Ay was the penultimate pharaoh of Ancient Egypt's 18th dynasty. He held the throne of Egypt for a brief four-year period (1323-1319 BC or 1327-1323 BC, depending on which chronology is followed), although he was a close advisor to two and perhaps three of the pharaohs who ruled before him and is thought to have been the power behind the throne during Tutankhamun's reign. Ay's prenomen or royal name—Kheperkheperure—means "Everlasting are the Manifestations of Ra" while his nomen Ay it-netjer reads as "Ay, Father of the God". Records and monuments that can be clearly attributed to Ay are rare, not only due to his short length of reign, but also because his successor, Horemheb, instigated a campaign of damnatio memoriae against him and other pharaohs associated with the unpopular Amarna Period.
Ay is believed to have been from Akhmim. During his short reign, he built a rock cut chapel in Akhmim and dedicated it to the local deity Min. He may have been the son of the courtier Yuya and his wife Tjuyu, making him a brother of Tiye and Anen. This connection is based on the fact that both Yuya and Ay came from Akhmim and held the titles 'God's Father' and 'Master of Horses'. A strong physical resemblance has been noted between the mummy of Yuya and surviving statuary depictions of Ay. The mummy of Ay has not been located, although fragmentary skeletal remains recovered from his tomb may represent it, so a more thorough comparison with Yuya cannot be made. Therefore, the theory that he was the son of Yuya rests entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Ay's Great Royal Wife was Tey, who was known to be the wet nurse to Nefertiti. It is often theorised that Ay was the father of Nefertiti as a way to explain his title 'God's Father' as it has been argued that the term designates a man whose daughter married the king. However, nowhere are Ay and Tey referred to as the parents of Nefertiti.
All that is known for certain was that by the time he was permitted to build a tomb for himself (Southern Tomb 25) at Amarna during the reign of Akhenaten, he had achieved the title of "Overseer of All the Horses of His Majesty", the highest rank in the elite charioteering division of the army, which was just below the rank of General. Prior to this promotion he appears to have been first a Troop Commander and then a "regular" Overseer of Horses, titles which were found on a box thought to have been part of the original furnishings for his tomb. Other titles listed in this tomb include Fan-bearer on the Right Side of the King, Acting Scribe of the King, beloved by him, and God's Father. The 'Fan-bearer on the Right Side of the King' was a very important position, and is viewed as showing that the bearer had the 'ear' of the ruler. The final God's Father title is the one most associated with Ay, and was later incorporated into his royal name when he became pharaoh.
This title could mean that he was the father-in-law of the pharaoh, suggesting that he was the son of Yuya and Tjuyu, thus being a brother or half-brother of Tiye, brother-in-law to Amenhotep III and the maternal uncle of Akhenaten. Instead, the title may indicate that Ay was the tutor of Tutankhamun. If Ay was the son of Yuya, who was a senior military officer during the reign of Amenhotep III, then he likely followed in his father's footsteps, finally inheriting his father's military functions upon his death. Alternatively, it could also mean that he may have had a daughter that married the pharaoh Akhenaten, possibly being the father of Akhenaten's chief wife Nefertiti. Ultimately there is no evidence to definitively prove either hypothesis. The two theories are not mutually exclusive, but either relationship would explain the exalted status to which Ay rose during Akhenaten's Amarna interlude, when the royal family turned their backs on Egypt's traditional gods and experimented, for a dozen years or so, with an early form of monotheism; an experiment that, whether out of conviction or convenience, Ay appears to have followed under the reign of Akhenaten.
The Great Hymn to the Aten is also found in his Amarna tomb which was built during his service under Akhenaten. His wife Tey was born a commoner but was given the title Nurse of the Pharaoh's Great Wife. If she were the mother of Nefertiti she would be expected to have the royal title Mother of the Pharaoh's Great Wife instead; had Ay been the father of Nefertiti, then Tey would have been her stepmother. In several Amarna tomb chapels there is a woman whose name begins with "Mut" who had the title Sister of the Pharaoh's Great Wife. This could also be a daughter of Ay's by his wife Tey, and it is known that his successor Horemheb married a woman with the name Mutnodjimet.
Ay's reign was preceded by that of Tutankhamun, who ascended to the throne at the age of eight or nine, at a time of great tension between the new monotheism and the old polytheism. He was assisted in his kingly duties by his predecessor's two closest advisors: Grand Vizier Ay and General of the Armies Horemheb. Tutankhamun's nine-year reign, largely under Ay's direction, saw the return of the old gods – and, with that, the restoration of the power of the Amun priesthood, who had lost their influence over Egypt under Akhenaten.
