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Ay was the penultimate Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt's 18th dynasty. He held the throne of Egypt for a brief four-year period (probably 1324 – 1320 BC or 1327 – 1323 BC, depending on which chronology is followed), although he was a close advisor to two and perhaps three of the pharaohs who ruled before him and was the power behind the throne during Tutankhamun's reign. Ay's prenomen or royal name—Kheperkheperure—means "Everlasting are the Manifestations of Re" while his birth name Ay it-hetjer reads as 'Ay, Father of the God.' During the reign of Tutankhamun he almost certainly was one of the major figures responsible for returning the country to the worship of the late Egyptian pantheon of deities after the experiment with monotheism under Akhenaten that abandoned the earlier tradition. Records and monuments that can be attributed fully to Ay are rare, not just because of the short length of his reign, but because his successor, Horemheb, instigated a campaign of damnatio memoriae against him and other pharaohs directly associated with the Amarna period. Some scholars believe that he may have been responsible for Tutankhamun's demise.


Ay is believed to be a native Egyptian from Akhmim. During his short reign, he built a rock cut chapel in Akhmim and dedicated it to the local deity there: Min. He may have been the son of Yuya, who served as a member of the priesthood of Min at Akhmin as well as superintendent of herds in this city, and wife Tjuyu. If so, Ay could have been of partial non-Egyptian, perhaps Semitic or Mitannian blood, since the name Yuya was uncommon in Egypt and is suggestive of a foreign background. Yuya was an influential nobleman at the royal court of Amenhotep III who was given the rare privilege of having a tomb built for his use in the royal Valley of the Kings presumably because he was the father of Tiye, Amenhotep's chief Queen. There are also noted similarities in the physical likenesses of monuments attributed to Ay and those of the mummy of Yuya, and both held similar names and titles.

Amarna Period

Born a commoner, Ay managed to rise through the hierarchy of Egyptian society under the "heretical" Pharaoh Akhenaten. One version of events maintains that he and his wife Tey were the parents of Akhenaten's chief wife, Nefertiti and that another of their daughters, Mutnedjmet, was the wife and queen of Horemheb, Ay's successor. Another version suggests that he was the son of Yuya and Tjuyu, thus being a brother or half-brother of Tiy, brother-in-law of Amenhotep III and maternal uncle of Akhenaten.

The two theories are not mutually exclusive, but either relationship would explain the exalted status to which Ay rose (see below), during Akhenaten's Amarna interlude, when the royal family turned their backs on Egypt's traditional gods and experimented, for a dozen years or so, with monotheism; an experiment that, whether out of conviction or convenience, Ay appears to have followed under the reign of Akhenaten.

If Ay was the son of Yuya, who was a senior military officer during the reign of Amenhotep III, then he likely followed in his father's footsteps, finally inheriting his father's military functions upon his death. All that is known for certain was that by the time he was permitted to build a tomb for himself at Akhetaten during the reign of Akhenaten, he had achieved the title of "Overseer of All the Horses of His Majesty", the highest rank in the elite charioteering division of the army, which was just below the rank of General.


In his Amarna tomb, Ay's titles are give as Companion, Head of the Companions of the King, Father of the Divinity, Fan-bearer on the Right Side of the King, Acting Scribe of the King, beloved by him, and Overseer of All the Horses of His Majesty. Some of these titles are purely standardised noble ones, but the 'Fan-bearer on the Right Side of the King' is a very important position, and is viewed as showing that the bearer had the 'ear' of the ruler.


Ay's reign was preceded by that of Tutankhamun, who ascended to the throne at the age of nine or ten, at a time of great tension between the new monotheism and the old polytheism. He was assisted in his kingly duties by his predecessor's two closest advisors: Grand Vizier Ay and General of the Armies Horemheb. Tutankhamun's nine-year reign, largely under Ay's direction, saw the gradual return of the old gods – and, with that, the restoration of the power of the Amun priesthood, who had lost their influence over Egypt under Akhenaten.

Egyptologist Bob Brier suggested that Ay murdered Tutankhamun in order to usurp the throne, a claim which was based on X-ray examinations of the body done in 1968 that found bone fragments inside Tutankhamun's skull. He also alleged that Ankhesenamen and the Hittite Prince she was about to marry with were also murdered at his orders, and one can speculate he might be also involved at Ankhesenamen's two miscarriages and even at Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Smenkhare's deaths. This theory was not accepted by all scholars, and more detailed CT-scans of the mummy undertaken by National Geographic (published in late 2005) suggested that Tutankhamun did not die from a blow to his head as Brier had theorized, and examiners of the body instead presented a new theory that he died from an infection caused by a badly broken leg, since he is often portrayed as walking with a cane because of suffering from spina bifida, herreditary in his family on his father's side. At the time when the results of the CT-Scan examination have been published, many scientists accepted its findings, but some believe the mystery of Tutankhamun's death is far from solved and continue to support the older murder theory. There are books that have subsequently been published that adhere to the original murder theory and dispute the conclusions reached by the CT-Scan team, though also citing other means of murder, such as poisoning. Noted Egyptologist Zahi Hawass believes that Tutankhamun could have been murdered by poison.. Either way, any of those deaths could have been provoked or facilitated by Ay.

Rule as Pharaoh

Tutankhamun's untimely death at the age of 18 or 19, together with his failure to produce an heir, left a power vacuum that his Grand Vizier Ay was quick to fill: Ay is depicted conducting the funerary rites for the deceased monarch and assuming the role of heir. The grounds on which Ay based his successful claim to power are not entirely clear. The Commander of the Army, Horemheb, had actually been designated as the "idnw" or "Deputy of the Lord of the Two Lands" under Tutankhamun and was presumed to be the boy king's heir apparent and successor. It appears that Horemheb was outmaneuvered to the throne by Ay who married Ankhesenamun, the widow of Tutanhkamun, in order to legitimise his claim to the throne. Ay was certainly a powerful figure: he was close to the centre of political power at the royal palace for some 25 years under both Tutankhamun and Akhenaten. But this was probably still not enough, however, to legitimize his claims to the throne in the highly hierarchical society of Ancient Egypt, if he was of non-royal birth especially at a time of domestic upheaval without his marriage to Tutankhamun's widow. Since he was already advanced in age upon his accession, Ay ruled Egypt in his own right for only four years. During this period, he consolidated the return to the old religious ways that he had initiated as senior advisor and constructed a mortuary temple at Medinet Habu for his own use. A stele of Nakhtmin (Berlin 2074), a military officer under Tutankhamun and Ay—who was Ay's chosen successor—is dated to Year 4, IV Akhet day 1 of Ay's reign. (Urk IV: 2110)


It appears that one of Horemheb's undertakings as Pharaoh was to eliminate all references to the monotheistic experiment, a process that included expunging the name of his immediate predecessors—especially Ay—from the historical record. Horemheb desecrated Ay's burial and had most of Ay's royal cartouches in his WV23 Tomb Wall paintings erased while his sarcophagus was smashed into numerous fragments. However, the sarcophagus lid was discovered in 1972 by Otto Schaden—the US Egyptologist who opened Tomb KV63 in the Valley of the Kings in 2006—and still preserved Ay's cartouche; it had been buried under debris in this king's tomb. Horemheb also usurped Ay's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu for his own use. Uvo Hölscher (1878-1963) who excavated the temple in the early 1930s provides these details concerning the state of Ay-Horemheb's mortuary temple:

'Wherever a cartouche has been preserved, the name of Eye [ie: Ay] has been erased and replaced by that of his successor Harmhab. In all but a single instance had it been overlooked and no change made. Thus the temple, which Eye had begun and finished, at least in the rear rooms with their fine paintings, was usurped by his successor and was thenceforth known as the temple of Harmhab. Seals on stoppers of wine jars from the temple magazines read: "Wine from the temple of Harmhab."'
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