Ankhesenamun & Zannanza: A Marriage Alliance Hindered by Murder

After Tutankhamun’s untimely death, his widow Ankhesenamun sought an intriguing, unlikely, and ultimately unsuccessful marriage alliance with Egypt’s superpower rival of the time, the Hittites.

May 20, 2022By Caroline Hubschmann, PhD Archaeology & Ancient History w/ Ancient Egypt concentration

ankhesenamun gold throne tutankhamun wall painting


When 19-year-old Egyptian King Tutankhamun died, he left behind a volatile political situation. Not only was his death unexpected, but he had not yet fathered an heir who could succeed him on the throne. Enter Ankhesenamun, his young widow. With a fearlessness driven by ambition, desperation, or both, she made a proposal that was unprecedented in Egyptian history.


Ankhesenamun sent a message to Egypt’s rivals in Anatolia and asked them to send her a royal son that she could marry. His name was Zannanza, and he would become the next king of Egypt. Read on to learn why Ankhesenamun took this unprecedented step and what happened next.


The Egyptian Queen Ankhesenamun Makes an Unusual Proposition

tutankhamun tomb wall painting
A wall painting from King Tutankhamun’s tomb, c. 1323 BCE, via Smithsonian Magazine


“To me, he will be a husband, but in Egypt he will be king.”


It was with these words credited to royal widow Ankhesenamun that she declared her intention to marry the son of her kingdom’s rivals, the mighty Hittites. As she explained in her letter to the Hittite King Suppiluliumas, she did not care whom: “My husband died and I have no son. People sat that you have many sons. If you were to send me one of your sons, he might become my husband.”


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You might wonder how Suppiluliumas responded. Not surprisingly, he was confused but also intrigued, exclaiming, “Such a thing has never happened to me in my whole life.” At this time during the New Kingdom, Egypt and the Hittites were hostile, thanks mainly to the Hittite’s continuing expansion in the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. In a series of letters collectively known as The Deeds of Suppiluliumas as told to his son Mursilis II, we know about this intriguing situation that took place around 1327 BCE.


Ankhesenamun: Destined to Be Queen

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Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their three daughters under the rays of the sun god Aten, c. 1351 – 1334 BCE, Berlin Neues Museum, via Google Arts & Culture


To understand how this situation arose, we need to take a look at the series of events that led to this moment. And the place to start is with Ankhesenamun herself. Ankhesenamun, whose name means “her life is of Amun,” was the third of six daughters born to King Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti. At birth, she was named Ankhesenpa-aten (“she lives for the Aten”), in line with the religious orthodoxy of the time that promoted the solar god Aten above all others. Her future husband Tutankhamun, whose name means “living image of Amun,” was given the name Tutankhaten (“living image of Aten”) at birth. Like Ankhesenamun, his name was also officially changed during his life to reflect a return to orthodoxy that favored the king of the gods, Amun.


Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun were half-siblings; they shared the same father, Akhenaten, but had different mothers. This was common at the time, and recent DNA analysis has revealed that Tutankhamun’s mother (whose name is unknown but she is referred to as “the Younger Lady”) and his father Akhenaten were full siblings and shared both parents.


ankhesenamun tutankhamun golden throne
Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun talking: a detail from Tutankhamun’s golden throne, c. 1330-1323 BCE, Egyptian Museum via the Smithsonian Magazine


Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun had at least two children together, but neither survived. Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was discovered and excavated by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922, contained two small mummies that contained their unborn fetuses. Recent analysis has revealed that both females were probably stillborn and mummified when they were 24.7 weeks and 36.8 weeks old. The mummies were buried with their father, as was common practice for Egyptian royalty.


Without an heir, but with the legitimacy granted in the blood of Egyptian royalty that flowed through her veins, Ankhesenamun acted swiftly and with conviction after her husband’s death.


The Proposal

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A Hittite cuneiform tablet of a cultic festival, c. 14th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


The year is 1327 BCE, and the Hittite king Suppiluliumas is engrossed in battle preparations. He is on his way to Carchemish, a settlement beside the Euphrates River under the control of the Kingdom of Mitanni, who was an ally of Egypt at the time. The last thing he would have been expecting was a letter from the recently-widowed Egyptian queen. Not only was it a proposal of marriage, but it was, effectively, a request for peace between the two kingdoms through diplomatic marriage.


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Colossal Statue of Amunhotep III in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons


Diplomatic marriage was common among Egyptian royalty. Ankhesenamun’s grandfather, Amunhotep III, married several foreign princesses from neighboring kingdoms, including Mitanni, Babylon, Naharin, and Arwaza. However, a proposal had never before been made by an Egyptian queen, nor had the throne to Egypt’s Kingdom been offered as an incentive for marriage.


Suppiluliumas was understandably skeptical, and he sent an emissary named Hattu-ziti to Egypt to discuss the matter with Ankhesenamun herself. Hattu-ziti returned with another letter from Ankhesenamun. It read, in part:


“Why did you say ‘they deceive me’ in that way? Had I a son, would I have written about my country’s shame to a foreign land? You did not believe me, and you even spoke thus to me! He who was my husband is dead. I have no son! Never shall I take a servant of mine and make him my husband! I have written to no other country.”


Ankhesenamun’s desperate words, and the strategic benefits of the match, convinced the Hittite king of her sincerity. He agreed to send Zannanza, the second-youngest of his five sons, to Egypt.


