Of all the mummies at the museum in Cairo, the sight of this one will make you shudder. Seqenenre Tao’s face, twisted from suffering excruciating pain, has been frozen in that state for almost three thousand years. The story of his death is not for the faint of heart.
July 2009, Cairo. The mummy is doing what mummies do best: lying there motionless in its glass coffin, like Snow White waiting for a kiss. Standing in the corner of the Egyptian Museum’s Royal Mummy room, I watch throngs of tourists filing past me, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the collection of corpses laid out before them. Each rigid royal is protected in his own private, environmentally controlled cocoon – islands of calm in a lively sea of loud shorts, baseball caps, and fluorescent bikinis barely hidden beneath transparent spaghetti-strap tops. The smell of cheap sunscreen and burnt skin is palpable; it wafts in the wake of bodies as they rush from case to case; the mummies, on the other hand, have all the time in the world, they aren’t going anywhere.
To my surprise, the tourists are unmoved by the grim faces of death surrounding them. Perhaps it’s the mummies’ antiquity that makes the difference, or perhaps people just aren’t as squeamish as I think. Would they be just as calm standing in a morgue? I wonder, or would they be slightly more freaked out? A young girl in a flowery dress sticks her tongue out in disgust while her parents read aloud a nearby label, proclaiming the name of the king lying below them.
‘Seqenenre Tao’, the father says, leaning over the glass. The mother shuffles closer and the child covers her eyes; a single brown eye peeks out from behind tiny fingers. ‘the guidebook says that “Tao” means “the brave’. Unsurprisingly, this particular mummy was generating a fair amount of attention. Unlike his neighbours, who lie in poses of quiet serenity, his wizened arms are raised, one wrist is twisted like a branch on a dying tree, his mouth is open in a final gasp of agonized horror. Most strikingly, his skull is full of holes.
‘I wonder what happened to him’, the father says, before moving on to the next mummy in the queue, his purple flip flops slapping against the Mummy Room’s cold stone floor.
I walk over to stand over the mummy, his body swaddled in brown sheets like a newborn child, and gaze down at his head wounds through the glass. There are five in total, but only four are visible to museum-goers: a long horizontal cut slices across the top of his forehead; a narrower wound is just above the right eyebrow; below his left eye is a cut into the cheek; and a deep depression at the centre of his face marks the strike of a blunt object, which destroyed the right eye socket; a fifth sharp wound was inflicted below the left ear, perhaps by a dagger. A hole in the right cheek looks as if it was caused by a further blow, but is actually the result of the face collapsing after the trauma of the blunt blow to the nose.
A sweaty, hairy arm collides with my own.
‘Look at his funny teeth,’ the man remarks to his wife, his own teeth stained yellow from years of smoking, ‘He looks like he’s eaten a sour sweet!’
‘He doesn’t look happy to see us!’ She says. I can’t imagine he is, I think, waiting for them to move along. For a few blessed moments, I again have time to ponder the king’s death in silence. Looking at his eternal grimace, his crushed and vacant eye sockets, I wonder, what was the last thing you saw?
A Most Unusual Mummy
9 June 1886, Cairo. Gaston Maspero, head of Egyptian Antiquities, stands over a wrapped body, its stiff shape lying outstretched on a wooden table, its face unseen for thousands of years. Leaning forward to take one last look at its pristine unwrapped form, his round glasses slip down his nose, causing the corpse to glide out of focus. He pushes them back, his upturned palms catching the bristles of his short, white beard, and stands back, thinking of the mummy’s journey from birth to this very moment; what twists of fate had brought this pharaoh to rest on his table in this candlelit room, thousands of years after his death? All Maspero knows is that the body, identified by inscriptions as Seqenenre Tao, had remained in storage, cradled safely in its coffin, since 1881, when it had been found, along with many of the great New Kingdom pharaohs, in a roughly cut tunnel at al-Deir al-Bahari in Luxor. From there it had been transported along the Nile by steamer, and brought to the Bulaq Museum in Cairo with the other royals for investigation.
935 BCE, Thebes. The priests of Amun place Seqenenre’s anthropoid coffin into a roughly hewn rock tomb at al-Deir al-Bahari, to rest alongside his New Kingdom successors. The great royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings have been emptied, their treasures re-used in these difficult times. Seqenenre’s tomb, standing at Dra Abul-Naga, at the foot of the Theban hills, has been violated too, and his comparatively meagre grave goods recycled. Before reburying Seqenenre, the priests strip his body of all valuable amulets and jewellery (perhaps providing a further explanation as to why he has such a look of horror on his face), and scrape the gilding from his coffin. Despite their obvious impiety, however, the priests show Seqenenre some courtesy. On the coffin, which was carved to resemble a mummified king, they leave the name of the god Ptah-Sokar and the king’s uraeus (a rearing cobra worn at the forehead) untouched, and paint in yellow the parts of the headdress and face where gilding had once been. Lost inscriptions are rewritten in red ink, and a necklace is painted in blue across the coffin’s chest. Other places where the gold had been removed are covered in white gesso. Sealed in his new tomb, Seqenenre is again left to his eternal slumber.
