(ca. 1390-1320 BC)
When most people think of harsh political maneuvering in the ancient world, they like to imagine the hectic and frequently fatal courts of Imperial Rome featuring such luminaries as the unbalanced Caligula, the eccentric Nero and his vindictive mother, Agrippina the Younger, or the murder and subsequent deification of the Emperor Geta by his brother and co-ruler Caracalla with the comment that "it is better that he is a god than that he is alive." But as with many things in Rome, all of this had been assimilated from earlier sources: one need only look at one of the men who stood at the very center of the tumultuous end of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt to understand how long the-ends-justifying-the-means has been around. A great exemplar of this policy of personal advancement was the second to last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, a career bureaucrat and courtier of minor noble lineage known to us as Ay.
"Overseer of all the Horses of the King"
Egypt's Eigtheenth Dynasty got off to a rollicking start in the middle of the sixteenth century BC with the final expulsion from Egypt of the Semitic Hyksos who had lorded over the nation for about a century. This dynasty featured famous Egyptian rulers such as Thutmosis II, Hatshepsut, and Amenhotep III, the final of whom Ay served in his first official capacitites. The dates listed at the top of the page are approximations because nobody really knows when Ay was born. Given some contextual clues and life expectancy rates in the ancient world, I think it's possible to say that Ay was probably in his 60s or very early 70s when he died, so I've listed his birth date as sometime in the 1390s. There's some evidence to indicate that Ay was the son of a politician and courtier named Yuya, who was most likely non-Egyptian in origin. Yuya was Amenhotep's Master of the Horse (the supreme cavalry commander and trusted military advisor) and Ay eventually inherited this title. Yuya was also given the title "Father of the God," which was a name usually reserved for the Pharaoh's father-in-law. Yuya was thus a significant military leader (or he at least had the title) as well as the father of Amenhotep's chief wife, Tiye. By this reckoning, Ay was thus Tiye's sister and the Pharaoh's brother-in-law.
After becoming Master of the Horse and receiving other trite-sounding but evidently significant titles such as "Head of the King's Companions," Ay married a woman of common descent named Tey and produced at least one child: the future queen of Egypt Nefertiti. Nefertiti married the son of Amenhotep of the same name, making Ay redundantly related to the royal family as both Amenhotep's brother-in-law and the father-in-law of the heir apparent to the throne. Ay's influence at the court had never been greater, but subsequent events would soon shoot his star even higher.
"The land is in darkness, in the manner of death..."
Both Yuya and Amenhotep III died in the 1350s. From this point forward, two sons would struggle to escape the shadows of their two fathers and come into their own. One would succeed where his father had failed and the other would try to revolutionize Egyptian society in a way that his father could never have imagined, but ultimately, both would have their memories damned for all eternity by their successors. Amenhotep IV assumed the throne in 1351 and upon doing so, Ay received another of Yuya's titles: Father of the God. The reign of the younger Amenhotep was uneventful at first, but after 4 years, had an epiphany: the ancient gods of the Egyptian pantheon such as Amun, Osiris, and Horus were false deities and that there was but one god and it was the Aten sundisc. Amenhotep (whose name included an elemented of the false god Amun) changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect this conversion. Additionally, Akhenaten determined that the only person on the entire planet who could commune with the Aten was the Pharaoh himself, thus breaking the back of the politically powerful priests of Thebes and Luxor and centralizing control of the country in his hands and in his hands alone. To underscore this strengthening of Egyptian autocracy and caesaropapism, Akhenaten relocated the capital city of Egypt to a desert wasteland he renamed Akhetaten, quite distant from all the other established centers of power.
