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The Zannanza Affair and Tutankhamun’s Succession

Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and he is also a collector of Egyptian art.

A letter from Tutankhamun's widow, Ankhesesamun, to a rival monarch set off a chain of events that led to murder and war.

A letter from Tutankhamun's widow, Ankhesesamun, to a rival monarch set off a chain of events that led to murder and war.

A Cry for Help

After the death of the pharaoh, a strange, diplomatic incident occurred that is now known as the ‘Zannanza Affair’. A cry for help from an Egyptian queen to a foreign ruler would eventually lead to murder and warfare. Although there are some conflicting theories on the identity of this queen, conventional Egyptian chronology together with other evidence suggests that she was Ankhesesamun, the widow of Tutankhamun. The correspondence related to the Zannanza Affair gives us an intriguing insight into the inner workings of the ancient Egyptian state, but also into the diplomatic relations Egypt maintained with foreign royal courts.

The Death of Tutankhamun

The Geopolitical Situation

The reign of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was a difficult time for Egypt. During this period, Western Asia was controlled by three major forces, Hatti (the Hittites), Mittani and of course Egypt. These three superpowers formed rather unstable alliances with vassal states, and proxy wars between these vassal states were constantly breaking out. Most of the so-called ‘Amarna Letters’ were requests or complaints from the kings of these vassal states, seeking either military support or rewards for their loyalty in the form of gold. Sometimes threats were made to break the alliance and to switch sides for a more beneficial arrangement. When in 1323 BC Egypt attacked Kadash, which was under Hittite control, the Hittites retaliated by attacking the city of Amka. It was in the midst of these hostilities that Tutankhamun, the last king in the Tuthmosid royal line, died.



Internal Politics

Tutankhamun's reign saw the return of the old polytheism and the restoration of the power of the Amun priesthood, which had lost so much of its influence under Akhenaten. Soon after the death of Akhenaten, the monotheistic innovations of the 'Amarna Period' had been abandoned. Tutankhamun was still a child when he ascended to the throne, so during most of his 9-year reign, Egypt was in effect ruled by his advisors.

The Contenders for the Throne

Two men, in particular, were highly influential and both of them were eager to fill the power vacuum after the king had died.

  • Ay
    During the reign of Akhenaten, Ay had already made a career for himself in the army. He achieved the rank of 'Overseer of All the King's Horses' which was somewhat comparable to the rank of a modern-day colonel. It is thought that Ay was the father of Nefertiti (the queen of Akhenaten) and that he was a man of great influence in the royal court. He became Grand Vizier under Tutankhamun.
  • Horemheb
    As a general in the Egyptian army, Horemheb was responsible for defending Egypt's interests in the north. He was commander of one of the most powerful armies in the world, and interestingly, he was also the son-in-law of Ay. Under Tutankhamun, he held the title of 'Deputy of the Lord of the Two Lands', which made him the appointed heir to the throne.
Ankhesesamun offering flowers to Tutankhamun

Ankhesesamun offering flowers to Tutankhamun

The Zannanza Affair

Ankhesesamun's Proposal

In this time of internal uncertainty and in the midst of geopolitical conflict, a remarkable thing happened. Ankhesesamun, the queen of Tutankhamun, sent a letter to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, pleading for his help in the situation that had arisen after the death of her husband.

"My husband died. A son I have not. But to thee, they say, the sons are many. If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband. I am afraid."

Ankhesesamun must have been around the age of 18, and she appeared desperate. The offer she made was unprecedented. Strengthening ties with other Royal houses through marriage was common practice, but it had always been strictly one-way traffic. Foreign nations were allowed to offer their women in marriage to the Egyptian royals, but never would the favor be returned. This had already been made quite clear by Amenhotep III.

"From time immemorial no daughter of the king of Egypt is given to anyone."

So when Ankhesesamun offered the crown of Egypt to Suppiluliuma, it was a highly surprising move, and the king was suspicious of a trap. He decided to send an envoy to Egypt to find out what was going on.

"Go and bring thou the true word back to me. Maybe they deceive me. Maybe in fact they do have a son of their lord."

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When the envoy returned he brought back a new message from Ankhesesamun.

I have written to no other country, only to thee have I written. They say thy sons are many: so give me one son of thine. To me he will be husband, but to Egypt he will be king."

