Smenkhkare (alternatively romanized Smenkhare, Smenkare, or Smenkhkara; meaning "'Vigorous is the Soul of Re") was an Egyptian pharaoh of unknown background who lived and ruled during the Amarna Period of the 18th Dynasty. Smenkhkare was husband to Meritaten, the daughter of his likely co-regent, Akhenaten. Very little is known of Smenkhkare for certain because later kings sought to erase the Amarna Period from history. Because of this, perhaps no one from the Amarna Interlude has been the subject of so much speculation as Smenkhkare.[2]

Origin and family

Smenkhkare's origins are unknown. It is assumed he was a member of the royal family, likely either a brother or son of the pharaoh Akhenaten. If a son of Akhenaten, his mother was likely an unknown, lesser wife.[3] If he is Akhenaten's brother, his mother was likely either Tiye or Sitamun.[4]

Smenkhkare is known to have married Akhenaten's eldest daughter, Meritaten, who was his Great Royal Wife.[5] Inscriptions mention a King's Daughter named Meritaten Tasherit, who may be the daughter of Meritaten and Smenkhkare.[6][7] Further, Smenkhkare has also been put forth as a candidate for the mummy in KV55. If so, he is a candidate for father of the prince Tutankhaten, who would eventually become Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Smenkhkare is actually the Hittite prince Zannanza who was sent to Egypt to marry a queen, called Dakhamunzu in the Hittite annals, whose husband had died.[8] The queen would then be identified as Smenkhkare's confirmed wife, Meritaten. If true, he would further be the child of King Suppiluliuma and Queen Henti and have several brothers, including Mursili II, Arnuwanda II, Piyassili, and Telipinu. However, this suggestion is unlikely because Zannanza died before he reached Egypt.[8]

Reign as pharaoh

Length of reign

Clear evidence for a sole reign for Smenkhkare has not yet been found. There are few artifacts that attest to his existence at all, and so it is assumed his reign was short. A wine docket from "the house of Smenkhkare" attests to Regnal Year 1.[9] A second wine docket dated to Year 1 refers to him as "Smenkhkare, (deceased)" and may indicate that he died during his first regnal year.[10][11]

Some Egyptologists have speculated about the possibility of a two- or three-year reign for Smenkhkare based on a number of wine dockets from Amarna that lack a king's name but bear dates for regnal years 2 and 3.[12] However, they could belong to any of the Amarna kings and are not definitive proof either way.[13]

Smenkhkare Hall

While there are few monuments or artifacts that attest to Smenkhkare's existence, there is a major addition to the Amarna palace complex that bears his name. It was built in approximately Year 15 and was likely built for a significant event related to him.

Theories of timing of Smenkhkare's reign

Academic consensus has yet to be reached about when exactly Smenkhkare ruled as pharaoh and where he falls in the timeline of Amarna. In particular, the confusion of his identity compared to that of Pharaoh Neferneferuaten has led to considerable academic debate about the order of kings in the late Amarna Period. Aidan Dodson suggests that Smenkhkare did not have a sole reign and only served as Akhenaten's co-regent for about a year around Regnal Year 13.[14] However, James Peter Allen depicts Smenkhkare as successor to Neferneferuaten[15] and Marc Gabolde has suggested that after Smenkhkare's reign, Meritaten succeeded him as Neferneferuaten.

Co-regency with Akhenaten

Per Dodson's theory, Smenkhkare served only as co-regent with Akhenaten and never had an individual rule and Nefertiti became co-regent and eventual successor to Akhenaten.[16] Smenkhkare and Meritaten appear together in the tomb of Meryre II at Amarna, rewarding Meryre. There, Smenkhkare wears the khepresh crown, however he is called the son-in-law of Akhenaten. Further, his name appears only during Akhenaten's reign without certain evidence to attest to a sole reign.[17] The names of the king have since been cut out but were recorded around 1850 by Karl Lepsius.[18] Additionally, a calcite "globular vase" from Tutankhamun's tomb displays the full double cartouches of both pharaohs. However, this is the only object known to carry both names side-by-side.[19] This evidence has been taken by some Egyptologists to indicate that Akhenaten and Smenkhkare were co-regents. However, the scene in Meryre's tomb is undated and Akhenaten is neither depicted nor mentioned in the tomb. The jar may simply be a case of one king associating himself with a predecessor. The simple association of names, particularly on everyday objects, is not conclusive of a co-regency.[20][21]

