Harimhab, Last Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty

Figure Q-1. General Harimhab displays the golden shabyu-collars that have just been awarded him by Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun for his victories over the Asiatics and Hittites. Relief from the Saqqara tomb of Harimhab, formerly painted. Now in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.


Last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, apparently unrelated to his predecessor, Aya, or his chosen successor, Ramesses I. Reigned as Djasr-khuprau-Ri’a Har-im-hab (“Holiest of the emanations of Ra, Haru is in festival”) or more conventionally, Djeserkheprura Harimhab. His nomen or personal name is also spelled Horemheb, Haremheb, Harmhabi, etc.

Although he went to great lengths to erase the memory of his immediate predecessors, the details of Harimhab’s own life and reign are still more obscure than theirs. Even the length of his kingship remains a matter of debate, with 13 years the generally accepted minimum and 28 years the maximum.

Harimhab enters the historical record early in the reign of Tutankhamun, already an adult with a distinguished reputation as a scribe. The names of his parents are unknown. He quickly rose to prominence as supreme commander of the Egyptian armies (a position sometimes represented as “generalissimo”).

Harimhab’s eventual succession to the kingship may have occurred through a military coup, but subsequent dynasties regarded him as a legitimate ruler rather than a usurper. He left few monuments; his mummy has never been discovered.

Figure Q-2. Harimhab dines in the afterlife, seated before an offering table laden with loaves of bread. This relief, from Harimhab’s tomb in Saqqara, was carved during the reign of Tutankhamun, before Harimhab became pharaoh. Faintly visible over the future king’s brow is the royal uraeus serpent, added after his accession. Compare the style and composition of this piece with Figure D-2.

harimhab’s origins

Harimhab came from the city of Herakleopolis, on the west bank of the Nile near the district of Faiyum. He was most likely born during the reign of Amenhotep III. As a child he was evidently trained as a scribe, for he represents himself as such in monuments from the time of Tutankhamun. As an adult he maintained no special ties with his native city or with its resident cult of Harishaf, a ram-headed deity. Nothing is known about his family. (See Martin 36-38.)

Unlike Pharaoh Aya, who dedicated monuments in his hometown of Ipu (Akhmim) after his accession, Harimhab raised no memorials in Herakleopolis. Instead his lifelong allegiance belonged to Memphis, the northern capital, where his wives Amunya and Mutnadjmat were entombed and where he himself planned to be buried, until his elevation to the kingship dramatically altered his circumstances.

Harimhab’s abrupt debut as one of the most powerful members of the government of Tutankhamun — the first step toward his enthronement — has not been adequately explained. Many writers have suggested that Harimhab’s professional career must have begun during the reign of Akhenaten.

This was certainly the case for Aya and Maya, the only other dignitaries at the court of Tutankhamun to rival Harimhab’s eminence.

Divine Father Aya, Overseer of All Horses and Chief of Archers, held exactly the same positions under Akhenaten, whose favorite he evidently was. Maya, Overseer of the Treasury, was a member of the royal household during his childhood — which must have occurred during Akhenaten’s reign or even earlier, in the jubilee years of Amenhotep III (Martin 173). Thus the distinction enjoyed by these two gentlemen during the reign of Tutankhamun was merely a continuation of the honors granted them by his father Akhenaten.

Among the other members of Akhenaten’s inner circle was a scribe and military man named pa-Atan-im-hab or Paatenimhab, whose name means “The Aten is in festival.” This individual certainly began his life under a different name, since personal names containing the element “Aten” were unknown before Akhenaten’s time. Unfortunately we know nothing about Paatenimhab except his Atenist alias, his titles, and the fact that he was favored enough by the king to be granted a rock-cut tomb in the Amarna cliffs.

Paatenimhab held the powerful positions of General of the Lord of the Two Lands and Overseer of Works, which were occupied in Tutankhamun’s reign by Harimhab. Because Harimhab also received the honor of an elite tomb (within sight of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara), it is often suggested that Paatenimhab and Harimhab were the same man. “Paatenimhab” is a likely variation on the traditional name “Harimhab.” Both variations signify “The sun god is in festival,” differing only in their choice of solar manifestation — the Aten versus Haru or “Horus.” This attractive and thoroughly plausible hypothesis remains unproven.

harimhab under tutankhamun and aya

For the first few years after Akhenaten’s death, his young son Tutankhaten continued his father’s policies. The boy-king carried on the worship of the Aten in Egypt’s major shrines while maintaining the royal residence in the city of Akhet-Aten. In his second or third regnal year, however, Pharaoh Tutankhaten and Great Royal Wife Ankhesenpaaten changed course dramatically. They left their father’s city and re-established the national capital in Memphis. At the same time they changed their names to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun, reinstating the god Amun in his position of supremacy in the Egyptian pantheon. Presumably their courtier Paatenimhab, if he had retained his offices from their father’s reign, would have changed his name along with them.

