'Brave pharaoh' who went to war over noisy hippos was executed on the battlefield, CT scans reveal

The war wasn't just about hippos: 'Seqenenre was really on the front line with his soldiers risking his life to liberate Egypt'

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Researchers have discovered new details about the brutal execution of an Egyptian pharaoh who went to battle amid a dispute over some noisy hippopotamuses — and inspired his children to liberate their nation.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, used computerized tomography (CT) scans to examine the mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenre-Taa-II, giving rise to a new theory about the circumstances of his death.

“Seqenenre was really on the front line with his soldiers risking his life to liberate Egypt,” lead author Dr. Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University, told the Frontier news blog.

Saleem and co-author Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and former Egyptian minister of antiquities, have pioneered the use of CT scans to study pharaohs and warriors, the Frontiers news blog reports. They have used the medical imaging, which can non-invasively determine sex, age and the cause of death, to examine Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun, Ramesses III, Thutmose III, Rameses II and now Seqenenre, who was about 40 years old when he died. This is the first time the researchers have found evidence of a pharaoh on the front lines of a battle.

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Pharaoh Seqenenre, also known as “the Brave,” ruled over Southern Egypt for just a few years, from about 1558 to 1553 BC. At the time, a foreign dynasty known as the Hyksos had been occupying Northern Egypt for about a century, with the capital city located in Avaris (modern Tell el Dabaa) in the Nile Delta region. While the Egyptian pharaoh controlled the south, all Egypt was required to send tribute to the Hyksos king.

According to fragments of ancient papyrus documents, a fight erupted between the pharaoh and Apophis, king of Hyksos, when the latter sent a message complaining about noisy hippos disrupting his sleep. The hippos in question occupied a pool in Thebes in Southern Egypt, while Apophis occupied Avaris — 644 kilometres away.

Apophis demanded that Seqenenre destroy the Theban sacred pool — a grave insult to the pharaoh. While the end of the papyrus is lost, the remaining portion ends with Seqenenre calling his counsellors, which suggests he planned to go to battle over the hippo dispute. War did erupt between the two nations and Seqenenre met a violent end.

The mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenre-Taa-II and three-dimensional CT images of his head.
The mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenre-Taa-II and three-dimensional CT images of his head. Photo by Frontiers in Medicine

The pharaoh’s mummy was first discovered in 1886, and, since then, scholars have debated the cause and circumstances of his death. When the mummy was examined, and later X-rayed in the 1960s, the body was found to have several head injuries but no other wounds. This led to the prevailing theory that the pharaoh was captured in battle and later executed, perhaps by the Hyksos king himself; while others speculated that he could have been murdered in his sleep as part of a palace coup.

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Researchers also believed that Seqenenre was mummified hastily, perhaps on the battlefield, away from the royal mummification workshop because the body was not well preserved.

The CT scans confirmed the poor state of the mummy. Its head and many of its bones were completely detached. But the scans also revealed previously undetected head wounds that had been masterfully concealed during the mummification process, a cosmetic procedure that suggests that his body was brought to the royal workshop after all.

Three-dimensional CT images show Seqenenre’s torso, left, and arms, right.
Three-dimensional CT images show Seqenenre’s torso, left, and arms, right. Photo by Frontiers in Medicine

The researchers found that the mummy’s brain was on the left side of its skull, suggesting the body was lying on its left side for long enough that decomposition had already started before the mummification process could begin. This would explain why the mummy was poorly preserved, despite the embalmer’s best efforts.

Most royal ancient Egyptian mummies have their arms crossed on their chest, but Seqenenre’s arms are at his side, his hands are flexed at the wrist and his fingers are contorted. All this suggests that the pharaoh’s hands were bound behind him when he died and became rigid immediately after his execution due to a condition called cadaveric spasm, the researchers write.

The researchers believe that Seqenenre was captured on the battlefield, bound and killed, and that he was likely kneeling during some of the attack. Multiple head wounds inflicted with what appear to be multiple different weapons, suggests there were multiple assailants.

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“In a normal execution on a bound prisoner, it could be assumed that only one assailant strikes, possibly from different angles but not with different weapons,” Saleem told the Frontier news blog. “Seqenenre’s death was rather a ceremonial execution.”

Photographs of bronze Asian weapons found in Tell el Dabaa (ancient Avaris).
Photographs of bronze Asian weapons found in Tell el Dabaa (ancient Avaris). Photo by Frontiers in Medicine

The first blow was likely to the forehead, and may have been inflicted by a sword or an ax, the researchers write.

“The strong hit must have caused the King to fall down, possibly on his back. The King may have received several attacks from the assailant with the Hyksos battle ax, possibly using its blade to inflict the fracture above the right eyebrow (right supra-orbital). Then a thick stick (possibly the handle of the ax) was used to smash the nose and the right eye of the King. The assailant hit the King’s left side of the face with the ax,” the study states.

“Another assailant at the left side used a spear horizontally to pierce deeply the lower part of the left ear (mastoid) and reached the foramen magnum. We assume that the King was dead at this point, and that his body was rolled to lie at his left side where he received several blows to the right side of the skull possibly by a dagger.”

There are no written accounts about Seqenenre’s death, but historical records indicate that his sacrifice was ultimately not in vain. While his first son, Kamose, also died in battle against the Hyksos, his second son, Ahmose, succeeded in expelling the foreign occupiers completely and unifying Egypt.

“Seqenenre’s death motivated his successors to continue the fight to unify Egypt and start the New Kingdom,” Saleem said.

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