Opportunity knocks: the kingship of Ay

The end of the Eighteenth Dynasty in ancient Egypt (ca. 1549–1292 BC) and the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty are marked by a succession of kings of non-royal blood. After the death of the young king Titankhamun (r. 1332–1323 BC), these rulers were Ay (r. 1327–1323 BC) and Horemheb (r. 1323–1295 BC), the last two kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and Ramesses I (r. 1292–1290 BC), the first king of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

These men all came from powerful families, sometimes more or less directly or indirectly connected with – or even related to – the royal family. After having accomplished a very successful military and administrative career, each had risen through the ranks to become the second most powerful man in Egypt next to the king himself. From this exalted position, they were able to exploit difficulties when it came to succession and could thus seize the throne. In this article, we will examine the career of Ay, the direct successor of Tutankhamun.

His early career

Ay came from Akhmim, in Upper Egypt. He was married to Tey, who carried the title of Nurse of the Pharaoh’s Great Wife. Ay started his career during the reign of Amenhotep IV, who later changed his name to Akhenaten (r. 1353–1336 BC). He started his career as a high-rank official, holding also the titles of “Superintendent of the Royal Horses” – one of the highest ranks in the army – and “God’s Father”, which emphasized his connection to the King, as explained below.

Other titles are mentioned in his unfinished tomb at Amarna. These include “Fan-Bearer on the Right Side of the King”, as well as “Acting Scribe of the King Beloved by Him”. Moreover on a box, thought to come from the same tomb, are mentioned two additional titles with military connotations: “Troop Commander” and “Overseer of Horses”.

Yuya, the father of Queen Tiy, wife of Amenhotep III (r. 1391–1353 BC) and mother of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), also came from Akhmim. As Ay began his career at a high level, it has been suggested that he was related to Yuya, perhaps even a son. This would have made him the brother of Tiy and an uncle, through marriage, to Akhenaten. It has even been suggested that Ay was the father of Nefertiti, the chief wife of Akhenaten, a connection perhaps emphasized by his title as “God’s Father”.

Ay ascendant

Though none of this can be definitely proven, it is certain that Ay was closely involved with the royal family during the Amarna period, the heyday of Akhenaten. He initiated the construction of one of the largest tombs at the site, which also features one – the longest – of only two surviving versions of the Hymn to Aten.

However, his involvement with the royal family in this period of Egyptian history does not mean that Ay believed in the monotheism professed by Akhenaten. The Hymn to Aten would almost certainly have been included in the tomb at the request of the king. Moreover, his first tomb was never finished and the last of its decorations were probably finished in the ninth year of the reign of Akhenaten, around 1345 BC.

Before the death of Akhenaten, Ay’s career flourished, as demonstrated by inscriptions on funerary items. Even before the end of the Amarna period, he had already rizen to the rank of vizier and royal chancellor, and was also given the title of “Doer of Right”. When Akhenaten passed away and was succeeded by his son Tutankhamun, aged ca. nine years old, Ay was appointed his tutor and major advisor. Under his supervision, reforms were undertaken to restore the situation in Egypt to the situation as it was prior to Amarna.

The kingship

The young king Tutankhamun died suddenly and without an heir. Even though Horemheb had been appointed as heir, Ay seized the opportunity and ascended the throne.

It has been hypothesized that Ay or Horemheb – or perhaps both of them together – were somehow involved in Tutankhamun’s death. Regardless of the truth, it is clear that Tutankhamun’s death came at a time when Egypt struggled with military problems. Egyptian troops had been soundly defeated by the Hittites in a battle at Amqa, near Qadesh. Horemheb may even have been the commander of the army then, since he appears to have been absent when funerary arrangements were made for Tutankhamun.

In the meantime, Tutankhamun’s widow, Ankhesenamun, had been trying to negotiate a peace with the Hittites. To strengthen the bonds between Egypt and the Hittites and to protect her own position, she also requested Suppiluliuma to send her a prince to marry. Prince Zannanza was sent to Egypt, but he was killed on the trip; some believe that either Ay or Horemheb had been responsible for the young man’s death.

Ay may originally only have served as regent. He was already quite old when he decided to marry Ankhesenamun and thus become king. As pharaoh, Ay adopted the throne name of Kheperkheperure, “Everlasting are the manifestations of Ra”. He ruled for only four years, during which time he mostly continued to push through the reforms of his predecessor to erase the heresy of the Amarna period. He dedicated a rock-cut chapel to Min in Akhmim and ordered the construction of a mortuary temple in Medinet Habu.

Death and succession

Ay had appointed as his heir a man called Nakhtmin. He was a military officer and possibly Ay’s grandson, who served in the army during the reigns of Tutankhamun and Ay. He is also known from a few stelae and statues. However, Horemheb seized the throne after Ay’s death and then condemned his predecessor to damnation memoriae, erasing all of his cartouches and destroying or appropriating his monuments.

Ay was buried not in his unfinished tomb in Amarna, but in the western branch of the Valley of the Kings, in tomb KV 23. This tomb was possibly originally intended for Thutmose, the son of Amenhotep III, or for Tutankhamun. In this tomb, Ay is depicted with his first wife and not Ankhesenamun. In another wall-painting he is shown hunting in the marshes, a type of scene more typically encountered in the tombs of noblemen rather than kings.

The importance of Ay was not his reign, which was short and relatively unremarkable, no doubt due to his advanced age. Furthermore, his close association with the Thutmosids, probably through his possible sister Tiy, meant that he had a vested interested in maintaining the old order and not rock the boat too much. Nevertheless, he was the first of a series of three military men who came to rule Egypt for a time.

His image is confirmed by his depiction in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, where he is shown as a loyal administrator taking care of the funerary rituals for the dead king. He came to be relied upon by the royal family and in this way managed to rise higher and higher, until finally he married Tutankhamun’s widow and ruled as king.

Arianna Sacco is an Egyptologist who has studied Archaeology and Egyptology in Naples and has obtained a second master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Approaches to History, Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Thessaly in Volos, Greece. She is currently working on her PhD thesis about the Hyksos in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. She earlier contributed an article on the Hyksos for Ancient Warfare vol. VII, issue 1.

Further reading

  • M. Healy, New Kingdom Egypt (Oxford, New York 1992).
  • R.B. Partridge, Fighting Pharaohs: Weapons and Warfare in Ancient Egypt (Manchester 2002).
  • I. Shaw and P. Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London 1995).
  • A.J. Spalinger, War in Acient Egypt (Malden, Oxford, Victoria 2005).
  • J. van Dijk, “The Amarna period and the later New Kingdom (c. 1352–1069 BC)”, in: I. Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford 2000), pp. 265–307.
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