The Amarna Period and its immediate aftermath is a tantalising period of Egyptian history – it feels like we’ve got so much information that we must know what really happened, and yet we really don’t. On the one hand there is quite a lot of documentation for the upheaval of these years and the players who took part in the drama. We know that Akhenaten succeeded his father Amenthotep III on the throne of Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and that he and his queen Nefertiti had 6 daughters. We know he changed the state religion of Egypt during his reign and moved the capital city of the country to a new virgin site in Middle Egypt (modern Amarna, hence the name of the period of history). After his death it gets very murky for a bit, but then we know Tutankhamun takes the throne as a child and his regime moves back to Thebes and begins restoration of the cult of Amun. Following him we have Ay, and then Horemheb, who complete the restoration of the old ways and set the stage for the 19th Dynasty including Ramesses II.
On the other hand there are still so many gaps in what we know for sure that you can construct several wildly different narratives that are all interpretations of the same pieces of evidence but are mutually incompatible. Take the Pharaoh Ay as an example. You can tell a story of a scheming courtier who possibly even murders his young king and usurps the throne from the rightful heir. Or you can tell a story of a loyal servant bound by blood to the young king who takes the throne in the aftermath of his unexpected death to avert a succession crisis. And really, we just don’t know.
Before I get into the personal side of Ay’s life we should start with the politics. In common with other important members of Akhenaten’s court he began construction of a tomb at Amarna and from this we know his titles during Akhenaten’s reign: Fan Bearer on the Right Hand of the King; Overseer of all the Horses of His Person; Real Royal Scribe, His Beloved; God’s Father. The Fan Bearer and Scribe titles indicate that he’s a close associate of the king, while the Horses one is taken to mean that he was the head of the chariotry wing of the Egyptian army. God’s Father is very unusual and there’s a lot of debate about what it actually means – but I’ll come back to that later as it ties in with speculations about Ay’s family relationships. Scenes in this tomb also show him and his wife receiving gifts of gold from the king personally (and then depict Ay going back to his own household to show off about it!). So clearly he was a mover & a shaker in the court of Akhenaten. And he doesn’t fall out of favour through the ensuing changes of leadership and religion – in Toby Wilkinson’s “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” he subtitled his biography of Ay as “The Great Survivor” which seems apt. While the cult of Aten was riding high, Ay publicly showed his allegiance to it & to Akhenaten; but when the times changed he was there helping with (perhaps even instigating) the return to the old religion and the old capital. In the court of Tutankhamun Ay is one of the powers behind the throne. The other one, Horemheb, gets more titles but in reliefs from Tutankhamun’s time Ay is often shown standing behind the king and on the same scale as him – unusual prominence for a courtier. He may’ve been Vizier – there’s a piece of gold foil from a chariot that gives him this title but the books I read ranged from thinking this meant he was Vizier to thinking that it was an indication of his high status but he didn’t actually do the job of Vizier.
And then Tutankhamun dies. I was a bit disingenuous in my opening to this article – I don’t think anyone seriously believes Tutankhamun was murdered anymore, the “evidence” around which those theories were based has turned out to be misinterpretation of relatively poor quality X-rays of his mummy that were done in the 1960s. However he died, and there are many theories, it seems to’ve been unexpected. His tomb was unfinished, seemingly so much so that wasn’t possible to get it ready in time and so he was interred in a much smaller tomb (probably originally intended for Ay). And Ay becomes the next Pharaoh. It’s not clear how smooth the transition was, and certainly Ay goes out of the way to emphasise his legitimacy in a way he wouldn’t feel the need to do if it wasn’t questioned. It’s possible that Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun tried to arrange herself a marriage to a Hittite prince so that she didn’t have to marry a commoner – certainly there’s correspondence between a widowed Egyptian queen and the Hittites at this time organising such a marriage on this basis (but the prince is murdered before he reaches the Egyptian court) and many people believe the widowed queen to be Ankhesenamun (rather than, say, Nefertiti). Ay is sometimes cast as instigating the correspondence, sometimes as arranging the ambush & murder of the prince, and sometimes both in a Machiavellian scheme to weaken the Hittites. There is also the question of Horemheb – his titles suggest he was intended to be heir, but then Ay takes the throne. A lot of the speculation around this hinges on how power was transferred from king to king – the new king had to be the one to bury his predecessor, and there was a set time frame that this must happen in. And it’s quite possible that Horemheb was away from the court involved in the ongoing conflict with the Hittites. So sometimes this is seen as Ay scrambling to bury Tutankhamun quickly and make it a done deed before his rival returns to claim his inheritance, sometimes as a planned arrangement where the elderly Ay gets his brief time on the throne before inevitably handing it over to his younger colleague, sometimes as just necessitated by timing. Whatever happened Ay was keen to depict his participation in the proper rites for eternity – he’s shown on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This is unique – even when there are other examples of scenes of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony they don’t have a named person performing it, they’re more a general depiction of the ritual whereas this is a piece of propaganda.
