Ay, sometimes spelled Aye, is a pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty. He reigned during 323–1319 BCE or 1327–1323 BCE, depending upon which timeline is adopted in the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. His first journey to kingship started as a vizier to Akhenaten and Tutankhamun (King Tut) and ended abruptly. Not much information is available and many unanswered questions about this person, his intentions, or his reign as a pharaoh still remain. We do know that his rise to power came right after the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and that it was only for a short period of time. After Ay’s death, Horemheb took the throne and it appears that this new pharaoh began to deface and erase all mention and existence of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay from various Egyptian temples, monuments, and records. Because of this destruction, Ay’s short reign and lack of monuments gives us very little information about who he really was.
There is also little known about Ay’s family. There are two main theories about Ay’s family members and who they were. The most popular theory proclaims Ay’s parents to be Yuya and Thuya. Yuya and Thuya never ascended the throne; rather, Ay’s father and mother were interwoven as respected officials and tied to the throne through their daughter Queen Tiye, who was the royal wife of Amenhotep III. If Ay’s parents were indeed Yuya and Thuya, then Ay would be the brother or half-brother to Queen Tiye and an uncle to Akhenaten.
The other theory suggests that Ay was the father to Nefertiti and Mutnodjme. If this theory were indeed true, then his tie to the throne would be through Nefertiti who later married Akhenaten. Thereafter, his other daughter Mutnodjme would marry the Pharaoh Horemheb. If this theory were true, then this would give a connection to royalty through this line.
It should also be said that there is no concrete evidence that links Ay as the son of Yuya and Thuya. Unfortunately, his mummy has not been found; therefore, DNA cannot be compared to Yuya and Thuya’s lineage until his remains surface. But these theories do help explain his presence near the throne and eventually his bold tactics used to gain status as pharaoh after the death of Tutankhamun. Depending on which theory you believe, either speculation gives him close association to the elite of that time. This helps to explain how he had access to the Egyptian throne.
Ay had two main wives that we know of; Iuy and Tey. Iuy is believed to be the mother of Ay’s alleged son named Nakhtmin. His other wife, Tey, was his main and royal wife and the one depicted within his tomb.
Ay and Akhenaten
Evidence shows that Ay was highly respected in Akhenaten’s court. Akhenaten had assigned him many jobs such as the “Fan bearer on the right of the King,” “Acting Scribe of the King,” “God’s Father,” “Master of All the Horses of his Majesty,” and “Chief of Archers.” These titles portray that he was highly esteemed by Akhenaten.
Before Ay became pharaoh, he was granted permission by Akhenaten to construct a tomb at the new founded city of Tel-el Amarna. Though the tomb was never completed, it did show Ay in the company of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This tomb had Akhenaten’s Great Hymn written on the walls of the chamber.
There is no evidence which shows if Ay actually believed in Akhenaten’s monotheistic views towards the God Aten; however, during and after Tutankhamun’s reign, there is suggestion that he may not have believed in this and rather tried to sway Tutankhamun to return to Egypt’s old ways after the death of Akhenaten.
Ay and Tutankhamun
The relationship between Tutankhamun and Aye is controversial. There are many stories and theories from historians, archaeologists, and Egyptologists. On some occasions, the facts seem to clash. Some insist he was a good person while others insist he was corrupt and power hungry. The most popular theory about Ay is that he somehow murdered Tutankhamun in a bid to attain the throne.
How Ay attained the throne remains unclear and this is also partly because we really don’t know if Tutankhamun died of natural causes or if he was murdered. Until this “murder” theory is disproved, it will continue to be very much a part of Ay’s historical legacy.
This popular story was brought to light by a renowned Egyptologist named Bob Brier. In his theory, it was believed Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the back of the head by someone who was close to the pharaoh and someone who had direct access to him.
A ring found in Cairo showing two cartouches (Ay and Ankhesenamun together) makes Ay a prime suspect in this murder theory; Ankhesenamun was the wife of Tutankhamum. The two cartouches side by side on a ring symbolized marriage in ancient Egypt. With the discovery of this ring, experts suggest that Ay used Ankhesenamun as his direct link to the throne; by marrying the queen of Egypt then he would become the king. There is debate around the significance of this ring as no other monuments, temples, or tombs show the union between Ay and Ankhesenamun.
