Who Were Yuya and Tuya?

Exploring the facts about the ancient Egyptian nobles who were the grandparents of the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

The Tomb of Yuya and Tuya

In 1905 the discovery of a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings demonstrated just how important the parents of Queen Tiye must have been. Although the tomb was not finished with the painted and carved reliefs found elsewhere in the royal necropolis it was a relatively intact burial replete with a wide variety of funerary items as well as gifts from the relatives of the deceased.

The titles of Yuya and Tuya are prominently displayed on eighteen funerary statues found in the tomb. Yuya is Divine Father of the Lord of the Two Lands, Favorite of the Good God and Favorite of the King. Tuya is Favored of the Good God, Royal Ornament and Great One of the Harem of Amun.

The mummies of Yuya and Tuya

On his coffin Yuya’s other titles include Master of Horse, Deputy of the Kings Chariotry and Chief of the Cattle of Min. This last title connects Yuya to the city of Ahkmin which lay a few days north of Thebes. On her Inner Coffin Tuya is also given the title Chantress of Amun.

The tomb gifts are particularly notable in that many come from the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his Great Wife Tiye. Along with these gifts were also a number from the princess Sitamun who would have been Yuya and Tuya’s granddaughter.

The Funerary Papyrus

One of the tombs greatest treasures is Yuya’s Funerary Papyrus. This document is a classic example of what modern scholars refer to as a Book of the Dead. The original text left places open so the name of the deceased could be added in. This type of mass produced magical texts testifies to the standardization of burials at the time and indicates that Yuya and Tuya enjoyed a typical Egyptian burial of the period.

Foreign Origins

There has been a good deal of speculation among modern scholars about the possible foreign origin of Yuya. The mummies of both Yuya and Tuya were found in excellent condition. While Tuya shows features that could be seen as typically Egyptian, Yuyas appearance is atypical with an aquiline nose that has been described as Semitic.

Another reason to suggest that Yuya was of foreign origin is due to the variety of spellings given to his name. In fact the name Yuya has merely been adopted as a convention. In the tomb the name has eleven different versions including Ya, Ya-a, Yi-ya, Yu-Yu and Yi-Ay.

The Pharaoh Ay

This spelling confusion has linked Yuya to the Pharaoh Ay who would reign a generation after Yuya’s death. It is generally believed that Ay was Yuya’s son. Both Yuya and Ay have their names spelled a variety of ways some of which are identical. Yuya and Ay also share the enigmatic title God’s Father which may indicate a role of father-in-law to the king. During Ay’s reign as Pharaoh he built a temple in Ahkmin which may show that this was the family’s hometown.

If Ay was Yuya’s son this is not evidenced in the funerary goods from the tomb. In the tomb only one son, Annen, is mentioned. Annen was however an important individual in his own right holding the titles of High Priest of the sun god Re and Second Prophet of Amun.

Family Legacy

After the death of Amenhotep III Tiye would continue to rule as Queen Mother and held influence at home and abroad. As the parents of Queen Tiye, Yuya and Tuya would have been the grandparents of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who created an extreme version of the solar cult in Egypt known as Atenism.

If Ay and Annen were indeed both the brothers of Queen Tiye then these siblings and their parents would represent one of the most powerful families in ancient Egyptian history.

Was Yuya Joseph?

The first thing that can be clearly said about Yuya was that he was buried in the Valley of the Kings during the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III somewhere around the year 1360 BCE. His wife was Tuya an important lady at the royal court and his daughter was Tiye the Great Wife of Amenhotep III. Beyond these few basic facts the most striking thing about this individual are the various renditions of his name found in his tomb. The many variations suggest that scribes were struggling to render a foreign name for which there was no established spelling. The physical appearance of Yuya’s mummy has been described as possibly Semitic and not typically Egyptian. Given these facts it is generally agreed upon that Yuya was indeed a foreigner who rose to power in Egypt.

Foreigner At The Royal Court

Joseph was of course also a foreigner who rose to power in Egypt. This phenomena was likely not uncommon as we know of several foreign dynasties that came to rule in Egypt, and so it is easy to imagine many foreigners finding employment in the vast imperial administration. What was unique in the case of Joseph was that he was sold into slavery by his brothers and then rose from slave to co-ruler. However slavery in ancient Egypt was based primarily on prisoners of war who were relocated to become vassals and there was not a slave trade as existed later in antiquity. In fact the entire story of Hebrew slavery in Egypt is a distortion of what we know about ancient Egypt and appears to have been largely anachronistic. Since the pharaoh could call upon thousands of laborers to serve as loyal subjects there was simply no need for large scale slavery therefore the bond of slavery can be seen as a symbol of the distasteful memory of vassal servitude. Of course for a laborer being forced to work by a sovereign the difference between his lot and that of a true slave might just be a matter of perspective.