Another part of ensuring he looked legitimate might’ve involved marrying Tutankhamun’s widow. The only piece of evidence for this is a ring which has the cartouches of both Ay and Ankhesenamun. As a piece of politics/propaganda it certainly makes sense, but you’d think that in that case she would also be prominent in the rest of Ay’s reign – and be his Great Wife. But instead she vanishes from the historical record after this, and Ay’s wife Tey is the one who is depicted in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings as his Great Wife. Perhaps Ankhesenamun died shortly after? Perhaps it wasn’t a marriage but instead indication of an alliance in some other sense?
Ay’s reign was not to last long. He was almost certainly elderly when he took the throne, based on how long he’d been an important courtier, and so it can’t’ve been a great surprise that he died only three years after Tutankhamun. There’s no speculation of foul play here, all the books seem pretty convinced it was a natural death. Ay had named a man called Nakhtmin (possibly his son) as his heir, but it’s not clear if he had predeceased Ay or if Horemheb just pushed him aside. During Horemheb’s reign he tried to erase all record of the Amarna period, and this includes Ay. His tomb was reopened and the contents removed, and his name removed from monuments and replaced with Horemheb’s.
And this glittering political career is one of the reasons that there is so much speculation around who Ay was related to: he’s a prominent official from the time of Akhenaten onward who eventually becomes Pharaoh and our understanding of Egyptian society is that this must mean that he was Somebody, rather than some lower class man who got an education and rose through the ranks.
Ay’s origins are unknown. He seems to’ve had a connection with the region of Akhmim, judging by later building work and inscriptions there. His name may also provide a clue to his origins – it looks a bit odd amongst other Egyptian names one sees, it’s short and doesn’t look like a phrase in Egyptian. There are other prominent people at this time from Akhmim who have similar looking names (which get even more similar when written in Egyptian) – these include Yuya and Tuya (the parents of Amenhotep III’s queen) and Tiye (that queen). It’s therefore suggested by several people that Ay was a part of this family, and given when he’s attested it would seem to make most sense that he was a son of Yuya & Tuya and thus brother-in-law to Amenhotep III. The problem with all this is that there’s nothing (surviving) that mentions him as a their child – and both Tiye and a brother of hers called Anen are named on objects in their parents’ tomb. Surely Ay would be too, if he was their son?
We do know for sure that Ay had a wife called Tey – she’s named as his wife in the tomb Ay started to build in Amarna and in his eventual resting place in the Valley of the Kings she is named as his Great Wife. So that’s a definite fact, and I think the only one we have for Ay’s family relationships. Possibly she’s a cousin of Ay’s, based once again on the similarity of names. They have no known children, although there is some speculation which I’ll come back to later in the article (as it’s on a higher level of the house of cards that we’re building here).
Did he have other wives and children by them? One chain of thought involves the man who was named as Ay’s heir: Nakhtmin. There is a statue of him that has a broken inscription where one of his titles is given as “King’s Son of…”, the broken bit could be filled in with “Kush” which would make him Viceroy of Kush but there are already known Viceroys of Kush covering the period in question so that seems implausible. And so it’s generally reconstructed as “King’s Son of His Body”, i.e. the literal son of the king. But which king? Nakhtmin gives shabtis to the burial of Tutankhamun, and these name him but do not use the King’s Son of His Body title – given its high status he would do if he had it. So that implies he didn’t get the title until Ay became King – hence he must be a son of Ay’s. Another inscription names Nakhtmin’s mother as a woman called Iuy. Given Nakhtmin is an adult in Tutankhamun’s reign Iuy must therefore be an earlier wife of Ay’s, who presumably dies before Tey marries Ay.
