Who Was King Tut’s Father?

The Mummy Mask of King Tutankhamun

The Egyptian King Tutankhamun (ruled ca. 1345-1335 BC), better known as “King Tut,” is one of the better known of all the Egyptian pharaohs among the general public. The reason why the general public knows Tutankhamun’s name largely comes from the discovery of his tomb in 1922 by British Egyptologists Howard Carter, which proved to be one of the best-preserved tombs in ancient Egyptian history. Other than the beautiful items recovered from his tomb and the fact that he was a boy king, most people know little else about Tutankhamun.

The reality is that Egyptologists do not know much more, as much of Tutankhamun’s life remains a mystery. It is known that he succeeded Akhenaten, who is known for building a new capital city and changing Egyptian religion, but Tutankhamun’s relationship with the iconoclastic king remains a source of debate. Some scholars believe that Tutankhamun was Akhenaten’s son, while others think that the two kings were brothers. Although the brother argument appears to be the most logical and has many credible supporters, this mystery may never be solved.

Akhenaten and the Amarna Period

King Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti, and Their Three Daughters

To understand more about Tutankhamun and to possibly deduce who his father was, one must first understand the so-called “Amarna Period.” The Amarna Period generally refers to the period from the end of Amunhotep III’s rule (reigned ca. 1403-1364 BC) until the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. The period is named for the modern village where Amunhotep III’s son and successor, Amunhotep IV/Akhenaten (ruled ca. 1364-1347 BC) built a new city dedicated to the sun-god, Aten. When Akhenaten came to power, though, it was not apparent at first how he would lead the kingdom.

Akhenaten was the son of Amunhotep III and Tiye, but he was not the original crown prince. [1] Whatever type of circumstances may have led to him becoming the king, the first couple years of his rule were nothing extraordinary. He took the name Amunhotep and ruled as a traditional pharaoh, possibly with his father as a co-regent, but gradual changes began to take place.

A shift to worship Aten, the disk of the sun, had already begun during the reign of Amunhotep III as evidenced by a number of texts from his reign that praised the god. [2] The acknowledgment of the Aten as an important god may have started during Amunhotep III’s reign, but it was during Akhenaten’s rule when the Aten theology became fully realized.

The Aten theology was articulated in hieroglyphic texts from five tombs near the city of Amarna, which are known collectively as the “Hymn to the Aten.” In the hymn, the Aten is described as an all-knowing and life-giving god that has somewhat universal qualities. [3]

There were no myths that described the Aten’s background, which was more common than not in ancient Egyptian religion, and it was never depicted anthropomorphically. The Aten was only shown as a sun disk radiating life to its followers. [4]

The city where Akhenaten planned his religious changes and the place where Tutankhamun spent the first few years of his life is today known as Amarna, but was known as Akhetaten, or “the Horizon of the Sun Disk” in ancient times. Akhenaten had the city built in the fifth year of his reign in a relatively desolate spot on the east bank of the Nile River about halfway between Memphis and Thebes. The city quickly grew to as many as 50,000 people, which was quite large by Bronze Age standards. [5] Akhenaten ruled in Amarna/Akhetaten for about twelve years, until he died during his seventeenth year on the throne.

Tutankhamun Comes to Power

Collasal Statue of Tutankhamun in the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago

It is believed that Tutankhamun remained in Amarna for a year or two before leaving for the traditional capital of Memphis. Before leaving, he changed his name from Tutankhaten (“The Living Image of the Aten”) to Tutankhamun (“The Living Image of Amun”), which signaled a return to the orthodox Egyptian religion. His possible half-sister or niece, and wife, also changed her name from Akhesenpaaten to Ankhesenamun. [6] The new king also restored funding for the traditional cults and made sure to let everyone know that it was he who had had done so. A hieroglyphic stela from the Karnak Temple, now known as the “Restoration Edict,” highlights how Egypt was in ruin when Tutankhamun came to the throne, but that he restored order by restoring the cults of the old gods.