This leaves us looking for a deeper meaning than just the simple idea of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery out of jealousy. The entire narrative of Joseph’s interaction with his brother’s is of course meant as a morality tale with the righteous Joseph surviving in turn to place judgment on his brother’s. Now while it is impossible to know how the historical Yuya entered Egypt there was a program in place during the 18th Dynasty wherein children of the rulers of vassal states were taken into Egypt partially as hostages but also to be educated as Egyptians. These young boys were known as Children of Kap, so named after the military school which they attended in Memphis.

It is worth noting that when Joseph entered servitude it was to a military man, the Captain of the Guard named Potiphar. Although much has been made of the identity of Potiphar the simple translation of his name to He whom Ra gave places it in context with other allusions to the Solar Cult that connects with the record of Yuya. The story of a son being sold to slavery could then be seen as a euphemism for a more complicated tradition of vassalage that was out of date when the Biblical narrative was written but nevertheless had forever left its mark on the region.

The Dreamer

Perhaps the most striking detail of the entire Joseph narrative is the account of dream interpretation. The only other place in the Bible which compares is the Book of Daniel. The Joseph account in Genesis 41:1-32 makes it clear that these abilities are not only rare but are actually just what the current pharaoh is in need of as he has been troubled by mysterious dreams.

In Egypt there is a well known stele near the Sphinx which dates to the reign of Tuthmoses IV (1479-1424 BCE) the predecessor of Amenhotep III. The inscription on this stele recounts how the pharaoh had slept under the Sphinx and had a prophetic dream. The stele tells that the god behind the inspiration was an aspect of the Heliopolitan sun-god, Horemakhet. It is widely accepted that Yuya was of an advanced age when he died so it is  reasonable to assume that he was in his prime around the time when the Dream Stele was erected around the year 1400 BCE.

A replica of the Tuthmoses IV Sphinx Stele

High Priest of On

Once Joseph had established his worth to the pharaoh he was given an Egyptian name and bride. His wife was the daughter of the High Priest of On. Now know by its Greek name as Heliopolis or the “City of the Sun” this cultic center was called Yunu in Ancient Egypt and it was the long established center of the Solar Cult.

Yuya is believed to have had two sons, the eldest son Annen was also high priest of the sun god and may have even been based in Yunu. Given the possible tradition of the eldest son following in the professional footsteps of his matriarchal grandfather this places Annen in the same job we might expect from Joseph’s oldest son. Additionally Yuya is believed to have had another son named Ay who would rule briefly as pharaoh, this matches with the two sons attributed to Joseph in the Bible. Furthermore there is a recurring theme in the Bible of the younger son inheriting more directly from the father’s estate and it has been established that Ay followed Yuya into service in the chariotry and he also assumed other titles identical to Yuya.

The Titles of Yuya

In Yuya’s tomb the list of his titles are extensive. He is identified as having enjoyed a particularly favored status among the court nobility. He was a lt. general of the chariotry and master of horse. Both of these titles demonstrate the presence of a chariot corps within the Egyptian Army. This development of a separate branch of the army devoted to chariots was a relatively new occurrence in Egypt and is usually believed to have begun during the 18th Dynasty. Emphasizing the importance of these military titles was the discovery a war chariot amongst Yuya’s grave goods.

Yuya’s Chariot

Joseph for his part was said to have ridden in the pharaoh’s second chariot (Genesis 41:43) which places the stories inspiration at no earlier than the 18th Dynasty. However it is another title of Yuya’s that is even more striking, that being “God’s Father”. Although it is impossible to know for certain what this title meant it is generally regarded as denoting a close relationship, possibly father-in-law, to the pharaoh. When Joseph explains to his brothers how he became second only to pharaoh in Egypt he says that “[God] has made me a father to pharaoh.” Yuya’s title appears to have been inherited by his son Ay who would demonstrate the title’s importance by using it as his throne name when he became pharaoh. Interestingly the title was also used by an obscure individual named Yey (Jacob?) who preceded Yuya and was passed on to yet another relative by Ay when he ascended the to the throne.