Smenkhkare as successor to Neferneferuaten

Arguing against the co-regency theory, Allen suggests that Neferneferuaten followed Akhenaten and that upon her death, Smenkhkare ascended as pharaoh. Allen proposes that following Nefertiti's death in Year 13 or 14, her daughter Neferneferuaten-tasherit became Pharaoh Neferneferuaten.[15] After Neferneferuaten's short rule of two or three years, according to Allen, Smenkhkare became pharaoh.[15] Under this theory, both pharaohs succeeded Akhenaten: Neferneferuaten as the chosen successor and Smenkhkare as a rival with the same prenomen, perhaps to challenge Akhenaten's unacceptable choice.[22] However, a hieratic inscription discovered at the limestone quarry at Dayr Abu Hinnis suggests that Nefertiti was alive in Akhenaten's Year 16, undermining this theory.[23] There, Nefertiti is referred to as the pharaoh's Great Royal Wife.[24][25]

Furthermore, work is believed to have halted on the Amarna tombs shortly after Year 13.[26][27] Therefore, the depiction of Smenkhkare in Meryre's tomb must date to no later than Year 13. For him to have succeeded Neferneferuaten means that aside from a lone wine docket, he left not a single trace over the course of five to six years.

Meritaten as successor to Smenkhkare

In comparison to the theories mentioned above, Marc Gabolde has advocated that Smenkhkare's Great Royal Wife, Meritaten, became Pharaoh Neferneferuaten after her husband's death. The main argument against this is a box (Carter 001k) from Tutankhamun's tomb that lists Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, and Meritaten as three separate individuals. There, Meritaten is explicitly listed as Great Royal Wife.[28] Further, various private stelae depict the female pharaoh with Akhenaten. However under this theory, Akhenaten would be dead by the time Meritaten became pharaoh as Neferneferuaten. Gabolde suggest that these depictions are retrospective. Yet since these are private cult stelae it would require a number of people to get the same idea to commission a retrospective, commemorative stela at the same time. Allen notes that the everyday interaction portrayed in them more likely indicates two living people.[21]

Identity and confusion over regnal name

Line drawing from the tomb of Meryre II - the lost names had been recorded previously (inset) as Smenkhkare and Meritaten

There has been much confusion in identifying artifacts related to Smenkhkare because another pharaoh from the Amarna Period bears the same or similar royal titulary. In 1978, it was proposed that there were two individuals using the same name: a male king Smenkhkare and a female Neferneferuaten.[29] Neferneferuaten has since been identified as a female pharaoh who ruled during the Amarna Period and is generally accepted as a separate person from Smenkhkare.[30] [31] Neferneferuaten is theorized to be either Nefertiti, Meritaten, or, more rarely, Neferneferuaten Tasherit.

After their initial rediscovery, Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten were assumed to be the same person because of their similar prenomen (throne name).[32] Typically, throne names in Ancient Egypt were unique. Thus, the use of similar titulary led to a great deal of confusion among Egyptologists.[33] For the better part of a century, the repetition of throne names was taken to mean that Smenkhare changed his name to Neferneferuaten at some point, probably upon the start of his sole reign. Indeed, Petrie makes exactly that distinction in his 1894 excavation notes. Later, a different set of names emerged using the same: "Ankhkheperure mery Neferkheperure [Akhenaten] Neferneferuaten mery Wa en Re [Akhenaten]".[33]

Smenkhkare can be differentiated from Neferneferutaten by the lack of an epithet associated with his throne name.[34][35] James Peter Allen pointed out the name 'Ankhkheperure' nearly always included the epithet 'desired of Wa en Re' (referring to Akhenaten) when coupled with the nomen 'Neferneferuaten'. There were no occasions where 'Ankhkheprure plus epithet' occurred alongside 'Smenkhkare;' nor was plain 'Ankhkheperure' ever found associated with the nomen Neferneferuaten.[36] However, differentiating between the two individuals when 'Ankhkheperure' occurs alone is complicated by the Pawah graffito from TT139. Here, Ankhkheperure is used alone twice when referring to Neferneferutaten.[37] In some instances, a female version 'Ankhetkheperure' occurs; in this case the individual is Neferneferuaten.[38][39]

The issue of a female Neferneferuaten was finally settled for the remaining holdouts when Allen confirmed Marc Gabolde's findings that objects from Tutankhamun's tomb originally inscribed for Neferneferuaten which had been read using the epithet "...desired of Akhenaten" were originally inscribed as Akhet-en-hyes or "effective for her husband."[40][41]

Akhenaten and Smenkhkare as homosexual couple

Theories arose when the two pharaohs Smenkhkare and Neferneferutaten were still considered the same, male person, that he and Akhenaten could have been homosexual lovers or even married. This is because of artwork clearly showing Akhenaten in familiar, intimate poses with another pharaoh. For example, stele in Berlin depicts a pair of royal figures, one in the double crown and the other, who appears to be a woman, in the khepresh crown. However, the set of three empty cartouches can only account for the names of a king and queen. This has been interpreted to mean that at one point Nefertiti may have been a coregent, as indicated by the crown, but not entitled to full pharaonic honors such as the double cartouche.[42] Furthermore, it is now accepted that other artifacts similar to this one are depictions of Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten.

