The 1999 film The Mummy has (almost surprisingly) soared to extreme popularity over the last few years. I must say, it’s one of my absolute favorite movies, so I get it completely! Being a natural history buff and lover of the occult and strange things, I wondered about the real Imhotep and Ankhesenamun that inspired the villainous couple of The Mummy films. If you didn’t know, Universal’s original Mummy film from 1932 had Imhotep as the villain with the heroine of the film being the reincarnation of Ankhesenamun. When they decided to redo the franchise in the late 90s, they stuck with the same two characters and more or less made them both the villains of the piece. But Imhotep and Ankhesenamun were real Egyptian figures. Who were they really? Did they even live at the same time? Let’s take a full in-depth look at who Imhotep and Ankhesenamun really were and what they meant to the history of Egypt.
Who was Imhotep?
While there were records of people practicing medicine throughout the history of ancient Egypt, early records make no mention of any notable physicians. The first ever recorded physician in ancient Egypt was Imhotep, though, strangely enough, the records only begin mentioning him over a century after his death. Imhotep was vizier (chancellor) or chief minister, high priest of the sun god Ra, and chief builder of the pharaoh Djoser who reigned from 2667 BC to 2648 BC. As a builder, Imhotep was credited with designing and building the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara and was known for designing and utilizing columns. He was also considered to be the first architect known by name in human history. He was known to be a healer who was responsible for the medical care of thousands of workers who took part in his project. Due to the records we have on Imhotep, aside from being the first physician of ancient Egypt known by name, he was also the first physician known by name in the written history of the world. This led to him being deified and worshipped after his death, as he became known as a demigod who was the ‘inventor of healing’. In fact, he was one of only a few people in ancient Egypt who became deified after their death that wasn’t of royal birth. This was next to impossible for a non-royal to achieve, but Imhotep seemed to be so important to Egypt that he broke the norm and became known as a demigod.
All in all, Imhotep seemed to one of the most important minds of not only his time but throughout the history of Ancient Egypt. He was an excellent builder, architect, and physician who seemed to move Egypt forward leaps and bounds while he served as chief minister and vizier. His tomb has still not been found, though archaeologists are still on the hunt for it.
So, all in all, it’s rather amusing that of all figures in Egypt’s history, Imhotep’s name was taken and used in pop culture as a villain.
Who was Ankhesenamun or Anck-Su-Namun?
Ankhesenamun, who was called Anck-Su-Namun in The Mummy films, was perhaps most well known for being the Great Royal Wife of pharaoh Tutankhamun or King Tut, as many know him. The third daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten and the famous Nefertiti, Ankhesenamun, is believed to have participated in many governmental and religious functions alongside her parents. After likely marrying her father first after her mother’s death (which was normal in Egyptian royal families), she married King Tut. The couple restored the traditional religion of Egypt back into power after her father had abandoned Egypt’s primary deities.
While historians are not entirely sure, since she was the only known wife of King Tut, they believe that the couple had two stillborn daughters that were buried in the tomb with King Tut, as two fetuses were found in his tomb when it was uncovered. This means that when King Tut died at the age of 19, he left Ankhesenamun single and without an heir at roughly the age of 21 years old. It is believed she married Ay before disappearing entirely from history practically without a trace.
Scientists uncovered two 18th Dynasty Queens in tomb KV21 in the Valley of the Kings in February 2010. DNA tests revealed that one of them may have been Ankhesenamun, which makes sense, as the tomb KV63 was speculated to be hers, but it was found with no mummy inside.
Did They Live at the Same Time?
I’m sure you’ve already noticed the extreme gap that exists in the time in which these two figures lived. In reality, Imohtep died well over a thousand years before Ankhesenamun was born, and being the only prevalent Egyptian figures with those names, it’s safe to say the two never came close to crossing paths. Why were these two figures plucked from history to grace the screens of our horror films? Perhaps, film makers just grabbed the names of lesser-known Egyptian figures? Perhaps they picked them, as there is a lot of mystery shrouding them. Imhotep was loved and deified after his death, but there was a gap of over a thousand years before that occurred. And Ankhesenamun seemed to have disappeared entirely from history without a trace.
What’s interesting is that while Imhotep and Ankhesenamun didn’t even live in the same century, Nefertiti did live and work closely with Ankhesenamun. After all, she was her mother. So, while The Mummy Returns does include Nefertiti in Ankhesenamun’s story (with Rachel Weisz playing Nefertiti’s reincarnation), they still seemed to just be grabbing names as in the film, Ankhesenamun was the King’s concubine while Nefertiti was a princess of Egypt.
Who knows why they picked those two figures to be the main characters in the 1932 The Mummy or why they made them villains in the 1999 remake and its sequel; however, I love the irony in picking one of the greatest minds of his time, the basic father of Egyptian medicine and architecture, and making him a villain in modern pop culture. Whatever the reason, we continue to talk about Imhotep well over 4,000 years after he lived lived and died.