The Golden Chain

Another detail of the Joseph narrative explains that Joseph was arrayed with the robes and devices of his office. He was given the pharaoh’s ring, presumably bearing a royal seal and he had a golden chain placed around his neck. (Genesis 41:42) Yuya was found with a chain of golden and lapis lazuli beads that had fallen behind his head in his coffin when the thread was broken by tomb robbers. If it was such a golden beaded necklace that inspired Joseph’s legendary chain of office then it is not surprising that the lapis lazuli beads have been forgotten. The Bible only makes a handful of references to the blue stone and that is only if one expands the meaning of the ancient Hebrew word Cappiyr to mean lapis lazuli along with its usual translation as Sapphire.

The Solar Cult

In modern times many historians have associated Yuya with the Aten Religion that rose to prominence under his grandson the pharaoh Akhenaton. The Aten cult’s rise can likely be traced to the reign of Tuthmoses IV, the pharaoh of the Dream Stele. Yuya was himself a priest of the fertility god Min he was also the administrator of the god’s cattle. As bovine cattle was primarily used as a source for leather and leather was one of the key components of chariot manufacture Yuya’s temple duties should be seen as part of his duties as an administrator and not a religious job. In fact the priests in Egypt’s temples carried out a variety of necessary functions for the state and did not serve as ministers of a liturgy as priests do in a modern sense.

The mummy of Yuya

Nevertheless the fact that Yuya’s mummy appears with its hands together under the chin pointing upwards as if in prayer has sparked speculation that this man may have somehow been behind the rise of the Aten. No other Egyptian mummy has been found in a similar pose. As for the burial of Joseph the biblical account clearly states that he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. Whereas some pains where taken to bury Jacob, Joseph’s father, back in the land of Canaan, Joseph was initially laid to rest in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26)

The momentous event of Joseph’s death brings to a close the Book of Genesis. Joseph enacts a pledge from his family to rebury his bones in Canaan when the family returns there. (Genesis 50:26) In the Exodus 13:19 Moses is said to have taken the bones of Joseph into exile with him and this would seem to contradict any evidence that points to the discovery of Joseph in Egypt. However the accounts involving the retrieval of bones could possibly be a later redaction to the narrative. Nevertheless it is clear that there was a tradition of relocating ancestral bones. In fact the relocation of these relics was a common part of the burial practices of ancient Syria while embalming and coffins with the remains staying in place was part of the Egyptian tradition.

So What is Going On Here?

In addition to the Joseph legend some additional details point to a broad connection between the Old Testament Patriarchs and Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. For example when Amenhotep III published scarabs engraved with political pronouncements not only did he mention Tiye and her parents Yuya and Tuya.

These people who left Akhetaten had just been part of a religious experience that stands out amongst all of ancient history. The pharaoh had attempted to turn Egypt from a land of many gods into a land of just one, the Aten, the solar god of the royal cult. The “Great Hymn to the Aten,” found carved on the wall of Ay’s tomb at Akhetaten has been compared by C.S. Lewis and others to the Biblical Book of Psalms. Given the nature of Ay’s connection to Yuya this comparison might now be seen as more than just a modeling of literary style and we can pause to wonder just what it was that happened at Akhetaten over 3330 years ago.

An excerpt from the hymn clearly shows the aspired universalism;

O sole god, like whom there is no other! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts, Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet, And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt, Thou settest every man in his place, Thou suppliest their necessities: Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.

A drawing of the Great Hymn of the Aten as found in Ay’s tomb at Amarna


Yuya and Tuya tomb

Gilded figures of gods and goddesses appear on a wooden chest coated with black pitch. Inside stood four calcite containers, called canopic jars, that held Tuyu's internal organs—lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines.

Yuya and Tuyu's granddaughter Sitamun gave them this gilded wooden chair. Two similar scenes on the back show servants presenting gold necklaces to a seated Sitamun. The hieroglyphic text says these gifts came from "the lands of the south."

A wooden box decorated in gold, ebony, ivory, and blue ceramic tiles may once have held jewelry. Pink linen lined the inside. "… the object is one of the most striking in the tomb," wrote archaeologist James Quibell in 1908.

A rare type of shabti lies on an embalming table painted on limestone. A human-headed bird representing the figure's ba, or soul, lies on top. The knob at the foot of the model likely represents the basin that collected fluids during mummification.

Limestone vases with fancy lids rest on a wooden base that's painted red. Two lids take the shape of a bull's head, one represents a wild goat, and the fourth is a frog. Each vessel stands almost 10 inches tall.