Zannanza: The Would-Be Future King of Egypt

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The Lion Gate at Hattusas, capital of the Hittites, via Wikimedia Commons


Zannanza was chosen out of necessity because all of his brothers were unsuitable. His eldest brother Arnuwanda was next in line to the Hittite throne; his two other older brothers, Telipinu and Sharri-Kusuh, were occupied as viceroys in Aleppo and Carchemish, respectively. The only other son was his younger brother Mursilis, who was still too young at the time.


Sent across the land to Egypt, Zannanza was killed before he reached his destination. Suppiluliumas never doubted that Egypt was to blame. Archaeology can be cruel at times, and there is no better example than this: the section of the text that records details about Zannanza’s death is damaged and reveals no more.


Suppiluliumas lamented his son’s death: “Oh Gods! I did not do evil, yet the people of Egypt did this to me!”


A Young Man Dies and Peace Is Lost

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Hittite vessel with four scenes molded and carved in relief, c. 1400-1200 BCE, via Cleveland Museum of Art


Suppiluliumas wanted revenge for what he thought was a murderous betrayal. On the other hand, Egypt had other things to take care of. Still yet to appoint a successor to Tutankhamun, the court finally settled on a man named Ay, who was not of royal blood but may have been Nefertiti’s father. He was a trusted member of Akhenaten’s court and a faithful royal advisor. As part of his ascension to the throne and to grant him greater legitimacy as the next Egyptian king, Ay most likely married Ankhesenamun. If Ay were Nefertiti’s father, this would make him Ankhesenamun’s grandfather.


One of Aye’s first duties as king was to appease the furious Suppiluliumas. He wrote to the Hittite king saying that he had no role in Zannanza’s death. In a letter back (of which only fragments have been preserved), his words are repeated: “Your accusations have no justification … you are simply spoiling for a fight against me … I seek peace and brotherhood with you. As for your son’s death – of that I am entirely innocent!”


Suppiluliumas would not be appeased. His eldest son Arnuwanda led a retaliatory force that attacked Egyptian vassal cities in southern Syria. The Hittites were a vastly superior military force, and the attack devastated the region. Thousands of people were captured and taken back to Hittite territory as prisoners.


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Hittite tablet of the Plague Prayers of Mursilis II, via Koç University Digital Collection


Ay was in his 70s when he assumed kingship, and he ruled from 1327 to his death in 1323 BCE. As for Suppiluliumas, he died about six years after Zannanza. Some of the prisoners captured in Syria were infected with the plague, and the disease decimated the Hittite population for many years. It is blamed for Suppiluliumas’ death and that of his son and successor, Arnuwanda II. The events prompted King Mursilis II to create what is known as the Plague Prayers, a lament to the gods to have mercy on the Hittites in their distress.


Egypt and the Hittites would continue as adversaries, and their antagonism culminated with the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. Neither power gained any major tactical or territorial advantages, but it did result in a lasting peace treaty.


The Mystery of Zannanza’s Death


Zannanza’s death remains a mystery. With little physical or textual evidence, we turn to motivation to understand what might have happened to the Hittite prince. Perhaps his death was an accident caused by a fall from his horse or an illness. Or maybe his traveling party was ambushed by hostile groups in southern Syria.


However, political reasons are by far the most likely reason. We cannot rule out his countrymen who may have opposed an alliance with their traditional enemies in Egypt. However, the Egyptians are the most likely culprits.


If Ay had wanted to claim the Egyptian throne, there were easier ways to do so than murdering the prospective king as he made his way to Egypt. It is more likely that Zannanza’s death was plotted by factions in the Egyptian court, perhaps backed by the powerful military commander Horemheb, who eventually succeeded Ay on the throne in 1323 BCE.


What Happened After Ankhesenamun?

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Relief of Horemheb on the colonnade of Amenhotep III, Luxor Temple, Egypt, via Wikipédia


Ankhesenamun’s actions were both unprecedented and perplexing, and it’s hard to imagine what the kingdom of Egypt would have become with a Hittite on the throne. There’s no doubt that many in the royal court and population at large would have seen it as an unacceptable aberration of normal Egyptian royal practices.


What actually happened was a return to political stability. Ay died 1323 BCE and was succeeded on the throne by Horemheb, who would go on to rule for around 28 years as the last king of the 19th Dynasty. The 20th Dynasty, founded by Ramesses I, has the status of being one of Ancient Egypt’s most prosperous periods. It produced some of its most renowned kings in Seti I and Ramesses II and extended Egypt’s influence and prosperity to greater heights than the celebrated reign of Amunhotep III.


Not long after brokering peace with Egypt, the Hittites had to contend with new enemies from Assyria and continuous waves of Kaska, Phrygian, and Bryges invaders who brought with them waves of destruction across much of the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1180 BCE, the Hittite Empire had collapsed and would never recover.


And what of Ankhesenamun? After Ay’s death, she disappears from the archaeological record, and her fate remains a mystery.

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By Caroline HubschmannPhD Archaeology & Ancient History w/ Ancient Egypt concentrationCaroline is a historian and archaeologist who loves to bring the vibrancy of the past into the present via engaging and passionate storytelling. She considers herself to be lucky to have excavated in some of the most remote and picturesque locations in Egypt and Australia. She currently works as a consultant historian where she spends most of her time researching about the First Nations people who have lived on the site of her hometown of Melbourne for at least 40,000 years.