Akhenaten was completely loyal to the Aten and Ay followed in lockstep with his son-in-law. Through this act, Ay's position was strengthened even further. He received the title Fan-Bearer on the Right Hand of the King and eventually became the ancient equivalent of Akhenaten's Prime Minister. Akhenaten was a religious innovator and made Egypt the first officially monotheistic society in history. He changed Egyptian art, moving away from the highly standardized and stylized portraits and statues of previous rulers and instead required more naturalistic representations of the royal family. It is believed that Akhenaten had Marfan's Syndrome and possibly hydrocephalus, which caused the Pharaoh to have the elongated limbs and strangely-shaped cranial characteristics that are reflected in contemporary art of the period. If the bodies of Yuya and (what is believed to be) Nefertiti are anything to judge by, Ay did not suffer from either of these disorders, but he obligingly had himself depicted in the same way in frescoes and wall-paintings of the same period. Akhenaten was also evidently something of a poet, writing the famous Great Hymn to the Aten (an extract from which titles this section) which was possibly incorporated into the Hebrew Tanakh as the 104th Psalm.
Unfortunately for Egypt, however, Akhenaten wasn't a very good administrator or international diplomat. Internally, Ay handled many of the affairs of state, but he wasn't particularly useful in that capacity either. The economy of Egypt collapsed during this time (if we may apply such terms retroactively) mainly because Akhenaten poured gold from all over the Empire into making Akhetaten livable, and many of the letters from the period that survive to this day are of regional governors complaining about the lack of funds. Similarly, external threats saw Egypt lose large swaths of its territory to the Hittites and the Mitanni (ironically, Ay is believed to have been of partial Mitanni extraction). Another problem was that beyond the confines of Akhetaten, Atenism never really caught on and the priests as well as the common people resented the compulsory removal of their long-held faith.
Nefertiti seems to have died around 1336 from plague and Akhenaten was dead within two years of that. Nobody knows how Akhenaten died because his body has never been recovered and the historical record is deliberately silent on this subject. As Cicero once rhetorically asked, "who benefits?" Suspicion is frequently cast upon Ay, and not without good reason: Ay evidently never cared about Atenism and only went along with it because it's what the Pharaoh was doing and it served to strengthen his position. When Nefertiti died, Akhenaten and Ay were not really connected by anything other than the fact that they were now in the same mess together (although Ay was the only one who realized it as a "mess"). It is theorized that Ay killed Akhenaten in collusion with the Theban priests to assume the throne for himself, but if this were his motive, it took about a decade and three other rulers for that to happen.
After his death (whether violent or otherwise), Akhenaten's memory was damned and most of the monuments bearing his name and image were defaced or outright destroyed. Ay seemed to be the natural choice to fill the power vacuum: he was retroactively of royal blood and was probably the most experienced politician in Egypt at the time. However, because of his association with Akhenaten and the Atenist experience, he was not the preferred choice of the priests, which indicates he had probably little to do with Akhenaten's death. The throne eventually went to an individual named Smenkhkare, although not for very long. Smenkhkare's origins are obscured and it is unclear as to what this person's relationship to Akhenaten was. I refer to Smenkhkare as "this person" because there is really some serious debate as to what gender Smenkhkare actually was. Some people assert that Smenkhkare was actually Nefertiti and that she didn't actually die in 1336, but changed her name to be Akhenaten's co-ruler. I find this doubtful, and think that Smenkhkare was likely a younger half-brother of Akhenaten by one of his father's minor wives. Whoever Smenkhkare actually was, Ay seems to have been marginalized during his/her reign since he does not frequently appear in official documentation of the time. Smenkhkare was the last remaining vestige of the Atenist faith and the artistic style that went along with it since statues and frescoes after his reign reverted to the pre-Akhenaten style. Smenkhkare's rule only lasted for less than a year and he too was subjected to having his memory erased after his death. Smenkhkare's immediate successor was a woman named Neferneferuaten about whom nothing else is known; her relationship to the rest of the dynasty has been lost and even her age is completely unknown to us. She evidently reigned for about 18 months.
