Three Kings

Today’s Story from the Museum Floor is a guest post by Sarah Scott, one of Manchester Museum’s volunteers who facilitate objects handling for our visitors, she also volunteers behind the scenes, transcribing the Egyptology Correspondence Archives. Sarah is currently studying the history of empires, both ancient and modern, and as the festive season draws to an end, she looks at three of the kings that are on display here at the Museum.

For more information about volunteering at Manchester Museum, have a look at our website.

Three Kings

Christmas is not complete without the appearance of three kings. ‘Three Kings Day’ is traditionally celebrated on 6th January, traditionally the day associated with the visit of the Magi after the birth of Jesus. Rather than looking at Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar this blog takes a brief look at three very different different kings, and makes some tenuous seasonal connections! All three are represented in Manchester Museum’s galleries; Akhenaten, Ashurnasirpal, and Charles II.


The first king with a festive connection is Akhenaten, whose Atenist religion is seen by many as a forerunner of Christianity.

Amenhotep IV ruled Egypt during the 18th Dynasty from approximately 1353 to 1336 BC after succeeding his father, Amenhotep III. During the 5th year of his reign Amenhotep IV relocated Egypt’s capital city to Akhetaten (modern day Amarna), he also changed his Royal Titulary including his throne name, becoming Akhenaten (‘effective of the Aten’).

Amenhotep IV aAmenhotep IV (approx.Year 3-5 of his reign). From Karnak, now in Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Akhenaten is perhaps best remembered for his religious reforms, abandoning the traditional polytheistic beliefs, preferring instead to worship one god, the Aten (the physical sun disc), with Akhenaten himself being the intermediary between the god and his people. Inevitably many historians have compared Akhenaten’s beliefs to modern day religions including Christianity and Judaism, even suggesting common origins in Atenism. Nevertheless, evidence for theories of Akhenaten as Moses or the un-named pharaoh made famous through Joseph’s story is tenuous at best!

Akhenaten and Nefertiti aStela depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Neues Museum, Berlin.

Akhenaten also changed the way the world was represented in art. It is the Amarna Period’s unique human representation, especially that of the royal family, that has attracted universal interest. The depictions of elongated heads, protruding stomachs and wide hips have sparked debates including the prevalence of head-binding and possible pathologies which could have affected the royal family including Marfan’s syndrome or Froelich’s syndrome, and theories as far-fetched as the possibility that Akhenaten was in fact an alien!

Manchester Museum has two fragments on display depicting members of the Royal family. The first (Acc. No. 9363) shows the head of Akhenaten himself; he is wearing the blue kheperesh or war crown, identifying him as the king. The second fragment (Acc. No. 9395) depicts an Amarna princess with elongated head, sidelock and sistrum.

Fragment depicting Akhenaten wearing blue crown (Acc. No. 9362). Fragment showing a princess with elongated head (Acc. No. 9395). Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum.

Akhenaten can be linked to ‘Three Kings Day’ with the discovery on 6th January 1907 of the entrance to tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings by Edward Ayrton during his work on Theodore Davis’ excavation. The tomb was first entered three days later by Ayrton and Davis along with Joseph Smith and Arthur Weigall, who discovered a coffin and mummy in situ. Since 1907 the identification of this mummy as Akhenaten has been contested, however the results of DNA testing in 21st Century seem to confirm this hypothesis.

Ashurnasirpal II

The second king that this blog looks at is Ashurnasirpal II, whose tentative seasonal connections are the pine cone that he is commonly depicted carrying, and the regular appearances of divine beings with wings!

Ashurnasirpal II was king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BC, succeeding his father, Tukulti-Ninurta. His reign was one of conquest and expansion. Like Akhenaten, Ashurnasirpal founded his own capital city, Kalhu (modern day Nimrud) in order to make a name for himself and escape the religious associations of former capitals Assur and Nineveh. He also embarked on a monumental building programme.

Ashurnasirpal IIAlabaster Wall Panel depicting Ashurnasirpal II and a winged genie © Trustees of the British Museum.

During the 1840s the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II was excavated by British Archaeologist Austen Layard. Most of the relief sculptures Layard discovered are now displayed at the British Museum, however there are other reliefs on display at museums across Europe, USA and Japan. Displayed in Manchester Museum’s Ancient Worlds Gallery is an Assyrian Cuneiform inscription from Nimrud depicting a winged genie holding a pine cone. This slab was donated to the museum in 1926 by Edwin Hilton and Mrs Stephens who were related by marriage, to the collector Mr J.M. Hyslop, who claims to have acquired it when Sir Austen Henry Layard and Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson were excavating at Ashurnasirpal II’s palace at Kalhu.