Nefertiti as Smenkhkare

Alternatively, once the feminine traces were discovered in some versions of the throne names, it was proposed that Nefertiti was masquerading as Smenkhkare and later changed her name back to Neferneferuaten. There would be precedent for presenting a female pharaoh as a male, such as Hatshepsut had done generations prior.


This image is commonly taken to be Smenkhkare and Meritaten, although it may be Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun
  • The Coregency Stela U.C. 410, now in the Petrie Museum. Although badly damaged, partial inscriptions survive. It shows the double cartouche of Akhenaten alongside that of Ankhkheperure mery-Waenre Neferneferuaten Akhet-en-hyes ('effective for her husband'). The inscription originally bore the single cartouche of Nefertiti, which was erased along with a reference to Meritaten to make room for the double cartouche of King Neferneferuaten.[43]
  • Line drawings of a block depicting the nearly complete names of King Smenkhkare and Meritaten as Great Royal Wife were recorded before the block was lost.
  • Flinders Petrie documented six rings bearing only the Throne Name 'Ankhkheperure' (the other six with the same Throne Name show an epithet: or Mery Neferkheperure, no. 92 and no. 93; or Mery Waenre, no. 94, 95, and 96) and two more bearing 'Smenkhkare' (with another one bearing the epithet Djeserkheperu, which belonged to Smenkhkare)[44] in excavations of the palace.[45] One example is Item UC23800 in the Petrie Museum which clearly shows the "djeser" and "kheperu" elements and a portion of the 'ka' glyph. Pendlebury found more when the town was cleared.[46]
  • A ring bearing his name is found at Malqata in Thebes.
  • Perhaps the most magnificent was a vast hall more than 125 metres square and including over 500 pillars. This late addition to the central palace has been known as the Hall of Rejoicing, Coronation Hall, or simply Smenkhkare Hall because a number of bricks stamped Ankhkheperure in the House of Rejoicing in the Aten were found at the site.[47]
  • Indisputable images for Smenkhkare are rare. Aside from the tomb of Meryre II, a carved and painted relief showing an Amarna king and queen in a garden is often attributed to him. It is completely without inscription, but since they do not look like Tutankhamun or his queen, they are often assumed to be Smenkhkare and Meritaten, but Akhenaten and Nefertiti are sometimes put forth as well.
  • An inscription in the tomb of Pairi, TT139, by the other Ankhkheperure (Neferneferuaten), mentions a functioning Amen 'temple of Ankhkheperure'.[48]

Several items from the tomb of Tutankhamun bear the name of Smenkhkare:

  • A linen garment decorated with 39 gold daisies along with 47 other sequins bearing the prenomen of Smenkhkare alongside Meritaten's name.
  • Carter number 101s is a linen shawl with the name Ankhkheperure
  • A compound bow (Carter 48h) and the mummy bands (Carter 256b) were both reworked for Tutankhamun.[49]
  • Less certain, but much more impressive is the second anthropoid coffin containing the mummy of Tutankhamun. The face depicted is much more square than that of the other coffins and quite unlike the gold mask or other depictions of Tutankhamun. The coffin is rishi style and inlaid with coloured glass, a feature only found on this coffin and one from KV55, the speculated resting place for the mummy of Smenkhkare. Since both cartouches show signs of being reworked, Dodson and Harrison conclude this was most likely originally made for Smenkhkare and reinscribed for Tutankhamun.[49][50]

As the evidence came to light in bits and pieces at a time when Smenkhkare was assumed to have also used the name Neferneferuaten, perhaps at the start of his sole reign, it sometimes defied logic. For instance, when the mortuary wine docket surfaced from the 'House of Smenkhkare (deceased)', it seemed to appear that he changed his name back before he died.

Since his reign was brief, and he may never have been more than co-regent, the evidence for Smenkhkare is not plentiful, but nor is it quite as insubstantial as it is sometimes made out to be. It certainly amounts to more than just 'a few rings and a wine docket' or that he 'appears only at the very end of Ahkenaton's reign in a few monuments'[51] as is too often portrayed.