9 June 1886, Cairo. Touching the mummy’s outer shroud, and then rubbing his first and forefingers against his thumb, Maspero feels it greasy to the touch. As he begins to unravel the linen strips, he is overpowered by a foul odour emanating from the body still hidden within. This is the first sign that something is wrong; most mummies smell of fragrant spices and oils. He peels away the layers with growing expectation, one by one, placing them at his side on another table, to reveal a horrifying face, its head pierced with cracks and holes, some caked with dribbles of brain matter; each mutilation dances in circles in the light cast from his candle. Remaining professional, he is unshaken by the sight, and continues his work in silence. Removing all of the linen, he reveals the body of a tall man – at least tall by ancient Egyptian standards – who was probably around forty at the time of death. The mummy’s chest is broken and the ribs have been hurriedly squeezed together by the embalmers. Examining the arms, legs and vertebrae, Maspero finds them disarticulated, and the pelvis in pieces. Worms have penetrated the mummy’s shrouds and the shells of beetle larvae are in the king’s hair, as well as all around the body. The king’s entire left arm is stripped of soft tissue. Completing his investigation, Maspero concludes that Seqenenre died in battle fighting for his life against enemy combatants.
Early 1900s, Cairo. Seqenenre is again laid out on a table, this time in the newly built Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square, home to Egypt’s precious Pharaonic antiquities since 1902. Grafton Elliot Smith, an Australian anatomist, examines the royal body and makes detailed notes on his findings, later to be published in his official catalogue of the museum’s royal mummies. Smith’s careful examination reveals a complete lack of wounds to the arms or any part of the king’s body except for the head, something confirmed in the 1970s when the mummy is x-rayed. Quite unusually, Smith comments, no attempt had been made to put the body in the traditional royal pose – arms crossed over the chest – and the king’s heart had been removed. Smith knows that this was against Egyptian tradition; the deceased needed his heart for his judgement before Osiris, without it he’d be doomed for eternity. Smith then looks at the angles of the wounds in Seqenenre’s head. Most are horizontal, he notes, could this mean that the king was lying down when he received them? Could he have been assassinated when sleeping in his palace? But the poor quality of the embalming, and the haste with which the embalmers had conducted their work, suggests that Seqenenre had been mummified far from the Theban royal court. Smith cannot suggest where specifically, but to Maspero it had meant only one thing: that Seqenenre was embalmed close to the spot where he’d been slain, close to a battlefield.
But how did Seqenenre end up on that battlefield? What events led him to war?
Disintegration and Invasion
1700 BCE. Egypt’s great Middle Kingdom, a time of artistic creativity and strong centralized power, is in a state of collapse. For much of the Thirteenth Dynasty’s tenure, Egypt’s kings continued to rule from Itj-Tawy, a now lost royal city, located somewhere just north of the Faiyum Oasis. But as time progressed, cracks began to spider across the state’s fragile facade, its unity a weakening fiction of pressurized cohesion, ultimately smashed by the power-hungry machinations of provincial leaders into fragments of small, independent ‘kingdoms.’
One of the first states to separate has the city of Avaris (modern Tell el-Daba) in the northeast Delta at its centre. It declares itself independent under a ruler named Nehesy, about whom little is known. He is succeeded by a series of ephemeral rulers, men known to us only through their names on tiny faience scarabs. From reading these names, many appear to have been of Asiatic descent rather than native Egyptians, no doubt the sons of Syrio-Palestinian traders and prisoners of war, who had settled in the north-eastern Delta during the Middle Kingdom. By declaring themselves independent of the crown, these ‘kings’ of Avaris cut off the Thirteenth-Dynasty pharaohs from their lucrative trade with Palestine and beyond. Even worse, the weakening of royal power leads to the loss of Egypt’s control of Nubia, and the gold that lies in its deserts. Facing threats across the Delta, the royal court flees to the relative safety of Thebes, only to watch powerless as their country continues to fracture.