Neferneferuaten's success was Tutankhaten, Akhenaten's son by one of his sisters (her mummy has been discovered and it has been determined that she died after receiving a grievous wound to the face; her name is unknown). Ay's influence over Tutankhaten was even greater than that that he had previously held over his father, and during his reign, the old religion was officially reinstated and the Theban priests resumed their roles as powerbrokers. To accomodate this change, Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun and has gone on to be the best known Pharaoh in Egyptian history. He was quite young when he came to the throne and he and his half-sister/wife Ankhesepaaten (also changed to Ankhesenamun) were completely dominated by Ay and the Thebans who tried to stabilize the economy and recover the lands lost during Akhenaten's time in power. Ay was assisted in the latter goal by the highest ranking and most talented general in the Egyptian army at the time, Horemheb. By this point, Ay was Pharaoh in all but name. Tutankhamun was a sickly child and inherited the hydrocephalus of his sibling parents in addition to scoliosis and a cleft palate. Ay's influence over Tutankhamun is evident in the latter's tomb where Ay is shown to be performing rites for the deceased Pharaoh that were performed in almost all other reliefs by the son and heir of the dead king. Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun never had any living children, but even if they had, they would be too young to rule in their own right and would most likely not survive to maturity; indeed, both the Pharaoh and his wife barely made it that far. Tutankhamun died at the age of 18 in 1324 from uncertain causes; foul play has long been suspected and there is an even greater likelihood that Ay was involved in his death than he was in Akhenaten's. A fracture at the back of Tutankhamun's skull has long been thought to be evidence of his having been bludgeoned to death, but recent research indicates that he more likely died of a gangrenous infection and the fracture was post-mortem.
Either way, with Tut's death, there was only one remaining obstacle to Ay's ascension: Tutankhamun had named an heir. Horemheb had been declared the crown prince of Egypt early in Tut's reign, meaning the throne should have passed to him upon the young king's death. Horemheb was conveniently out of the country at the time, however, so Ay stepped in. At a highly advanced age for the time, he assumed the throne in 1324. It's important to remember what Ay's relation to Ankhesenamun was: he was the father of her mother Nefertiti, making him her maternal grandfather. With that in mind, Ay sought to legitimize his claim to power by marrying his own granddaughter, Ankhesenamun. She was revolted by this concept, as it was quite unheard of even in a society where the royal family was expected to practice incest. Ankhesenamun wrote a desperate letter to the Hittite king, a hated enemy of Egypt by that point, asking him to send her one of his sons to marry so she could be spared the ignominy of marrying one of her "servants." The Hittite king suspected it was a trap, but she sent another one that was even more desperate in tone, and he agreed to accomodate her. Unfortunately for both of them, the King's son was coincidentally murdered shortly after he entered the country. Ankhesenamun finally relented and married her grandfather and in response, the Hittites went to war against Egypt and conquered most of the territory in Syria that Horemheb had only just retaken. Shortly after the marriage and Ay's ascension, Ankhesenamun just happened to die, with Tey assuming the role of the Pharaoh's Great Wife.
Ay had accomplished what Yuya never could: he was the master of Egypt. He had attempted to start his own dynasty, but his own son died under mysterious circumstances. Most likely, Horemheb had Ay's son killed or exiled since he was undoubtedly still bitter over his betrayal and the usurpation of the throne that was legally his. Ay's advanced age eventually got the better of him and he died in 1320 BC. Quite naturally, Horemheb succeeded him and damned the memories of Ay, Tutankhamun, their families, and anyone else who didn't particularly strike his fancy. Horemheb reigned for at least 14 years and had the good sense to name his vizier, Ramesses I -- who already had sons and grandsons, thus ensuring a proper succession -- his heir before dying.
Much of the information I've presented doesn't actually relate to Ay. The reason for this is that because of his short reign and the fact that basically all evidence of his existence was erased by Horemheb and his successors, there are significant lacunae in detailing his life. Contextually speaking, though, it's not difficult to infer Ay's involvement with several nefarious incidents surrounding the collapse of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It seems likely that had he lived longer, he would probably have killed Horemheb as well. Horemheb was a more effective leader than his last five predecessors but seemingly only got the chance to be one through the use of methods that would have been more familiar to Ay. For obvious reasons, Ay is remembered -- when he is at all -- as one of Egypt's lesser Pharaohs, someone who manipulated himself into a position of power but then really accomplished nothing. Had there been some purpose to the ends, they may have justified the means.
Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten: King of Egypt.