Suppiluliuma remains reluctant and cautious, stating:

"You keep asking me for a son of mine as if it were my duty. He will in some way become a hostage, but king you will not make him."

After some more diplomatic negotiations, Suppiluliuma finally gives in to Ankhesesamun and he decides to send his fourth son Zannanza to Egypt.

The Murder of Zannanza

Soon after Zannanza's departure for Egypt, couriers arrived with horrific news for king Suppiluliuma.

“[When] they brought this tablet, they spoke thus: [“The people of Egypt (?)] killed [Zannanza] and brought word: ‘Zannanza [died(?)]!”

It was clear to the king that the Egyptians must be held accountable for Zannanza's murder, and his response was predictable.

Ay performing the 'opening of the mouth' ritual for Tutankhamun

Ay performing the 'opening of the mouth' ritual for Tutankhamun

Ay Takes the Throne

Opening of the Mouth

Although his son-in-law was the rightful heir, somehow Ay outmaneuvered Horemheb and took the throne of Egypt. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, Ay is shown wearing the royal blue crown and the priestly leopard skin, performing a burial ritual called the 'opening of the mouth' on the mummy of Tutankhamun. This was a task that was usually done by the successor of the dead king. It is not sure how Ay was able to sideline Horemheb. We may find a clue in the fact that Ay chose Nakhtmin, the general of the southern army, as his crown prince. With Nakhtmin as his ally, Ay may have been able to counterbalance the obvious military advantage that Horemheb held over him.

Marriage to Ankhesesamun

To legitimize his claim on the throne, Ay married Ankesesamun, who had previously vowed that she would never marry a servant of hers. At the time of his coronation, Ay must have already been an old man. After the murder of Zannanza, the young widow apparently had no other option than to yield to the pressure, and marry the man who was not only her servant but also very likely her own grandfather.

Ay and Suppiluliuma

The Diplomatic Exchange

In response to the murder of his son Zannanza, a heated diplomatic exchange erupted between Ay and Suppiluliuma, which has been partially preserved. We can reconstruct some of the key points:

  • Ay flat out denies any involvement in the death of Zannanza.

"Your son has died [but] I have done [him no ha]rm"

  • Ay also asks why Suppiluliuma sent his son to Egypt in the first place, because the throne was obviously already taken. Suppiluliuma says that he was unaware of this.

"I was willing to send my son for the [kin]gship, [but that you already were se]ated [on the throne], that [I knew] not."

  • Suppiluliuma asks why Ay did not just send his son back to him.

"But if you [in the meanwhile had seated yourself on the throne, then] you could have sent my son back home.

The kings also exchanged some military threats, and soon after the affair turned into a full-blown war.

The Plague Prayers

The hostilities were recorded in the so-called 'Plague Prayers', written by another son of Suppiluliuma:

“When my father gave them his son, and when they took him off, they killed him. My father became hostile, went to Egyptian territory, and attacked Egyptian territory. He killed the infantry, and chariotry of Egypt.”

In a strange twist of fate, this act of revenge would become the ultimate downfall of Suppiluliuma. The Egyptian prisoners of war that were taken back to Hatti were infected with the plague. The disease rapidly overtook the Hittite empire, killing both Suppiluliuma himself and his crown prince. For almost two decades the Hittites suffered and this gave the Egyptians some much-needed breathing room.



Pharaoh Horemheb

After a reign of only three or four years, Ay died. It is thought that Nakhtmin predeceased Ay, and so the path was clear for Horemheb to finally take his place on the throne. Horemheb immediately started a campaign to deny good memory to all of his predecessors that were in some way associated with the Amarna Period. Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay were all targeted. Horemheb was the last pharaoh of the 18th dynasty.

It is not clear what happened to Ankesesamun after her marriage to Ay. For just a brief moment in time, she held the future of Egypt in her hands and to save herself, she was willing to give it all away.


Clayton, P.A., Chronicle of the Pharaohs, London, (1994)

Dijk, J., van, "Revolutie en Contrarevolutie", in Phoenix, Tijdschrift voor de Archeologie en Geschiedenis van het Nabije Oosten, 61.1 (2015), 5-24

Dijk, J., van, "Horemheb and the Struggle for the Throne of Tutankhamun", in: BACE 7 (1996), 29–42

Wilkinson, T., The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, New York, (2010)

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