From the palace of Aakheperkara in Memphis, Tutankhamun issued his Restoration Decree, detailing generous royal donations to the cults of Amun in Thebes and Ptah in Memphis, along with lesser gifts to temples throughout the Nile Valley. In this way a degree of normalcy was restored to Egypt after the unpopular innovations of Akhenaten. The crafting of the Restoration Decree is often attributed to Divine Father Aya, but Harimhab may also have played a role.

In any event, Memphis is the site of Harimhab’s first appearance on the monuments of his young lord. Most of our information derives from the spectacular tomb that he built in Saqqara, the city’s ancient cemetery. Its construction proceeded in three distinct stages, as demonstrated by G.T. Martin’s excavations in the 1970s and 1980s. In its final stage the tomb rivaled in splendor the mortuary temple of a pharaoh. It was fronted by a pylon or monumental gateway, which led into a large pillared courtyard like the solar court of a sun temple. The surrounding walls were covered with painted reliefs. A second pylon led into a smaller courtyard, also featuring pillars and painted reliefs. Finally came the offering room where the cult of the deceased Harimhab and his wives would be celebrated.

The technical and artistic quality of the tomb’s relief decoration rivals anything ever produced in Egypt. Yet Harimhab himself was never buried there, as his succession to the throne mandated a traditional rock-cut sepulcher in the Valley of the Kings, west of Thebes.

Figure Q-3. General Harimhab negotiates with captive foreign princes at the court of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Iconographic details identify the foreigners as Nubians (two), Libyans (two) and West Asians (five). To the right, three registers of West Asian grooms lead teams of chariot horses as spoils of battle. The two bowing figures in Egyptian clothes, to the left of the prostrate princes, are interpreters translating between Egyptian and the various languages of the captives. The commanding figure at left is Harimhab, replendent in an elaborate pleated gown, a staff of office, a stylish wig, several gold shabyu collars, and sandals. He plays the unusual role of negotiator or liaison between Tutankhamun and his captives. The royal uraeus serpent was added to the figure’s forehead after Harimhab was enthroned. Adapted from a line drawing by G.T. Martin in The Hidden Tombs of Memphis.

The surviving reliefs in Harimhab’s Memphite tomb contain no dates. But because we know that the tomb’s inner courtyard was completed before its outer courtyard, we can get a rough idea of their chronology. All decoration was executed within the span of a decade, and possibly within half that time. Overall construction began at some point after Year 2 of Tutanhkhamun, when the royal capital moved to Memphis, and the inner courtyard was almost certainly completed before the boy-king’s death at the end of Year 9. The outer courtyard, which is substantially larger than the inner, was begun in the latter part of Tutankhamun’s reign. Whether any of its reliefs date from the reign of Aya is unknown; it is possible that work on the tomb slowed down or ceased after Aya took the throne.

The reliefs in the inner courtyard have survived fairly well. One wall shows various scenes from the funerals of Harimhab and his wife Amunya – events that lay well in the future when the scenes were planned and painted. Another shows the glorious achievement that netted Harimhab this splendid tomb: a Ceremony of Reward performed by Tutankhamun and Ankhsenamun, in which Harimhab presents lines of Hittite and West Asian captives to his pharaoh, along with a mass of chariot horses. All these men and horses were spoils of some recent military campaign in Canaan. Harimhab raises his slender arms in triumph, showing off the pleated sleaves and abundant ruffles of his gown, as retainers adorn him with a fortune in golden shabyu-collars (see Figure Q-1, above).

Figure Q-4. Painted relief of Harimhab in the antechamber of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 57). Unlike the exquisite reliefs that decorated his Memphite tomb, those in his Theban tomb are thoroughly conventional and uninspired. Photograph by Araldo de Luca.

harimhab’s reign

Already during the reign of Tutankhamun, if not earlier, Harimhab was married to a woman named Amunya. She held the rank of Chantress of Amun, an honor that was apparently shared by other aristocratic ladies at the same time. Amunya died during the reign of Aya, before her husband’s accession as king, as indicated by a cartouche of Pharaoh Aya recovered from her looted burial chamber. After her death Harimhab took a new wife named Mutnadjmat.

Like her predecessor Amunya, this lady held the rank of Chantress of Amun. She may or may not have been the same person as Mutnadjmat, sister of Queen Nefertiti. Despite these two marriages, Harimhab died without an heir.

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