Beyond King Tut: An Educational Companion

Beyond King Tut: An Educational Companion

The story of King Tutankhamun is not just ancient history. It is an important piece of the story of today’s Egypt. Discover how.


5 - 12


Civics, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History, Arts and Music

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Tutankhamun’s story begins in ancient Egypt, a land shaped by the seasonal changes to the Nile River. All life in Egypt depended on the river—the Nile provided food and natural resources, land for crops, a “road” for travel, and a means to transport materials and merchandise.

Seasonal Surge
The flooding of the Nile has been an important natural cycle in Egypt since ancient times. Heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands would cause the waters to begin rising in June, flooding the Nile Valley and depositing nutrient-rich soil. This surge transformed the desert into productive farmland. The river’s predictability allowed the Egyptians to build an empire based on agricultural wealth. They grew staple food crops—such as wheat and barley—and industrial crops—such as flax and papyrus. Farmers developed a complex irrigation system, digging channels to direct floodwaters and saturating soil to make it ready for planting. Riverbank mud was baked into bricks for building structures.

The River as a Road
The Nile provided a natural highway for transporting goods and people. Most of the major cities in ancient Egypt were located along the riverbank. Ships ferried merchants, messengers, and armies throughout the kingdom. Building supplies and other goods could quickly be transported. The trip from Memphis to Thebes typically took up to two months during the dry season. During the flood season, that same trip was reduced to about two weeks.

As a Means of Identity
The Nile’s annual renewal of the land influenced ancient Egyptian people’s view of life, death, and the afterlife. Much of their cultural identity was linked to what they observed in the natural world around them. The rising and setting of the sun; the movements of the stars across the sky; the annual flooding of the Nile; the planting, growing, and harvesting of crops all served as evidence of daily life regularly renewed by natural forces. The Egyptians saw their own lives as a cycle: They were born; they grew from childhood to adulthood to old age; they died; and they were reborn.

The Nile River is still the center of Egyptian civilization and its great cities still flourish. Today, 95 percent of Egyptians live within a few kilometers of the Nile. Dams, such as the Aswan High Dam, have been built to provide a source of hydroelectric power. The Nile continues to support agriculture and fishing and remains a key route for transportation.

The Two Lands

The Nile River flows from south to north, and the ancient Egyptians divided their country into the “Two Lands.” Lower Egypt was in the north and ended in the Nile Delta. Upper Egypt was in the south. To the ancients, Kemet or “black land,” denoted the rich, fertile land of the Nile Valley, while Deshret or “red land,” referred to the hot, dry desert. The Western Desert (Sahara) was roughly twice the size of the Eastern Desert (Arabian). These deserts were inhospitable and created buffer zones between Egypt and its neighbors. This physical isolation allowed Egypt to build and defend a distinct and unique civilization.

The king’s role was to unify the “Two Lands.” When Akhenaten died, the task to keep Upper and Lower Egypt united fell upon his son, the young Tutankhamun.

The last pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, reigned from approximately 1332 to 1323 B.C.E. King Tutankhamun was a little-known king in Egyptian history compared to pharaohs like Ramses the Great, Thutmose III, Hatshepsut, or Cleopatra. The reason we remember him is that his tomb is the only one to be discovered nearly intact—or untouched. Most tombs were looted and robbed in antiquity. Tutankhamun’s tomb remained hidden for more than 3,000 years. This 1922 find—made 100 years ago—has provided us with a wealth of information about the boy king and the world he lived in. His story is known around the world, and we continue to learn from him.

Who Was the Boy King?
To understand the boy king, it helps to understand his predecessor and probable father, Akhenaten. At the time of Tutankhamun’s birth, Egypt was going through social and political upheaval. For hundreds of years, Egyptians had worshiped many gods and goddesses. Then Akhenaten decided there would be only one god: the Aten, the god of the sun. The only way people could reach the Aten was through Akhenaten. In acts that angered many of his people, Akhenaten ordered the names and images of other Egyptian deities to be destroyed or defaced throughout Egypt.

As a Prince
The young prince was born Tutankhaten—“living image of the Aten”—and raised with the new beliefs. Akhenaten moved the capital city from Thebes to a place in the desert called Amarna. It was here that the young prince spent his childhood.

The life of Tutankhaten was privileged. His home was a spacious palace. While average Egyptians survived on bread, the prince also ate meat, vegetables, and fruit. He wore finely woven clothing, and when he slept, servants fanned him with ostrich plumes so he would not be disturbed by the heat. When he swam, guards watched over him to protect him from Nile crocodiles. As the prince got older, he became skilled with a bow and arrow and may have driven his own chariot.