Egyptologist Bob Brier suggested that Ay murdered Tutankhamun in order to usurp the throne, a claim which was based on X-ray examinations of the body done in 1968. He also alleged that Ankhesenamun and the Hittite prince she was about to marry were also murdered at his orders. This murder theory was not accepted by all scholars, and further analysis of the x-rays, along with CT scans taken in 2005, found no evidence to suggest that Tutankhamun died from a blow to the head as Brier had theorized. In 2010, a team led by Zahi Hawass reported that the young king had died from a combination of a broken leg, malaria and Köhler disease but another team from the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg believes his death was caused by sickle cell disease.
Ay buried his young predecessor, as depicted on the wall of Tutankhamun's burial chamber. The explicit depiction of a succeeding king conducting the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony of another is unique; the depictions are usually more generic.
Tutankhamun's death around the age of 18 or 19, together with the fact he had no living children, left a power vacuum that his Grand Vizier Ay was quick to fill: Ay is depicted conducting the funerary rites for the deceased monarch and assuming the role of heir. The grounds on which Ay based his successful claim to power are not entirely clear. The Commander of the Army, Horemheb, had actually been designated as the "idnw" or "Deputy of the Lord of the Two Lands" under Tutankhamun and was presumed to be the boy king's heir apparent and successor. It appears that Horemheb was outmaneuvered to the throne by Ay, who legitimized his claim to the throne by burying Tutankhamun, as well as possibly marrying Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun's widow.
Since he was already advanced in age upon his accession, Ay ruled Egypt in his own right for only four years. During this period, he consolidated the return to the old religious ways that he had initiated as senior advisor and constructed a mortuary temple at Medinet Habu for his own use. A stela of Nakhtmin (Berlin 2074), a military officer under Tutankhamun and Ay--who was Ay's chosen successor--is dated to Year 4, IV Akhet day 1 of Ay's reign.Manetho's Epitome assigns a reign length of four years and one month to Horemheb, and this was usually assigned to Ay based on this Year 4 dated stela; however, it is now believed that figure should be raised by a decade to fourteen years and one month and attributed to Horemheb instead, as Manetho intended. Hence, Ay's precise reign length is unknown and he could have ruled for as long as seven to nine years, since most of his monuments and his funerary temple at Medinet Habu were either destroyed or usurped by his successor, Horemheb.
Prior to his death, Ay designated Nakhtmin to succeed him as pharaoh. However, Ay's succession plan went awry, as Horemheb became the last king of Egypt's 18th Dynasty instead of Nakhtmin. The fact that Nakhtmin was Ay's intended heir is strongly implied by an inscription carved on a dyad funerary statue of Nakhtmin and his spouse which was presumably made during Ay's reign. Nakhtmin is clearly given the titles "Crown Prince" (jrj-p?t) and "King's Son" (z?-nswt). The only conclusion which can be drawn here is that Nakhtmin was either a son or an adopted son of Ay's, and that Ay was grooming Nakhtmin for the royal succession instead of Horemheb. Egyptologists Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton observe that the aforementioned statue:
... is broken after the signs for "King's Son of", and there has been considerable debate as to whether it continued to say "Kush", making Nakhtmin a Viceroy of Nubia, or "of his body", making him an actual royal son. Since there is no other evidence for Nakhtmin as a Viceroy--with another man [Paser I] attested in office at this period as well--the latter suggestion seems the most likely. As Nakhtmin donated items to the burial of Tutankhamun without such a title, it follows that he only became a King's Son subsequently, presumably under Ay. This theory is supported by the evidence of intentional damage to Nakhtmin's statue, since Ay was amongst the Amarna pharaohs whose memories were execrated under later rulers.
It appears that one of Horemheb's undertakings as Pharaoh was to eliminate all references to the monotheistic experiment, a process that included expunging the name of his immediate predecessors, especially Ay, from the historical record. Horemheb desecrated Ay's burial and had most of Ay's royal cartouches in his WV23 tomb erased while his sarcophagus was smashed into numerous fragments. However, the intact sarcophagus lid was discovered in 1972 by Otto Schaden. The lid had been buried under debris in this king's tomb and still preserved Ay's cartouche. Horemheb also usurped Ay's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu for his own use. Uvo Hölscher (1878-1963) who excavated the temple in the early 1930s provides these interesting details concerning the state of Ay-Horemheb's mortuary temple:
Wherever a cartouche has been preserved, the name of Eye [i.e., Ay] has been erased and replaced by that of his successor Harmhab. In all but a single instance had it been overlooked and no change made. Thus the temple, which Eye had begun and finished, at least in the rear rooms with their fine paintings, was usurped by his successor and was thenceforth known as the temple of Harmhab. Seals on stoppers of wine jars from the temple magazines read: "Wine from the temple of Harmhab".