this solution may be deemed somewhat fanciful.

The second possibility couples the same idea of a peace faction, but adds the additional element of a rival war faction within the Egyptian court. In this situation, the war party, presumably led by Horemheb, can only be checked by total diplomatic surrender to the Hittites. Keeping in mind Schulman’s analysis of the possible rivalry among members of Tutankhamun’s court, this theory has appeal. Problematically, this theory also assumes that both Ankhesenamun and, necessarily, Ay, would have seen a Hittite Prince as preferable to Horemheb. Also, this scenario still involves the rare occurrence of an entrenched elite making a major diplomatic move on ideological grounds, essentially choosing a humiliating short term situation for long term peace and prosperity.

Ben Kingsley as Ay.

Ben Kingsley as Ay.

There is also the somewhat romantic notion that Ankhesenamun, naive to the political reality, somehow acted alone. It is remotely plausible that Ankhesenamun may have instigated the affair by herself and that she somehow managed to get the first letter out while Ay and Horemheb were unaware. Then, perhaps only once the damage had been done, did the rest of court realize what had happened. Unfortunately, given the realities of diplomatic correspondence during this period, such a scenario should be seen as even more unlikely than that of Ay voluntarily stepping aside in favor of a Hittite Prince.

This leaves a fourth possibility, that the entire affair was an elaborate ruse. It would not have been impossible for someone like Ay to have concocted such a ploy in order to buy time and allow his own consolidation of power to take place. Naturally, this solution has its own problems – namely, the convincing Hittite narrative that makes us believe the request was, at least for a time, real. Nevertheless, the theory that the entire episode was a plot to delay the Hittites with negotiations, or to outright deceive them into some sort of trap, must be strongly considered, as this is exactly what Suppililiuma suspected the case to be.

To be continued in “Ankhesenamun’s End Game – The Zannanza Incident – part 2”