Death and burial

The desecrated royal coffin found in Tomb KV55

Smenkhkare has been put forward as a candidate for the mummy within a desecrated royal coffin discovered in KV55. The tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1907 by Edward R. Ayrton while working for Theodore M. Davis. The tomb contained funerary objects inscribed with the names of several figures of the Amarna Period, including magic bricks with Akhenaten's name, canopic jars assumed to be for King's Wife Kiya, and a shrine built for Tiye. Because of this shrine, Davis referred to KV55 as the Tomb of Queen Tiye.

The mummy discovered in the tomb rested in a desecrated rishi coffin and the owner's name had been removed. It is generally accepted that the coffin was originally intended for a female and later reworked to accommodate a male.[52] Over the past century, the chief candidates for this individual have been either Akhenaten or Smenkhkare.[53][54][55]

The case for Akhenaten rests largely on the 'magic bricks' and the reworking of some of the inscriptions on the coffin. The case for Smenkhkare comes mostly from the presumed age of the mummy (see below) which, between ages 18 and 26 would not fit Akhenaten who reigned for 17 years and had fathered a child near by his first regnal year. There is nothing in the tomb positively identified as belonging to Smenkhkare, nor is his name found there. The tomb is certainly not befitting any king, but even less so for Akhenaten.

Early examinations of the mummy

The skull of the mummy in KV55, believed to be Smenkhkare

The skeletonized mummy was examined on a number of occasions over the years, including by Smith (1912), Derry (1931), Harrison (1966), Strouhal (1998/2010) and Filer (2001). Wente used craniofacial analysis in 1995 (as well as examining past X-rays) to examine a cache of mummies, mostly from the 18th Dynasty, in order to sort out the relationships and true identities of each. Serological tests on the KV55 remains and Tutankhamun's mummy were performed and published in Nature (1974). The KV55 mummy was also examined by Harris in 1988, but only an abstract of the results was published, and most recently by Hawass, Gad et al. in 2010.

Filer's conclusions were largely representative of the pre-2010 examinations, noting "...this man was not quite a fully mature adult, between 18 and 21 years when he died." She concluded:

The human remains from Tomb 55, as presented to me, are those of a young man who had no apparent abnormalities and was no older than his early twenties at death and probably a few years younger.[56]

These were largely in keeping with the previous results (18–26 years) allowing for the technologies available. For instance, Derry concluded an age of about 23 and Strouhal gave an age range of 19 to 22.[57] Wente's study found close cranial similarities between the mummies of Tutankhamun, KV55 and Thutmose IV.[58] The serological tests indicated KV55 and Tutankhamun shared the same rare blood type.[59] Taken together, the KV55 mummy was assumed to be the father or brother of Tutankhamun. A brother seemed more likely since the age would only be old enough to plausibly father a child at the upper extremes.

Genetic tests of 2010

In 2010, genetic tests and CT scans were performed with some of the results published in JAMA and reported in National Geographic, including a TV special.[60] Chief among the genetic results was, "The statistical analysis revealed that the mummy KV55 is most probably the father of Tutankhamun (probability of 99.99999981%), and KV35 Younger Lady could be identified as his mother (99.99999997%)."[61] The report goes on to show that both KV55 and KV35 Younger Lady were siblings and children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.[62]

CT scans were also performed on the mummy from which it was concluded that his age at the time of death was much higher than all previous estimates.

New CT scans of the KV55 mummy also revealed an age-related degeneration in the spine and osteoarthritis in the knees and legs. It appeared that he had died closer to the age of 40 than 25, as originally thought. With the age discrepancy thus resolved, we could conclude that the KV55 mummy, the son of Amenhotep III and Tiye and the father of Tutankhamun, is almost certainly Akhenaten. (Since we know so little about Smenkhkare, he cannot be completely ruled out.)[63]

Evidence to support the much older claim was not provided beyond the single point of spinal degeneration. A growing body of work soon began to appear to dispute the assessment of the age of the mummy and the identification of KV55 as Akhenaten.[57][64][65][66][67][68][69][70] Where Filer and Strouhal (below) relied on multiple indicators to determine the younger age, the new study cited one point to indicate a much older age. One letter to the JAMA editors came from Arizona State University bioarchaeologist Brenda J. Baker. The content was retold on the Archaeology News Network website and is representative of a portion of the dissent:

