"My Husband Is Dead" - Tragedy In The Late Bronze Age

This opening sentence in the letter from the queen of one superpower to the king of the other was surprisingly straightforward. The next lines were intriguing. The queen wanted the foreign king to send one of his sons for her to marry – as she feared but didn’t want to be married to non-royalty. She promised not only to marry the boy, should he be sent, the implication was that by marrying the widow of the dead king, he would also become the king of her vast kingdom. This offer was all the more astonishing as the two kingdoms were often hostile to each other over the control of the area around their shared border in north-west Syria; far from their homelands.

The writer was the queen of Pharaonic Egypt; her husband whose death she had declared was Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose tomb was famously discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 amid rumours of a ‘curse of the Pharaohs.’ The queen has now been identified as Ankhesenamun; the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten (originally named as Amenhotep IV) and Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti has become well known the world over because of her bust crafted in 1345 BC by the artist Thutmose and found in his workshop. The bust is one of the most copied works of ancient Egyptian art.

The letter incident occurred in 1323 BC, two and a half millennia ago, in what is called the Late Bronze Age. At that time, iron had not been discovered but Bronze was widely used and had been in use for approximately the previous 2,200 years.

In socio-political and economic terms, the Late Bronze Age has some remarkable parallels to the modern era. The correspondence between the rulers of the great powers of the time, as analysed by Bruce Trevor in Letters of the Great Kings of the Ancient Near East. (2003) reveals competitive international trade, defense of regions of interest, geo-strategic maneuvering, power alliances; all traits that are elements of modern international relations. The royal families of these ancient superpowers frequently contracted marriages with each other, which is reminiscent of matrimonial relations between pre-First World War European royal families of Russia, Prussia, Greece, Austria, Holland and England. This world order of that time broke down in 1200-900 BC in what is now called the Late Bronze Age collapse and very interestingly depicted by Eric H. Cline in his book 1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014).

The major empires at the time in the region were Babylonia, Assyria and Mitanni, respectively in lower, middle and upper valleys of the Euphrates-Tigris riverine area, Hitti in eastern Anatolia and Egypt in the Nile basin. Minoan Crete and Mycenean Greece (of Troy and Trojan Horse fame) were strong in the Aegean Sea but were not important players in the affairs of the Levant. The era was coeval with Chinese Shang Dynasty (approx. 1500-1050 BC) though no known interaction existed between the two regions.


Here, a brief description of the significance of royal Egyptian names would explain the socio-religious environment at that time. Tutankhamun, meaning “Living image of Amun” was born as Tutankhaten, meaning “Living image of Aten” whereas Ankhesenamun, meaning “She lives for Amun” was born as Ankhesenaten, meaning “She lives for Aten.” Amun and Aten were sun deities with the former referring to the “Sun in the underworld” and the later meaning “the visible Sun.” Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten, meaning “Effective for Aten” was born as Amenhotep IV, meaning “Amun is satisfied.” In the initial years of his reign, Akhenaten not only shifted his capital from Thebes to a new city that he named ‘Amarna’ but also changed the national deity from Amun to Aten. In proclaiming reverence to their deities, the names of ancient Egypt bear a great resemblance to many Muslim names that proclaim obedience to the Almighty and seek His guidance through one of His ninety-nine names.

Queen Ankhesenamun belonged to the series of Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty. She was the daughter of Amenhotep IV (1352-1334 BC) and his wife Nefertiti. Bryce (ibid) states that on her maturity, Ankhesenamun had been taken as a wife by her father. At the death of Amenhotep IV, his son Tutankhamun, a child of nine, became the king with his step-mother Nefertiti ruling as a co-regent. Nefertiti also ruled as an independent Pharaoh for about two years before her death in 1330 BC. At some stage during his co-regency, King Tutankhamun was married to Ankhesenamun; her step-sister. Tutankhanum died young at the age of 18 or 19 without any issue and his succession fell to a person named Ay, a commoner but probably the father of Nefertiti. Ankhesenamun, only about 23 years old, feared that to make his rule legitimate, Ay, her own maternal grandfather, might attempt to marry her to take her as his queen.
The Late Bronze Age has some remarkable parallels to the modern era. The correspondence between the rulers of the great powers of the time reveals competitive international trade, defense of regions of interest, geo-strategic maneuvering, power alliances; all traits that are elements of modern international relations

These incestuous marriages, as described above, do not merit any moral judgment in our times. If the historical evidence is overlaid with religious beliefs, these incidents occurred roughly three hundred years after Prophet Abraham and the arrival of his progeny in Egypt. According to Genesis 20:12, Abraham said of Sarah, his wife, that “And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” Prophet Jacob too had Rachel and Leah, two sisters, as his wives simultaneously. From a Muslim perspective, it is important to consider that the next shariah was of Moses who was born about a hundred years after the incident under review. Christ would arrive 1,300 years later. Even during the time of the Roman republic and empire (509 BC-476 AD), the Emperors and the common people are known to have got married to their step sisters (let the reader remember the film Gladiator). Thereafter, God, in his infinite wisdom, evolved the matrimonial rules till they were finalised in the early 7th century in the Holy Quran; Surah Al-Nisa 4:19–23.

