a golden funerary mask

Who was King Tut?

King Tutankhamun did more in death for the knowledge of ancient Egypt than he accomplished in his short life. Here's what you need to know about the boy king.

A close view of the gold funerary mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, Nat Geo Image Collection

King Tutankhamun is one of the most famous rulers who ever lived thanks to the 1922 discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The find stirred the imaginations of millions who were fascinated by the boy king’s golden-masked mummy. (How was Tut's tomb discovered 100 years ago? Grit and luck.)

But what do we really know about Tut? Although many details of his reign remain lost to time, historians have spent years trying to piece together the pharaoh’s life and legacy. Here’s what they’ve learned—and the biggest questions that remain.

A young Tut ascends to the throne

Born during ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty—which stretched from 1550 B.C. to 1295 B.C.—Tut began his life under a different name: Tutankhaten.

In the years before Tut rose to the throne, Egypt was going through a period of great upheaval. King Amenhotep IV, who is believed to be Tut’s father, had turned away from his culture’s many gods to worship a sun god called the Aten. In honor of the new deity, he changed his own name to Akhenaten and named his son Tutankhaten, meaning “living image of Aten.” (Learn about King Tut with your kids.)

But around 1336 B.C., King Akhenaten died after about 17 years on the throne—and nine-year-old Tut ascended to power. The boy king restored the old ways of the kingdom, bringing back its many gods and opening new temples. (See the enduring power of King Tut as never before.)

Tut also changed his name to Tutankhamun, which meant the “living image of Amun,” the Egyptian god of the air. He also took on the throne name, Nebkheperure, which was a nod to the old sun god Re. He married a woman named Ankhesenamun, a daughter of Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti. While the couple are not thought to have left any surviving children, two mummified fetuses found in Tut’s tomb were likely their stillborn daughters.

Tut’s legacy

The rest of Tut’s short reign was fairly unremarkable. Ruling for only about nine years, Tutankhamun was one of the lesser known pharaohs of his time. Some scholars theorize that royal advisers and priests may have even used the boy king as a puppet to reclaim power for themselves. Others suggest that Tut’s successors removed his name from monuments and records because of his association with the reviled Akhenaten.

But there was one upside to that erasure: While most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were looted over the centuries that followed, Tut’s was left relatively unspoiled. When its treasures were finally brought to light, they inspired modern investigations into Tut’s life and what it reveals about the time of the pharaohs. (Learn about the mysteries of the Valley of the Kings.)

King Tut’s death

One of the puzzles that has most vexed historians and scientists alike is how Tut died.

Theories have abounded ever since British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb in 1922. Some suspect that he was murdered or died from malaria or another devastating disease. Others have hypothesized that Tut’s chest—which is missing ribs and a sternum—might have been crushed in an accident or fall from his chariot. Still others argue that he likely died an invalid, pointing to evidence of a clubfoot and canes that he may have used to walk. (Discover King Tut's 5,000 treasures, by the numbers.)

Many of Tut’s treasures, including this figurine, were kept until recently at the cramped Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Artifacts long hidden in storage will be displayed—some for the first time—at the Grand Egyptian Museum when it opens in late 2022.
Many of Tut’s treasures, including this figurine, were kept until recently at the cramped Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Artifacts long hidden in storage will be displayed—some for the first time—at the Grand Egyptian Museum when it opens in late 2022.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, National Geographic

One thing scholars do know is that Tut was young when he died—still a teenager by most accounts—and his death was unexpected. Tut’s final resting place was in fact an unfinished tomb intended for some other courtier, and evidence suggests that it was prepared for the king’s body in a hurry.

It’s unclear whether we will ever fully understand the life of Tutankhamen, the boy king. But his memory continues to captivate the world, centuries after his short reign.

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