Tutankhaten’s life was not easy, though. Modern science has revealed that he most likely suffered from genetic disorders that were inherited. CT scanning of his remains shows that he had a cleft palate, a curved spine, and a clubbed foot. A degenerative disease was destroying some of the bones in his feet, which meant he probably needed to use many of the 130 walking canes that were in his tomb.

As an Immortal King
When Tut became king around age nine, he had unprecedented power. Since Tut was still a child, his royal and military advisers ran the kingdom for him. Under their rule, everything that the boy had known changed dramatically.

First, Akhenaten’s decree to worship Aten in favor of multiple gods and goddesses was reversed. Amun was restored as the “king of the gods,” and the boy’s name was promptly changed to Tutankhamun—the “living image of Amun.” The royal court was moved back to Thebes, and Tut’s boyhood home, Amarna, was abandoned. Holy sites that had been defaced were repaired, such as at Thebes (known today as Luxor), and construction of a mighty temple at Karnak dedicated to Amun was given top priority. All the old ways were restored. A king needed an heir, so a marriage for Tut was quickly arranged.

Death for Tutankhamun came unexpectedly. From CT scans of his mummy, we can tell that at the time of death, he had a badly broken leg, which may have become infected. He had malaria and other underlying health issues. At 19, he had only ruled for 10 years. He left no heir when he died, and his reign was passed on to his chief advisor, Ay. To his people, Tutankhamun was a minor pharaoh. Like other kings before him, they believed that he journeyed to the underworld and became immortal. His tomb was then forgotten. Had it not been for locating his tomb in 1922, Tut’s life may have been lost to history.

The afterlife was not guaranteed to anyone. Even a king had to make the difficult journey through the underworld before becoming immortal.

Journey to the Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians believed that every living person was made up of three essential elements: body, ba, and ka. They knew that the body would fail one day and die, but they believed the other parts of a person could live on. The ba was essentially a person’s personality—all the things that made that person unique. The ka was the person’s life force—it made life possible for the body and the ba. Death occurred when the ka separated from the body. To achieve a successful afterlife, the ba had to be reunited with its ka. Once that happened, the person could live forever in the spiritual form known as the akh, or “effective being.”

To make the powerful transition to the afterlife, the deceased had to navigate a dangerous journey. The trip was guided by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead. This statue of Anubis stood guard over the burial chamber in the king’s tomb. Positioned between its front feet was a small brick of unfired clay, known as a “magic brick.” Its inscription read:

"I am the one who snares the sand at the wall of the hidden chamber/the active combatant who repels him to the flame of the desert/I have set alight the desert, I have deflected the ways/I am the protector of the Osiris"

Some think this message may have been the origin of the “curse of the pharaohs”—the idea that disturbing the sealed tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs would result in an untimely death.

Prayers and Instructions
Typically, the deceased would be buried with a manual—a series of papyrus scrolls. Scholars called these scrolls the Book of the Dead. These prayers and instructions helped the deceased pass the trials of the underworld. While there was not a Book of the Dead found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, many prayers and images were depicted on amulets and inscriptions in the tomb.

Traveling by boat with Anubis, the deceased moved through a world filled with terrible beasts to reach the realm of the Duat (Land of the Gods). There were seven gates, each requiring the accurate recitation of a magic spell. If successful, the deceased arrived at the Hall of Osiris. Here, they would undergo a final test. Their heart was weighed against a feather from Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice. Those who passed became one with Osiris and achieved immortality. Those who failed were eaten by a waiting beast, called Ammit.

The ancient Egyptians wore amulets, which are pieces of jewelry believed to protect against evil. Some amulets were tucked into the layers of a mummy’s wrappings to safeguard each part of the body. There were 143 small amulets found in King Tutankhamun’s wrappings. Other amulets were placed throughout his tomb.

The “Opening of the Mouth”
The ancient Egyptians believed that in order for a person’s soul to survive in the afterlife, it would need to have food and water. The “opening of the mouth” ritual was thus performed so that the person who died could eat and drink again. This ceremony was believed to be essential to reanimate a person’s ka (or life force). It was usually carried out by the dead king’s son or heir, in this case, Ay, who succeeded Tutankhamun. For this ceremony, the mummified king was placed upright, and Ay touched his mouth, eyes, and nose with various implements.

The opening of the mouth ceremony is depicted on the north wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The king is depicted here as Osiris, but his name is written above his head in hieroglyphs.

In this depiction, Ay is dressed in a special priest’s outfit that included a leopard skin. He is holding a tool called an adze. The table holds more tools, the leg of an animal, and five drinks—possibly some of the food the king would be able to enjoy once the ceremony was completed. Scholars think there was a funerary meal, eaten by the king’s family and friends, after this ceremony. Remains of what might have been this special meal were found buried in a pit near his tomb.

The ancient Egyptians believed that King Tutankhamun successfully passed through this journey.

