Amarna kings and incest in the Egyptian royal family

Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten with Nefertiti and 3 of their daughters. Image A. Sinclair, Berlin museum.

Let’s start with the phrase that one can come across on Facebook groups or internet forums pretty much the moment a photograph of an Amarna period relief is posted:  At least one bright spark will pop up and claim - ‘Akhenaten looks like he did because his family practiced generations of incest.’

Or that other old chestnut: ‘he had a congenital disease that was caused by inbreeding’.

This idea is a modern myth of sorts perpetuated by the general public, the media and even some publications that I personally find is a good illustration of the argument for not accepting everything you meet at face value.

I say ‘face value’ because at first glance it is a valid generalisation, Egyptian kings had a policy of marrying their sisters or close family members, pretty much in the same way western European royal families had a taste for breeding into the one gene pool for about a thousand years. 

Simple - keep the power close.

And we all know how well that worked out for their health, don’t we?  

So the basic premise is okay - from the Egyptian point of view marrying a princess to the male heir was the logical thing to do, particularly when the Egyptians did not make a habit of making dynastic marriages with their allies like European and Mesopotamian states. 

This latter custom was a major no-no in Egypt, and is known to have been rejected by Amenhotep III in a diplomatic letter from around 1370 BCE.  They simply didn't do it.

The father of Akhenaten, Amenhotep III, with his chief queen Tiye. British Museum, image Wiki.

Collecting foreign princesses on the other hand was totally fine and it was one of Akhenaten’s dad’s favourite hobbies … these women then disappear into the court and are never heard from again.  They were never given positions of seniority, or became chief queen, which must have been really disappointing for their ambitious royal daddies in say Babylon or Hatti. 

So remember this, Egyptian kings were not monogamous, they had more than one wife, and their children were therefore produced by more than one source.

However, if you take the assumption that all Egyptian kings were inbred and apply it to Akhenaten, the 10th pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, the same claim gets shaky.  Particularly when it is applied to explain his health or how he was depicted in artistic programs. 

One - because ancient Egyptian art was not photographically or biologically accurate, it was about what these kings wanted the gods and their court to see …. You know, propaganda combined with religious belief.

Two - because we actually have little evidence for sibling marriage for many of the 18th Dynasty kings.

Except this obvious one - 

This lady was sister of her brother and mother of an heir, queen Ahmose Nefertiri.
Image A. Sinclair, Berlin Museum.

Nitty gritty – 18th Dynasty royal genealogy
Today’s post is a very brief explanation with an equally brief genealogy that shows how this argument for Akhenaten is faulty.  

As a side note I have not listed all kings in direct succession to make my image less confusing.  This means that Hatshepsut and Smenkhkare-Neferneferuaten are not listed because their marriages produced no king and royal succession went sideways.

So first of all, one can assume that the basic premise is correct - from the evidence available to us today it is known that a few kings of the 18th Dynasty definitely married their sisters and these women of royal birth ruled Egypt as its chief queen.

We know this for a fact for the first 2 kings of the 18th Dynasty: Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I both married their sisters, but only Amenhotep I was the son of siblings, his marriage(s) produced no male heir and the early royal line tapers out in about 1500 BCE when he dies.

The next king and ancestor of the rest, Thutmose I, was likely not directly related to the previous kings, he may have been a descendant of the family, or his queen Mutneferet may have been, to justify his ruling Egypt, but we do not know this for sure.  If either of the two earlier kings was his father, he would have said so, but he only ever names his mum on his monuments.

Therefore if Thutmose I and Mutneferet were related it would have been by having royal blood, they were not siblings.

I am not sure I can make it any clearer.

They in turn produced Thutmose II who was married to his half sister Maatkare Hatshepsut.  But that marriage produced daughters and the next king, Thutmose III, was a son of another wife, Iset. Thutmose III was crowned pharaoh as a child, so his stepmum ruled Egypt with him until he was of age.  He was incidentally married to one of his half sisters as per protocol, but again, this marriage produced no heir.

Instead Thutmose III produced the next royal heir, Amenhotep II, with a wife called Merytre Hatshepsut, who was the daughter of a temple priestess, and their son similarly produced his heir Thutmose IV with a minor wife named Tiaa.  Thutmose IV produced his heir Amenhotep III with a queen by the name of Mutemwiya, who may have been related to an important priestly family from Akhmim. 

That is 5 kings, no sons via sisters or incest so far.

Which brings us to Amenhotep III and his great queen Tiye, who was definitely not a princess, because we know who her parents were.  Tiye’s mum and dad were buried with much pomp in the Valley of the Kings and were happy to name their daughter and her rank repeatedly, they were Yuya and Tjuya, and from that important priestly family in Akhmim.  

Amenhotep and Tiye produced two male heirs, but the eldest died and his younger brother Amenhotep IV, the main topic of today, inherited the throne. He changed his name to Akhenaten and took as chief queen a lady now famous called Nefertiti. She too is not known to have been a member of the royal family, and currently a popular argument for her background is that she may have been a daughter of the same priestly family as her mother-in-law Tiye, but evidence to confirm this is lacking.

Meritaten, daughter of Akhenaten, it says so up on the right.  Image A. Sinclair, Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Daughter of a king
The important evidence that argues that none of these women was the sister of their husband is that none bore the formal title sat nezu/nzw ‘daughter of a king’ in their honours given to them by their proud sons or husbands on monuments.   

‘Daughter of a king’, or ‘king’s wife’, or ‘mother of a king’, were the most important titles a woman could hold in Egypt, nobody is going to forget to say this.

This absence of the female title argues decisively that not one of these ladies was the biological sister of their husband.  Therefore, according to the available evidence every royal ancestor of Akhenaten going back 6 generations was not the outcome of a brother-sister marriage. 

sat nzw

After Akhenaten, there is compelling scientific evidence that Tutankhamen was the son of genetically close parents, but this finding has not been confirmed by correlation tests and, if correct, these parents could have been a brother and sister, or full cousins, the jury is still out on that verdict. 

Tutankhamen incidentally also produced no healthy heir with his chief queen and likely royal sister, and the main 18th Dynasty royal line ends there, while the dynasty itself ends with unrelated rulers, Ay and Horemhab.

The trick with combining incest with a culture that has a high infant mortality rate is, it actually wasn't that easy to get a healthy heir to live long enough to rule the country, assuming one was produced of course.

So, sorry, there undoubtedly was a bit, but no rampant incest practiced in the 18th Dynasty Egyptian royal family, not when it comes to producing healthy kings anyway.  Inbreeding was not in any way responsible for the physical characteristics of Akhenaten on his monuments.

Art, it was art damn it.

Andrea Sinclair

Sources and further reading
Dodson, A.  2014. Amarna Sunrise: Egypt from the Golden Age to the Age of Heresy.  American University in Cairo.
Dodson, A.  2009. Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Ay, Horemhab and the Egyptian Counter Reformation.  American University in Cairo.
Dodson, A. and D. Hilton 2004. The Complete Royal Families of Egypt.  Thames & Hudson.
Roehrig, CH. 2005. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh - 'Genealogy of Hatshepsut's family'.  Yale.

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