Egypt: Smenkhkara, an Obscure Pharaoh of the 18th Dyansty

Smenkhkare, an Obscure Pharaoh of the 18th Dymasty

by Jimmy Dunn

We list Smenkhkare as the eleventh pharaoh of Egypt's famous 18th Dynasty, ruling from 1336 until about 1334 BC. In point of fact, he may never have ruled on his own, though in the later years of Akhenaten reign, he was probably a co-regent. His birth name was Smenkh-ka-re (or Djeser-kheperu, meaning "Vigorous is the Soul of Re, Holy of Manifestations"). His name can also be found as Smenkhkara. His Throne name was Ankh-khepery-re, meaning "Living are the Manifestations of Re".

Smenkhkare is a study in the difficulties of Egyptology, and why the list of kings of Egypt vary from scholar to scholar. While there are many times we are able to determine the factual history of Egypt in some great detail, at other times, even in otherwise well documented eras, darkness suddenly surrounds events due to an absolute lack of good evidence. Sometimes this evidence has simply not been discovered, but at other times, the evidence would exist, had it not been hacked away by the ancient Egyptians themselves. Such is the case with Smenkhkare.


We know very little of Smenkhkare's life, or even where he was buried, though he is entwined with the mysteries of tomb KV 55 on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes). If the mummy found in that tomb was indeed Smenkhkare, then he probably died at around the age of 20 to 25. However, because of the heresy of the Amarna kings, the cartouches and much other evidence within KV 55 were mostly destroyed. One of the factors that has led scholars to believe that the mummy is in fact Smenkhkare is a process of elimination. At first the mummy was thought to be that of Queen Tiye, but subsequent examination of the remains indicate that instead, it is the mummy of a young man. It was also speculated that the mummy could have been non other than Akhenaten, who we think was Smenkhkare's father, but Akhenaten ruled Egypt for 17 years and it seems difficult to believe he could therefore have died at such an early age. Hence, the plausibility that the mummy is that of Smenkhkare. Further analysis has also revealed that the mummy's blood type and that of Tutankhamun are the same, and that the skull dimensions are very similar, leading scholars to believe that not only is this Smenkhkare, but that he was indeed Tutankhamun's older brother.


He was probably either a younger brother or older son of Akhenaten, but if a son, he would not have probably been also a son of Nefertiti. We believe she had only daughters. He would have therefore probably been the son of some minor wife, perhaps even Kiya, who we also believe to be the mother of Tutankhaman. Most Egyptologists believe that if he ruled at all after the death of Akhenaten, it would probably only have been for a few months, but there is also a strong possibility that he did not survive Akhenaten's reign.. He was succeeded by the famous Tutankhamun. He was married to Merytaten who was probably his eldest sister, the senior heiress of the royal blood line, but she seems to have died early, leaving her sister, Ankhesenpaten in this position. It was Ankhesenpaten who married a somewhat younger Tutankhamun. Smenkhkare and Merytaten are pictured in the tomb of Meryre ii at Amarna, and were once shown on a relief at Memphis.

Yet there has, over time, been a great deal of controversy on all these facts. It would seem that Smenkhkare became co-regent shortly after the death of Ankhenaten's principle wife, Nefertiti. Speculation at times have run rampant, including one theory that Nefertiti herself had actually disguised herself as a male in the custom of Hatahepsut, becoming co-regent.

Lending some credence to this is the "Co-regency Stela, a fragment of which was found in Amarna. Originally, the stele depicted three figures, identified as Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and princess Merytaten. In later years, however, the name of Nefertiti had been excised and replaced with the name of King Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, and the name of the princess had been replaced with that of Akhenaten and Nefertiti's third daughter, Ankhesenpaaten. It is curious that Nefertiti's figure, clearly that of a female, would be relabled with the name of a king. Second, the erasure of Merytaten's name and the usurpation by Ankhesenpaaten suggests that Merytaten died before the end of Akhenaten's reign.

There is even controversy surrounding Smenkhkare's wife, Merytaten. It has been suggested that rather than dying early, she outlived her husband and served as a nominal co-regent under the name of Ankhetkheperure, a feminization of her late husband's throne name.

However, the dominant theory today seems to place Smenkhkare as an older son of Ankhenaten, though there is almost an equal likelihood that he was Ankhenten's brother, and that he was likely made co-regent at about the age of 16. For his coronation, a huge brick hall was added to the Great Palace at Amarna, with no fewer than 544 square columns in its main room.

He most probably had differences with Ankhenaten's religious philosophies early on. The funerary equipment that he had made for a possible unfinished tomb at Amarna had almost no sign of the sun cult of Akhenaten. Yet he seems to have wavered, perhaps out of respect to his father or brother. Inscriptions on elements of his funerary equipment also show that he altered his name to Neferneferuaten, the -aten indicating an acquiescence to Akhenaten's religious beliefs.


However, this is another area of confusion about Smenkhkare among scholar. We are also told by authoritative sources that Neferneferuaten was perhaps one of Nefertiti names, and thus the continued controversy surrounding the possibility that Smenkhkare was non other than Nefertiti herself. However, the name of Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten are actually never used together, suggesting that they were two different people.

Later still, we read of the existence of a "priest and scribe of divine offerings of Amun in the "House of Ankh-khepery-re" at Thebes", suggesting that he intended to not be buried at Amarna, but rather in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. This information comes from a stele dating from Smenkhkare's third year of rule, and partly states that:

Regnal year 3, third month of Inundation, day 10. The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands Ankhkheperure Beloved of Aten, the Son of Re Neferneferuaten Beloved of Waenre. Giving worship to Amun, kissing the ground to Wenennefer by the lay priest, scribe of the divine offerings of Amun in the Mansion of Ankhkheperure in Thebes, Pawah, born to Yotefseneb. He says:

"My wish is to see you, O lord of persea trees! May your throat take the north wind, that you may give satiety without eating and drunkenness without drinking. My wish is to look at you, that my heart might rejoice, O Amun, protector of the poor man: you are the father of the one who has no mother and the husband of the widow. Pleasant is the utterance of your name: it islike the taste of life . . . [etc.]

"Come back to us, O lord of continuity. You were here before anything had come into being, and you will be here when they are gone. As you caused me to see the darkness that is yours to give, make light for me so that I can see you . . .

"O Amun, O great lord who can be found by seeking him, may you drive off fear! Set rejoicing in people's heart(s). Joyful is the one who sees you, O Amun: he is in festival every day!"

For the Ka of the lay priest and scribe of the temple of Amun in the Mansion of Ankhkheperure, Pawah, born to Yotefseneb: "For your Ka! Spend a nice day amongst your townsmen." His brother, the outline draftsman Batchay of the Mansion of Ankhkheperure. (Murnane, 1995).

It is likely that Smenkhkare tired of the religious heresy of Akhenaten's reign, and late in his life, possibly moved to Memphis, the old secular capital of Egypt. Perhaps over time his role in Egypt's history will become clearer to us, but for now, his existence is one of the great mysteries of Egypt's past.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
Complete Valley of the Kings, The (Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs) Reeves, Nicholas; Wilkinson, Richard H. 1966 Thames and Hudson Ltd IBSN 0-500-05080-5
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011