1650 BCE. The royal family has abandoned Itj-Tawy, leaving its people in the hands of northern pretenders, and a plague strikes Avaris, the corpses of its citizens thrown together to rot en masse. The spectre of death makes no distinction between social classes; his cold hands touch Avaris’ ruling elite too, leaving an even greater power vacuum in the north. This provides the perfect opportunity for a new group of Asiatics to cross the Sinai and occupy the city. To history, these invaders become known as the Hyksos, a corruption of the Egyptian hekka khasut, ‘the rulers of foreign lands’. Armed with superior weaponry, from Avaris they swiftly expand their sphere of influence across the Delta and down the Nile Valley, gaining the allegiance of local Egyptian rulers as they march.
At first, the Hyksos advance beyond Abydos in Middle Egypt and down into Thebes. There they face resistance from the heirs of the Thirteenth Dynasty. King Montuhotepi says that he ‘drove back all foreign lands’ and rescued Thebes, while King Ikhernofret, an obscure ruler normally absent from later king lists, makes similar claims, relating how he caused Thebes to be protected ‘when it had been immersed’ and that he protected it from the ‘foreign lands’. These kings paint a picture of constant warfare, of desperately defending their city from violent forces, and periods of famine. Eventually, the Hyksos and the Thebans reach a compromise, agreeing to establish their border at Cusae in Middle Egypt, modern al-Qusiya.
For a few decades, peace dominates; that is, until Seqenenre ascends the throne.
1593 BCE, Thebes. In the seclusion of her birthing pavilion, Queen Tetisherit gives birth to a boy, whom she names Tao, in honour of his father King Senakhtenre Tao I. He is raised at the Theban royal court with his sisters, Ahhotep, Inhapy, and Satdjehuty, and his younger brother Kamose, first learning to read and write Hieratic – the cursive form of hieroglyphs used in daily life – before moving on to study the sacred hieroglyphs that cover temple and tomb walls. Years later, as an adult, he marries his sisters, ensuring that the royal bloodline stays within a select, small group, and elevates Inhapy to the position of Great Royal Wife.
1558 BCE, Thebes. King Senakhtenre Tao I dies and is buried in a simple shaft cut into the rock at Dra Abul-Naga on the Theban west bank; ceremonial daggers and intricate amulets accompany him to the grave, and his funerary chapel, constructed above the shaft, is topped by a steep-sided pyramid, and fronted by a pair of obelisks. From the time of his father’s death to the royal funeral, Tao refrains from shaving and cutting his hair, in line with Egyptian custom, and on the day of the final funerary rites, performs the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony on his father’s mummy, revivifying it. Shortly afterwards, his coronation ceremony is held; as each crown is placed upon Tao’s head, his physical body fuses with the divine spirit of kingship, raising him from the human sphere to become intermediary between mankind and the gods. At the culmination of the rites, he receives his throne name – Seqenenre.
Unlike his predecessors, Seqenenre is uncomfortable living in a country half-occupied by enemies; his great predecessors had been kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, after all, not just the Theban region. His thoughts turn to war. First, he begins to develop his naval fleet, in preparation for the army’s northward journey along the Nile into enemy territory. Next, he orders the construction of a fortress at Deir al-Ballas, forty kilometres north of Thebes, complete with an observation tower and palace. A contingent of Kerma Nubians are stationed there; these renowned fighters had formed an integral part of Egypt’s war machine for over a thousand years. In the coming war, he knows he can count on their skills.
Finally, the time is ready to strike.
From this moment, the details of Seqenenre’s war are lost to history.
Rethinking Seqenenre’s Death
July 2009, Cairo. I continue to stare into the mummy’s vacant eye sockets. I lean forward, and bring my face closer to the glass. Ever since Maspero unwrapped Seqenenre’s mummy, scholars have speculated on how the king received the deathly blows to his head. The major theories, however, haven’t changed since these early investigations: Maspero argued that he’d been slain in battle, while Smith argued that he was assassinated sleeping in his palace. In recent years, scholars have, however, proven that the shape of the wounds in Seqenenre’s head match certain weapons: the long wound to the upper forehead fits an Egyptian battleaxe, but the one to the left cheek and above the right eye perfectly matches a Hyksos-style weapon. The blow to the nose could have been made by the blunt end of an axe or a mace, and the injury below the left ear was probably a dagger or spear. Thanks to this additional information, it seems certain that the king was set upon by a group of attackers; a group that certainly included the Hyksos, and perhaps Egyptians too.
So did Seqenenre die on the battlefield or at the hands of assassins?
The team that identified the weapons that killed Seqenenre also adapted Maspero’s battlefield theory in light of their new findings. Based on the angles of attack, they figured that Seqenenre had been knocked from his chariot in the heat of battle and received the final blows while lying on the ground. Since the 1970s, this particular interpretation has been repeated many times in the scholarly literature. But does it hold up to scrutiny?
Is this how Seqenenre died?