Depiction of Queen Ankhesenamun

Whenever the events of Pharaonic Egypt are discussed, the natural question striking the minds of Muslims is about their relative timeframe with respect to Prophets Josef and Moses; the former being the first of the Canaanite to arrive in Egypt and the latter being the one who led the exodus. However, there is no mention of them in the elaborate and detailed ancient Egyptian records. Archeological records, too, are either non-existent or very slim.

There is no single theory about the arrival of Canaanite people in Egypt, however, it is conjectured that the Semitic people arrived there during the reign of Hyksos (1650-1550 BC), the 15th dynasty of ancient Egypt. The Hyksos, part of Aryan tribes irrupting from Central Asia, were considered by native Egyptians as bloodthirsty foreign usurpers. The Canaanites too became hated because of their close association with the cruel foreign rulers. Hyksos were finally expelled from Egypt by the progenitor of the 18th dynasty, the very dynasty to whom the protagonist of this story belonged. With the departure of their masters, the Canaanites were persecuted by the subsequent Egyptian rulers. The Jews left Egypt during the reign of the 19th dynasty. Of course, this author reiterates, that in the absence of archaeological proofs, all these stories are historical conjectures; though firm religious beliefs to their veracity are held by the followers of Abrahamic religions.

The earliest mention of Israel in Egyptian records is in the The Merneptah Stele of 1208 BC, named after Pharaoh Merneptah of the 19 th dynasty, which quotes a royal campaign in the Levant in these words, ““I-si-ri-ar (Israel) is wasted, its seed is not; And Hurru (Canaan) is become a widow because of Egypt.” This means that by the end of the 13 th century BC, Israel was an established independent state hostile to Egypt. It is also estimated that the exodus occurred during the reign of Ramesses II, the father of Merneptah.

The monarch who received the unusual letter was King Suppiluliuma of Hitti. It is because of his son King Mursili that we know about the letter and the subsequent events. Mursili wrote the biography of his father on clay tablets, that survived through the ages and were finally found and deciphered by modern archaeologists.

The Hittite empire, centered in eastern Anatolia, was one of the major powers at its height and extended over along the coast to Lebanon, north Syria and al-Jazira. The Egyptian empire too extended from the Nile delta, over the Sinai desert, Palestine to north Syria, where the two empires often tested sword and chariots against each other. When Suppiluliuma received the letter, he was busy demolishing the last remnants of the Mittani empire of middle Iraq region.

King Suppiluliuma

Having received the letter and not sure about its authenticity or objectives, Suppiluliuma sent a senior official to Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital, located 500 km south of Cairo. On hearing about the arrival of an inquiry delegation instead of a prince, the queen was disappointed. As per tradition, the body of the dead Egyptian monarch was entombed exactly 70 days after his or her death; not a day earlier nor a day later. The arrival of the delegation would consume precious time, but she had few options except to wait. The delegation returned and, on its report, Suppiluliuma sent his son named Zannanza with an appropriated escort. However, the Egyptian court was rife with intrigues. The king had died without a heir and now there were many claimants to the throne. As Zannanza made steady progress in his travel, he was murdered. Suppiluliuma was distraught and held the people of Egypt directly responsible: “Oh Gods! I did no evil, but the people of Egypt did this to me!” The enmity between two super powers would continue till the Battle of Kardesh followed by the first written peace treaty of the world.

The murder of the unfortunate prince brought to realisation the worst fears of Ankhesenamun. Posterity knows that Ay became the Pharaoh and, to legitimise his rule, he married the unfortunate queen. Pathological testing reveals that she died at the age of about 23 years, which is soon after this incident and perhaps murdered by Ay. DNA testing of the remains of tomb number 21 in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes indicates that it is probably of Ankhesenamun. Two fetuses found buried with Tutankhamun have been proven to be his children, and the current theory is that Ankhesenamun, his only known wife, is their mother; although, not enough data was obtained to make more than a tentative identification.

Left: Akhenaten, Right: Tutankhamun

Some stories of tragedies of royal families are strikingly similar all over the world; irrespective of dynasties, families, nations or times. Be it Lady Diana of the UK, Anne Boleyn of England, or Ankhesenamun of ancient Egypt, or the ill-fated royal ladies that this author has written about including Nadira Begum of Mughal India, Rani Roopmatti of Malwa or Krishna Kumari of Udaipur – they were all ill-fated to have been linked to royalty.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com