The marriage union between Ay and Ankhesenamun is additionally supported by tablets found during the Amarna period; although there is also controversy around this written communication. One of the tablets shows a letter was written to the Hittites, an enemy at the time of Tutankhamun’s rule. The letter indicates distress and asks the Hittite King to send a son to wed the queen. The king does so; however, the son is killed on his journey to Egypt. This tablet has been a source of controversy as it could have been written by either Ankhesenamun or Nefertiti. What we do know, however, it that Ay becomes pharaoh after Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun disappears from history.
Other Egyptologists insists that Ay was close to the king and would not have committed a murderous act. Inside the tomb of the young pharaoh, Ay is seen performing the opening of the mouth ceremony. This intimate scene was only reserved for the next king or a high priest, thus giving credence to the fact that Ay would not have murdered someone about whom he cared. Finding Tutankhamum’s mummy has allowed scientists to gather other theories regarding his death. It has even been suggested that King Tut may have died from malaria but that is inconclusive.
Ay and Horemheb
The relationship between Ay and Horemheb is just as strange. In the beginning it was believed both men helped Tutankhamun run Egypt as he was just a child when he was given the throne. As soon as Tutankhamun started maturing, it is believed that the pharaoh must have had his own way of doing things, and Ay and Horemheb were no longer needed to help make executive decisions on ruling Egypt. Did this upset the two gentlemen? One can only surmise. In addition, Horemheb should have inherited the throne after Tutankhamun’s death; however, Ay became the pharaoh. So how did this come about? No one knows for sure but there is a lot of speculation that Ay took the throne by ill means. It has been suggested that Ay concealed the pharaoh’s death, rushed his tomb, wed Ankhesenamun, and became pharaoh before Horemheb got news of the death. This theory paints Ay in a bad light.
Ay is only pharaoh for a few years and then he dies. Horemheb then becomes pharaoh; however, during his reign he tries to remove any evidence of Amarna, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay. So why would Horemheb go to great measures to erase these historical existences? This is unknown, but it has been suggested (most probable theory) that he wanted to restore Egypt’s old ways of worshiping the God Amun and the rest of the deities that existed before Akhenaten was pharaoh. It could also be that he wanted to seek the ultimate revenge to ensure Ay did not attain a place into the Afterlife.
Ay’s Tomb KV23
Though Ay had a tomb first constructed in Tel-el Amarna, Akhenaten’s city, plans were changed and a new tomb (today known as KV23) was constructed in the West Valley of the Kings. Though there is not much known about Ay’s tomb belongings or treasure, we do know that it is one of two royal tombs in this location. The tomb descends downward into the rock bed with two step passage ways separating into downward ramps. The tomb has often been described as looking very similar to that of Tutankhamun’s; however, this tomb was fashioned in a linear manner unlike Tutankhamun’s. Like Tutankhamun’s tomb, only the burial chamber had depictions upon it.
This tomb shows evidence of damage after Ay was buried. It appears that great effort was made to deface his tomb. All images of Ay and his name were chipped away. It should also be noted that this tomb has been suggested to be that of Smenkhkare, believed to be Tutankhamun’s brother or Nefertiti, but there is no evidence that has proved this.
Ay’s sarcophagus was once taken to the Cairo museum and displayed there. Since the restoration of the tomb, The Supreme Council of Antiquities placed the sarcophagus back inside the tomb and added modern lighting. The sarcophagus was accidently installed backwards and it was left in this position.
The mummy of Ay has never been recovered. The time during his rule is shrouded with mystery and there are many factors that could point to why his mummy can’t be located. The most notable suggestion is that Horemheb could have had it destroyed to ensure that Ay did not get into the Afterlife as previously stated. Until the mummy of Ay can be located, or until we obtain other information about the life and reign of this pharaoh, the suggestion of murder and seizing of his throne through ill means will always surround this pharaoh.