The problems with the established theories are manifold. First and foremost, it’s unlikely that a man of Seqenenre’s size would be killed entirely by blows to the head in the heat of battle, without a single blow to the rest of his body. There’s also no evidence that the Egyptians under Seqenenre had access to chariots. And, even if Seqenenre did have a chariot, it’s unlikely that he’d charge at his enemies straight on; chariots were used to ride along the enemy front line, firing arrows at high speed from a safe distance. It could be argued that Seqenenre’s body was protected by armour, leaving only his head vulnerable to the deadly blows, but the Egyptians didn’t wear body armour before the Eighteenth Dynasty. The king was protected at all times, however, by his royal bodyguard. Even when hunting, the king’s prey were herded into a ditch behind a barrier, so that he and his followers could take aim in safety. If the Egyptians went to such great lengths to protect their king at home, he probably wouldn’t have been free to wander the battlefield. Furthermore, my own research has shown it to be unlikely that the pharaohs ever personally led their troops into battle; instead they probably remained at a safe distance from danger.
As for Smith’s assassination theory, although intriguing, there is little to back it up. Smith believed that two and quite possibly four of the wounds to Seqenenre’s head could have been inflicted when the king was lying down, but, recent studies have shown that many of the wounds could equally have been inflicted when he was standing, and even so, he could have been knocked down before receiving the rest. In the absence of any evidence for palace intrigue, it seems far-fetched to create a scenario in which a group of men armed with a mixture of Hyksos and Egyptian weaponry entered the royal bedchamber, and, in a rather dramatic show of care and attention, proceeded only to attack Seqenenre’s face, carefully avoiding touching any other part of his body.
To me, the only explanation to fully explain the king dying on the battlefield yet not in the thick of battle, unable to defend himself or without his personal guard to defend him, and with a particular focus being on the face, is ceremonial execution, no doubt at the hands of the victorious Hyksos general. A death that could have been inflicted in controlled circumstances.
The mummy stares back at me.
The Death of King Seqenenre Tao
1553 BCE, Hyksos territory. The Egyptian king kneels, his arms tied behind his back. He stares blankly ahead, deliberately avoiding the eyes of his captor. The Hyksos general knows he has a special prize: an Egyptian king. He makes a spectacle, showing off his capture, relishing in the cheers of his battle-worn and bloodied troops. Seqenenre knows what is to come and readies himself for the afterlife.
Standing in front of the kneeling Seqenenre, the Hyksos general raises his axe, a traditional weapon of the Asiatic elite with a long thin blade that flares out at its tip, and holds it steady. In an instant, it cuts through the air, powered by muscle and gravity, and enters Seqenenre’s forehead just above his right eye. It slices with ease through his skull, cracking and splintering its thin surface, to penetrate the coating of his brain, before sinking deep into his grey matter. Seqenenre’s world turns black. The ferocious jeers of his opponents, so loud moments earlier, fall to a dull whisper. The Hyksos general wrenches his axe free from Seqenenre’s skull, freeing pieces of bone along with it. Brain matter spills from the wound. The crowd cheer at the bloody spectacle. Seqenenre falls to his back, twitching. He feels the cold earth beneath him, its black soil a symbol of resurrection. He exhales for the last time.
The Hyksos general brings his axe down a second time, perforating Seqenenre’s left cheek, destroying the bone. Finally it is time for his coup de grace. Turning his axe around, he raises the blunt end of its handle into the air, and, gaining maximum momentum, brings its crashing into the centre of Seqenenre’s face, imitating the age-old image of the smiting pharaoh. Seqenenre’s nose is crushed, his right eye socket fractures; his bloodied broken face is almost unrecognizable.
Fulfilled, the Hyksos general leaves Seqenenre’s body where it lies and returns to his command tent. His deputy, a loyal Egyptian vassal, approaches with his own axe. Wanting to associate himself with this great victory, he plunges it deep into Seqenenre’s forehead, leaving a long fracture in the skull; the crowd cheer again, and he kicks the pharaoh over to lie prone in the dirt, face down in a pool of his own blood. As a final insult, a soldier plunges his spear into the king’s neck, just below the left ear. The spectacle over, the crowd departs; the Hyksos have proven their dominance.
The king is dead.
For the full scholarly report on my research into Seqenenre Tao’s death, please refer to my article, ‘The Death of Seqenenre Tao,’ in The Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 45 (2009), pp. 159-176.
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Garry Shaw is an Egyptologist, writer and editor. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool, where he studied the pharaoh’s role in day-to-day political affairs. This was also the subject of his first book, published in 2008. He has undertaken archaeological fieldwork in the UK, Turkey and Egypt; worked with various world museums; and has taught Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and the University of Liverpool.