“When this Person appeared as king, the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine [as far] as the Delta marshes . . . were fallen into decay and their shrines were fallen into ruin, having become mere mounds overgrown with grass. Their sanctuaries were like something that had not come into being and their buildings were a footpath – for the land was in rack and ruin.” [7]

Unfortunately, the text never makes any reference to Akhenaten by name, nor does it mention anything about Tutankhamun’s genealogy other than to say the god Amun was his father. Therefore, the answer to the riddle of Tutankhamun’s lineage must be found in other places.

A Confusing Succession

Before Tutankhamun came to the throne, though, an enigmatic king named Smenkhkare (reigned ca. 1348-1345 BC) briefly ruled. The identity of Smenkhkare plays an important role in determining Tutankhamun’s parentage because although Akhenaten may have followed a slightly different religious path, there is no evidence that he deviated from traditional kingship protocols and traditions of the era regarding royal succession.

Smenkhkare is little attested in texts, but in those that are extant he used the same nomen – Neferneferuaten - as Nefertiti and the epithet, “beloved of Akhenaten,” which has led some to believe that he was in fact Nefertiti. [8] Another theory is that Smenkhkare married into the royal family, somehow became king, and then was briefly succeeded by his wife, Neferneferuaten, who was possibly Akhenaten’s daughter, Meryetaten. [9]

Confusingly, there is evidence that suggests Smenkhkare was married to Ankhespaaten, who was Tutankhamun’s wife. [10] Smenkhkhare’s lineage will probably never be known sure unless a text is discovered that sheds more light on the issue, but his potential relationship with Tutankhamun and the fact that he came to power before him may help solve the riddle of the latter’s genealogy.

Tutankhamun was about eight-years-old when he came to the throne, but even before he was king he was described in a text as the “king’s son of his loins.” Aldred believes that this indicates that by logic, as well as anthropological similarities between their mummies, Smenkhkare was also a “king’s son” and crown prince. He points out that Tutankhamun’s age at his ascension to the throne makes no difference in the argument – it would not have mattered if he became king a year or two earlier.

Aldred further argues that Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun were brothers, but that Akhenaten could not have been their father since he became king three years after Smenkhkare was born. Therefore, the long-lived Amunhotep III must have been the father of both Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun. [11] The two kings more than likely would have had different mothers. If Amunhotep III was Tutankhamun’s father, then Akhenaten would have been his brother. Although this theory is certainly logical when one considers that Tutankhamun never refers to Akhenaten as his father, many reputable scholars still believe that the pair were father and son.

The standard father-son theory of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun’s relationship states that Akhenaten was the father of both Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun. In an example of how a historical text can be viewed from a completely different perspective, proponents of this theory use the “King’s son of his loin” text mentioned above to bolster their argument, pointing out that it was actually discovered at Amarna/Akhetaten.

The Akhenaten-Tutankhamun father-son proponents argue that if Amunhotep III were Tutankhamun’s father, then the text should have been discovered in the ruins of his palace at Thebes, not Amarna. [12] This theory, though, does not take into account the fact that Akhenaten revered his father and could simply have brought the artifact with him when the move to Amarna was made. There is also no textual evidence that indicates Smenkhkare was one of Akhenaten’s sons.


Ever since King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, his mysterious rule has intrigued Egyptologists and laypeople alike. Perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of Tutankhamun’s life concerns his parentage and how he was connected to the revolutionary pharaoh, Akhenaten. Since Tutankhamun’s rule came after Akhenaten’s it was believed he was his son, but an examination of the often confusing genealogy of the late Eighteenth Dynasty reveals that may not be the case.

Although the sources and logic seem to point toward Akhenaten and Tutankhamun being half-brothers with Amunhotep III as their father, unless a text is discovered that can definitively prove this, the debate will no doubt continue.


  1. Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: King of Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 159
  2. Dijk, Jacobus van. “The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom, (ca. 1352-1069 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 275
  3. Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Vol. 2, The New Kingdom. (Los Angeles: University of California Press), p. 90
  4. Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 169
  5. Kemp, Barry. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 169
  6. Dijk, pgs. 290-1
  7. Murnane, William J. Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), p. 213
  8. Aldred, p. 291
  9. Dodson, Aidan and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), p. 150
  10. Aldred, p. 292
  11. Aldred, p. 293
  12. Dodson and Hilton, p. 149