Another chain of thought revolves around Ay’s title of God’s Father. This is an unusual title which has meant at least three things over the millennia of Egyptian civilisation. In the Old Kingdom it seems to mean father-in-law of the king, but in the Middle Kingdom it’s given to non-royal fathers of kings (for instance the first Montuhotep who was never a king but his son Intef I was). By the 19th Dynasty neither of these interpretations seems possible as Merenptah (son and eventual successor to Ramesses II) holds this title during his father’s reign, so there must surely be a third meaning. In the 18th Dynasty there are few people who hold this title – Yuya and Ay are the most prominent. And Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, so it’s possible that the title had returned to this meaning from the Old Kingdom. So from here we can speculate that Ay was also father-in-law of a king, with Akhenaten the obvious king, making Nefertiti Ay’s daughter. And that would certainly make him Somebody! And linked by blood to the royal line twice over if you believe Tutankhamun to be the child of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (which Aidan Dodson does), and if you believe Ay to be the brother of Tiye. So a justification for being next in line to the throne after Tutankhamun (even if all his linkages are on the female side of the family). There’s some other possible evidence to back up a relationship of this sort with Tutankhamun – an inscription where Ay (as Pharaoh) refers to Tutankhamun as his son. Now this could be rhetoric: the king is always supposed to be son of his predecessor even when he’s not, and inverting the relationship would seem to make sense in this case because the elderly Ay would be unbelievable even metaphorically as a teenager’s son. Or it could be read as referring to a grandfather/grandson relationship between the two.
There is other indirect evidence to link Ay to Nefertiti. Ay’s wife Tey has titles that tell us that she was Nefertiti’s nurse and brought her up. Notably she doesn’t have titles that indicate she was Nefertiti’s mother, and if we compare with Tuya (mother of Tiye) then that is significant. So from here you can go one of two ways – you can posit that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse or tutor (or both) and thus Ay would’ve been a significant figure in Nefertiti’s early life but not a relation. Or you can take this in combination with the speculation around the God’s Father title and suggest that Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter by an earlier marriage and Tey was her step-mother. Which would make Nakhtmin and Nefertiti brother & sister.
While there is no evidence corroborating a link between Nefertiti and Nakhtmin there is a known sibling of Nefertiti – a woman with the title “Sister of the King’s Great Wife”. She’s younger than Nefertiti, and thus Aidan Dodson suggests that she’s the daughter of Ay and Tey but I think there’s no evidence other than the presumed date of her birth. Her name is either Mutnodjmet or Mutbenret – the difference between the two when written in hieroglyphs is a single sign and it’s not clear which form was originally written. If she was Mutnodjmet then that was potentially very significant – Horemheb marries a woman with that name and if he was the son-in-law of Ay and the uncle (by marriage) of Tutankhamun that would go some way to explaining why he was a possible successor to Ay. We’re quite far up the house of cards here though, and that’s a very shaky assertion.
That’s quite a narrative we’ve constructed for Ay and his family relationships: he’s the brother-in-law of Amenhotep III who has a first marriage to a woman called Iuy which results in two children, Nakhtmin and Nefertiti. Iuy vanishes from the scene (quite likely dying in childbirth) and Ay marries a cousin of his called Tey who brings up the future queen of Egypt. They have a child, Mutnodjmet, who also goes on to be a queen after her marriage to her father’s successor, Horemheb. Very well connected, certainly Somebody, and it neatly explains his prominence in the various courts of the time. But very very very little actual concrete evidence for any of it – a house of cards that might only need a breath of new evidence to knock it over.
So what do I think? Well, first I think I’ve only read secondary literature mostly aimed at a general audience, and what I’ve read is biased towards Dodson-authored or Dodson-influenced works so I’m not sure I have enough of the opposing viewpoints in this summary. Also my educational/academic background is in protein biochemistry, and this is the sort of thing we’d rather dismissively have referred to as “telling Just So stories” – building up a convincing narrative without enough evidence to support it. Rather an unfair thought when Egyptology is a different field, you can’t exactly go out and repeat the experiment another half a dozen times to make sure it comes out the same every time, you have to work with what you have. Which is two long-winded ways of saying I don’t think I know enough to have a valid opinion. I did enjoy the logic puzzle-esque nature of the (re)construction of the family relationships, and it certainly seems plausible that Ay was a well connected member of the elite given that’s how their society worked. But it’s all rather neat & tidy (particularly once you get to tying Horemheb into the network) and I’m suspicious of neat & tidy.
“The Rage of Horemheb: Hurried End of Akhenaten, Aye and Atenism – Part I” Anand Balaji
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Amarna Sunrise” Aidan Dodson
“Amarna Sunset” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Commoner King Kheperkheperure: Divine Father Aye” Daniel C. Forbes in KMT Vol 30, No. 2, Summer 2019
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson