Ay and Horemheb: Final Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty

Were These Fantastic Pharaohs or Fabulous Flops?

Osiris and Horemheb hang out in Horemheb's tomb. Richard Ashworth/robertharding/Getty Images

After King Tutankhamun died, Egypt was in crisis. His wife, Ankhensenamun, didn't have any surviving children, although she probably tried to marry a foreign prince to consolidate her own power at home. Instead of Ankhesenamun taking control, an old man named Ay, followed closely by General Horemheb, rounded out the Eighteenth Dynasty and set the stage for the Ramessids.

Ay (ruled 1323-1319 B.C.)

Ay was an important official in the reign of Tut and his father, Akhenaten.

A military and domestic leader, Ay also held the title of "God's Father," showing his closeness to the royal family; he may have been the brother of Akhenaten's mother, Queen Tiye, and the dad of Akhenaten's Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti. Ay's wife, Tey, was also a nurse to the royal children.

It's been theorized that Ay was one of the key powers behind the boy-king's throne and married the widowed Ankhesenamun to consolidate his influence upon assuming the role of Lord of the Two Lands after Tut's death. Ay was shown in the young man's tomb, performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which would symbolically awaken the deceased in the next world. By showing himself preparing Tut for paradise, as the god Horus did for his dad Osiris, Ay displayed the legitimacy of his succession. Some have suggested he murdered his predecessor, but that's probably just a deadly rumor.

Ay was quite old at the time of his accession, so he only reigned for four years.

Nakhtmin, a high-ranking general who was possibly Ay's son, might've been his heir, but died before his dad. Without surviving kidlets, Ay passed power on to the next-most-important guy in the kingdom: General Horemheb.

Horemheb (ruled 1319-1292 B.C.)

Both a general and a royal steward, Horemheb was a man of many talents, serving as the boy-king's regent.

After the ruckus of Akhenaten's reign, which disrupted Egypt's military and its imperial ambitions, as well as the religious and sacerdotal structures previously in place, Horemheb was a throwback to kings of yore.

One big accomplishment was restoring the great temples of Egypt's many gods, which had fallen into disrepair during Akhenaten's Aten-mania. He often obliterated Akhenaten's name from monuments and fanes alike or repurposed them and their materials for his own use.

Akhenaten's reign also saw the disintegration of Egypt's empire, including control over its foreign territories and relationship with its allies. A fascinating cache of diplomatic documents called the Amarna Letters details the issues Akhenaten faced as pharaoh, and it seems some foreign kings thought he let important things like protective armies and bribes of gold go by the wayside; he focused on internal policy, letting Egypt's allies and enemies alone, which helped allow the rise of the Hittite Empire.

In his reign, Horemheb set about rectifying this sticky situation - or at least showed himself doing such. His tomb depicts him treating with foreign chiefs through an interpreter, but records suggest that he was so focused on internal organization, reworking religious.

administrative. and legal structures, and no real overseas military endeavors came about until two pharaohs down the line. More than anything, Horemheb recast the mold of what a pharaoh should be, showing himself as a traditional king - as opposed to Akhenaten and his bad boy ways.

And it's thanks to Horemheb that we have the Nineteenth Dynasty and the Ramessids. Horemheb named another military man named Pa-ramessu (a.k.a. Ramesses) as his heir; Ramesses I only reigned shortly, but his son Seti I and grandson Ramesses II continued the pharaonic tradition.