Tutankhamun’s Tomb
Archaeological excavations require careful planning, organization, and a team of skilled laborers. In the 1920s, the work of digging fell to Egyptians from local communities, though it was common for these excavations to be led by foreigners from Europe. The search for Tut’s tomb relied on the hard work of scores of Egyptians and was led by British archaeologist Howard Carter. King Tutankhamun’s tomb was located on November 4, 1922, when a carved step was found by one of the teams. In the Valley, there is a story that this step was found by a 12-year-old water boy.

A Different Story
Workers who toiled under the Egyptian sun during an excavation needed plenty of water. Every excavation, even today, has someone who brings water to the site in earthenware jars with rounded bottoms. According to one version of events, 12-year-old Hussein Abdel Rasoul arrived at the dig site with jugs of water on the morning of November 4. He began to make a hole to bury the bases to keep them upright. While digging, his stick struck stone. Brushing aside the sand, the story goes, Hussein discovered the top of a flight of steps.

Wonderful Things
In his official account, Howard Carter states that the tomb was not opened until November 26, 1922, in the presence of his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon; Carnarvon’s daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert; and an assistant, Arthur “Pecky” Callender. A small hole was made in the door. Carter inserted a candle and peered into the tomb. Lord Carnarvon asked him: “Can you see anything?” Carter answered, “Yes, it is wonderful.”

Even though the tomb was small, it was packed with artifacts. Howard Carter was a meticulous archaeologist who had every single item recorded. It took him and his team nearly 10 years to describe and catalogue the nearly 5,400 artifacts. The study of funerary artifacts, tombs, and the remains of the past is at the core of the scientific field of archaeology. Not much of Tutankhamun’s life was written down in ancient texts. To know him, we must read the past through his possessions.

Having successfully journeyed through the underworld, the immortal king would have needed help. To the ancient Egyptians, the afterlife was a mirror image of one’s life on Earth. Just as in mortal life, there was work to be done. To assist him in his labors were hundreds of carved figures called shawbtis. Summoned to life by a spell, these “replacement” Tuts did the king’s work for him.

High Priest
The king’s tomb was robbed twice during antiquity. It is believed that thieves stole more than half of the royal jewelry. Many of the remaining pieces reenforce Tut’s role as high priest. This necklace depicts the god Horus in the form of a falcon with the sun disk on its head. It holds the ankh (symbol of life) and the shen ring (representing eternal protection) in each talon.

Kingly Crown
Many artifacts in the king’s tomb illustrate his power as king and military leader. His crown bore the royal insignia, a vulture and a serpent. The vulture was Nekhbet, the goddess of Upper Egypt. The cobra represented the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt. Together, they symbolized the protectors of the united Two Lands over which the king reigned.

Royal Symbols
In his hands, the king would have carried the crook and the flail. The crook represented the pharaoh’s role as a shepherd in caring for his people. The flail might have represented the pharaoh’s responsibility to establish the order that was essential to sustaining society. It might also have signified the pharaoh’s role in providing for his people and protecting land that could grow food for the people.

Art of Power
In ancient Egypt, art was also used to visually express divinity and sovereignty. The royal art tended to be highly stylized, often not differentiating between male or female or even individuals, except in inscriptions. During Akhenaten’s reign, he changed the standards of art. In Tutankhamun’s reign, he changed the standards back to the old stylistic formula. Many objects in Tut’s tomb may have originally been made for other people or other rulers.

Three of the 29 chairs found in the tomb were likely thrones. This throne stood out for its magnificence. Made of wood and covered with gold leafing, silver, glass, and semi-precious gemstones, its legs are shaped like a lion’s claws.

Military Might
As chief of the army, Tutankhamun would have need of many weapons. His tomb housed a full suit of leather armor and eight shields. Two daggers were buried with him.

Hunting served as practice for war. Six chariots, 14 straight bows, five composite bows, two leather quivers, and hundreds of arrows found in the tomb equipped the king for battle. He also had 23 throw sticks, or boomerangs, used to hunt birds.

Food and Comfort
The king would not go hungry. Meat was stored in egg-shaped wooden boxes. More than 100 boxes held grain and fruits—wheat, barley, honey, dates, figs, and almonds. Jars for wine and beer were carefully labeled with the year they were made and their region of origin. Some jars even included the name of the vine grower.

The king’s wardrobe was extensive—shirts, long tunics, kilts, sashes, and riding gloves. Some were simple and plain, for daily use; others were ornate and ceremonial. There were 93 individual sandals. Why the odd number? Who is to say? His four socks may have been gifts that he never wore under his sandals. The king had plenty of underwear, though—145 loincloths.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Brenna Maloney, National Geographic Society
Patrick Cavanagh, National Geographic Society
Photo Researchers
Jean Cantu, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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