Ashurnasirpal II Manchester aAssyrian Cuneiform Bas-Relief (Acc. No. 35525), on display in Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

The 19 lines of cuneiform read:

“Palace of Ashurnasirpal, great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta (II), great king, strong king, king of the universe, King of Assyria, son of Adad-narari (II) (who was) also great king, strong king, king of the universe, and king of Assyria; valiant man who acts with the support of Assur, his lord, and has no rival (5) among the princes of the four quarters, the king who subdued (the territory stretching) from the opposite bank of the Tigris to Mount Lebanon …”

The Manchester cuneiform slab is referred to by S.M. Paley in his 1976 publication “King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria 883-859 B.C.” attributing this relief as being Room S, slab 26 from the North-West Palace at Kalhu.

The winged genie is a recurring motif in in Assyrian sculpture, it appears as a bearded man with bird’s wings. Winged genii are a prominent feature of Ashurnasirpal’s alabaster reliefs from Nimrud. They are most commonly depicted holding a pine cone and a pail (or bucket), iconography associated with the Tree of Life. Alternative interpretations suggest that the cone and pail are used to avert either real or supernatural forces, or the genii represent the supernatural forces that Assyrians believe protected their empire and the world.

King Charles II

The third Christmas king is Charles II of England. After the Inter-Regnum when Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas, it was Charles II who reinstated it!

Charles II was born on May 29, 1630. After the execution of his father, Charles I in 1649, Charles lived in exile moving from one country to another. After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the political crisis during Richard Cromwell’s short-lived time as Lord Protector, Charles was invited to return to Britain and the restoration of the monarchy was completed with Charles’ coronation in 1660.

King Charles IIKing Charles II. Oil on canvas by John Michael Wright © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Restoration was accompanied by social change and greater religious freedom that under the Cromwell’s rule, Charles is remembered as a popular king and was known as the ‘Merry Monarch’ in reference to his own hedonism and that of his court, but also referencing the general relief after the lifting of the constraints put on British society during rule by Cromwell and the Puritans.

King Charles II Manchester bGold 5 guineas of Charles II, on display in the Money Gallery, Manchester Museum.

Charles II is displayed in Manchester Museum’s Money Gallery on a gold five guinea coin. Charles II not only wanted to assert his authority in Britain, but also globally. His programme of colonial expansion especially his support of chartered trading companies reflects this desire. On this five guinea coin Charles II’s head appears above a representation of an elephant; the symbol of the Royal African Company. Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, the Royal African Company (RAC) was a mercantile company created by Charles II’s brother James (the future James II) with the intention of the exploitation of natural resources in Africa. Charles II issued its charter in 1660, granting the company a monopoly over trade in West Africa, including the trade in gold and the slave trade. The guinea coins used in Britain were originally minted from gold imported from Guinea, the elephant identifying this as the colonial product of the Royal African Company, and serving as propaganda, symbolising not only the wealth of the British empire, but also the globalising power of King Charles II.

Kings bearing Gifts

These kings are three of many at Manchester Museum that I could have selected for this blog, they bring with them gifts of gold (Charles II), pine cones (Ashurnasirpal II) and the sun-disc itself (Akhenaten) … I think that I prefer these to the traditional gifts!

Sarah Scott

Sources and further reading

  • Akhenaten

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) – University College, London (Digital Egypt)
Akhenaten – Ancient History Encyclopaedia
Akhenaten and the Amarna Period – BBC (History)

  • Ashurnasirpal II

Assyrian reliefs and ivories – Digital Collections, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitam Museum of Art
Wall Reliefs: Ashurnasirpal II at the North-West Palace – Ancient History etc.
Cleaning of Assyrian Inscription – Ancient Worlds Manchester
Ashurnasirpal II – Ancient History Encyclopaedia
Ashurnasirpal_II – Wikipedia
Winged genie – Wikipedia
Assyrian Cuneiform Bas-Relief (Flickr)
Paley, S.M. (1976) King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyia 883-859 B.C., New York, Brooklyn Museum, p. 70.

  • Charles II

Charles II of England –
Charles II (1630 – 1685) – BBC (History)
Charles II King of Great Britain and Ireland – Encyclopaedia Britannica
Charles_II_of_England – Wikipaedia

Title image: The Wilbour Plaque, ca. 1352-1336 B.C.E, Brooklyn Museum, depicts Akhenaten and Nefertiti late in their reign.

One thought on “Three Kings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s