A specialist in human osteology and paleopathology, Baker takes issue with the identification of the skeletonized mummy KV55 as Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. The authors [Hawass et al in JAMA] place this individual’s age at the time of death at 35–45, despite producing no evidence that repudiates well-known prior examinations citing the age in the 18–26 range. These earlier analyses – documented with written descriptions, photographs and radiographs – show a pattern of fused and unfused epiphyses (caps on ends of growing bones) throughout the skeleton, indicating a man much younger than Akhenaten is believed to have been at the time of his death. Baker also uses a photograph of the pubic symphysis of the pelvis to narrow the age of KV55 to 18–23 based on recent techniques used in osteology and forensic anthropology.[71]

An examination of the KV55 mummy was conducted in 1998 by Czech anthropologist Eugene Strouhal. He published his conclusions in 2010 where he 'utterly excluded the possibility of Akhenaten':

[T]he unambiguous male skeleton from Tomb 55 proved decisively by a long list of biological developmental features his age at death to be in the range of 19–22 years which fully agrees with the results of the previous determination by Harrison (1966)... He did not possess the slightest dental pathology and not even the onset of degenerative changes in the spine and joints.[72]

Other criticisms surround what the project did not do. Wente had noted that the mummies of both Tutankamun and KV55 bore a very strong craniofacial similarity to the mummy of Thutmose IV, yet this mummy was not tested. Dylan Bickerstaffe calls it "almost perverse" that the mysterious "boy on a boat" found in KV35 was not tested while the "Elder Lady" and "Younger Lady" found there were. The boy could very well be Akhenaten's older brother Prince Thutmose or even Smenkhkare given that the KV35 ladies are now known to be related to Tutankamun.[68]

While it now seems likely that the KV55 mummy is the father of Tutankhamun, for many his identification as Akhenaten seems as doubtful as before.


At the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the royal family had prepared tombs in Amarna, rather than in the traditional burial grounds at Thebes. After the capital moved from Amarna, Akhenaten's successor might have faced a shortage of tombs for royal reburials.[73]

Left alone in a tomb with few of the trappings of the typical Ancient Egyptian burial, the KV55 mummy appears to be not so much buried as disposed of. Since the KV55 mummy is conclusively a close relative of Tutankhamun, if not his father, why such a haphazard burial? It may simply be that they ran out of tombs or time.

As evidenced by the tomb of Meryre, work appears to have abruptly halted on the Amarna tombs after Year 13. About that time, a significant number of people depart the scene including three of Akhenaten's daughters, his mother and Kiya. In Amarna Letter 35, the king of Alashia apologizes to Akhenaten for his small greeting gift of copper, explaining that a plague had killed off many of his copper miners.[74] Something similar may well have struck Amarna, if not Egypt.

Smenkhkare would be in a particularly bad situation. Since he died young and reigned so briefly, he would not have had time to make and accumulate the grave goods befitting a king. In the end, the tomb seems to have been simply sealed up with the mummy and whatever was available.[73]

The tomb had been re-entered once and sealed twice.[75] The seals date to the late 18th Dynasty indicating the tomb was entered and resealed probably under the reign of Tutankhamun.

The nature of the debris, rubble fill, and cement retaining wall suggest the desecration and attempt to remove the shrine of Tiye did not happen until later.[76]

Pectoral bearing the royal vulture that was found placed on the head of the mummy in KV55

The tomb was entered once again. Anthropologists suggest that it occurred some time later, in the 19th, 20th, or 21st Dynasty (opinions vary). Bell suggests that this entry may be related to the reburial of royal mummies and resulted in Tiye being moved to KV35. It was during this entry that Akhenaten's name and likeness were attacked in several places within the tomb.[76]

The mummy was relatively unmolested: the wrappings were undisturbed, but although some royal insignia were removed, various gold items were found, including a royal pectoral collar representing Nekhbet on the head of the mummy. Bell suggests feelings toward Akhenaten had softened by this time resulting in a "nameless king but still a consecrated pharaoh".[77]

Others suggest that after desecration of Akhenaten's burial, including perhaps the destruction of his mummy, Smenkhkare was placed in Akhenaten's coffin,[78] instead of a newly created one. Lack of preparation for a royal burial upon an unexpected death of Smenkhkare also could explain the oddly placed ornament. It could be evidence of meagar preparations. The pectoral clearly was intended for a royal burial because, of the two patron deities known as the Two Ladies who were the protectors of Egyptian kings, Nekhbet is the vulture, but it alone as ornamentation, certainly would fall short of that typically assembled during years of preparations for the royal burial of an Egyptian king.


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