Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Heretic Pharaoh

Statue of Akhenaten
I have previously written about the history of Egypt and also about the later Bronze Age period in the Middle East. I have decided to devote a little time to discussing one of the most controversial figures of the period, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who is pivotal to our understanding of the time and yet still an unsolved enigma.

Akhenaten was a Pharaoh of Egypt during the New Kingdom Period and reigned roughly from 1351-1334 BC. He was originally called Amenhotep and was the fourth Pharaoh of that name. However, for reasons unknown, in the fifth year of his reign Amenhotep changed his name from Amenhotep (Amun is satisfied) to Akhenaten (The Living Spirit of Aten) and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new site in the eastern desert that he called Akhetaten but which is now referred to as Amarna.

These changes were not arbitrary. Akhenaten had apparently experienced some form of religious conversion to a new type of religion. Egyptian religion was polytheistic, worshipping many gods, with statues associated with these gods. Akhenaten focused upon a hitherto obscure deity, known as Aten, who represented the disk of the sun. There was a much better known god of the sun, known as Ra or Re, whom Akhenaten treated with some respect but he much preferred to focus on Aten, who was worshipped at the expense of all the other gods and who was represented merely as a golden circle with lines representing rays of sunlight streaming downwards.

Ruins of Amarna
Thebes, in Upper Egypt, had been the capital of the New Kingdom Pharaohs and the priesthood of the patron god of the city, Amun, had profited from the rise of his city. Magnificent temples were built in his honour, the priesthood controlled large tracts of land and the god was even mentioned in Akhenaten’s previous name. Akhenaten was changing the religion so that the sun disk replaced Aten as Egypt’s chief god. This no doubt angered the establishment in Thebes, so, to diminish Thebes, Akhenaten changed the capital. Some scholars view Akhenaten as a reformer who may have genuinely believed in the new religion. Others see him as a crusader against priestly power, while others see the reform as a cynical attempt to focus all devotion on himself as the sole spokesman of the new god. All of these ideas are plausible but hypothetical until more information is uncovered.

Akhenaten also changed the art of Egypt. Since the inception of Egyptian art the Pharaoh had always been represented as a godlike figure and the only difference between the one Pharaoh and another was the hieroglyphs denoting who was represented (which was one reason it was so easy for one Pharaoh to claim another’s accomplishments for their own). Akhenaten was portrayed oddly. His stomach was displayed as protruding, his skull elongated and his face gaunt. He also allowed depictions of family life, which seldom featured in the art of previous Pharaohs. His wife Nefertiti was represented as a beautiful woman but later depictions show her as an aged queen, which would never have been shown in earlier (or later) Egyptian art.

Some scholars think that this was an attempt at naturalistic portrayal. However, there are human remains that are tentatively identified as Akhenaten’s. If the identification were proved then it would appear that these traits were exaggerated and that Akhenaten looked little like his portrait. Other scholars think that the art was an attempt to create an imposing spectacle. They argue that the statues were generally large and would be viewed from below. Statues that appear as caricatures when viewed at eye level become quite imposing when viewed from a lower angle. While I suspect that this view has a lot going for it, it fails to explain why the reliefs also use this style of portrayal.

Akhenaten worshipping Aten
The move to Amarna and the religious reforms placed certain strains on the running of the empire. The reforms were definitely unpopular with certain factions and moving the entire business of state always causes strain on a bureaucracy. But the Hittites were on the ascendant and this, coupled with the related decline of the Mitanni, meant that the Egyptian empire in Syria was under threat. Akhenaten did use diplomatic measures to try and stem the tide but significant northern cities defected to the Hittites while the southern cities in Canaan suffered persistent bandit attacks. To make matters worse, a disease swept through the Middle East (which ironically stopped the Hittite threat as their greatest military leader, Suppiluliama I, eventually died from it, although the exact chronology here is disputed) and decimated Egypt. Akhenaten survived the epidemic but passed away shortly thereafter, leaving Egypt in turmoil as his successors struggled to contain the discontent that his reforms had caused.

Statue of Akhenaten seen from beneath
His brother Smenkhkare, who probably reigned less than a year, probably succeeded Akhenaten but the exact relationship between Smenkhkare and Akhenaten is unclear. The next Pharaoh was the boy king Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun, abandoned the new capital Amarna in favour of the old capital Thebes and died after a brief reign. The usual explanation is that the priests of Amun used their influence to manipulate the young Pharaoh into abandoning the new religion but some elements of the tomb goods seem to show Tutankhamun under the guidance of the sun disk Aten. The following Pharaohs left few inscriptions and had short reigns, which is usually a good indication that the dynasty was breaking down. Finally an unrelated Pharaoh, Horemheb, came to the throne and reversed all remaining reforms and went so far as to obliterate all the records of Akhenaten and the following Pharaohs and dismantle the city of Amarna. If Horemheb ever refers to Akhenaten, he is known simply as “the enemy” and thus this remarkable reformer and his descendants effectively disappear from history until the modern era.

Horemheb: The Pharaoh who erased Akhenaten's legacy

This situation had some remarkable consequences. Because the records of the old dynasty were destroyed their memory faded and while most of their tombs were found and looted in antiquity, one minor Pharaoh of the time was so insignificant that his resting place was overlooked. Were it not for Horemheb’s destruction of records it is almost positive that the tomb of Tutankhamun would have been looted thousands of years ago.

A less shiny but more archaeologically interesting consequence was that certain records were abandoned at the city of Amarna when the state bureaucracy relocated back to Thebes. The records at Thebes were destroyed in the numerous sieges of that notable city but the records in Amarna were left to lie under sand for thousands of years and after their rediscovery they now form some of the best sources for life and politics in that period.

Mask of Tutankhamun
Because of his religious ideas, promoting one god above all others, it has been difficult for scholars to look at Akhenaten without questioning to what extent his ideas influenced/were influenced by Hebrew ideas of monotheism. The best-known example of this is where Sigmund Freud imaginatively but baselessly conjectures that Moses was a priest of Aten who fled the new Egypt of Horemheb and his descendants. The fact that Freud could get away with writing such entirely hypothetical ideas in a supposedly serious work is a good indication of the fascination scholarship has had with the idea of Akhenaten’s work. The truth of the matter is that there is simply no agreement on when (or if) the Exodus of the Bible occurred and without agreement on that crucial date it is impossible to gauge the influence that the theology of Moses and Akhenaten had on each other.

I will leave the reader with the opening of the most famous inscription of Akhenaten, which similar to Psalm 104, is a hymn of the devotee to their god. This translation is sourced from the Internet History Sourcebook.

Desecrated relief from Akhenaten's tomb
Thou dost appear beautiful on the horizon of heaven, 0' living Aten, thou who was the first to live. When thou hast risen on the eastern horizon, Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.

Thou art fair, great, dazzling, and high above every land;

Thy rays encompass the lands to the very limit of all thou hast made. Being Re, thou dost reach to their limit and curb them [for] thy beloved son; though thou art distant, thy rays arc upon the earth;

Relief showing Aten watching over Egypt
 Thou art in their faces, yet thy movements are unknown. When thou dost set on the western horizon
The earth is in darkness, resembling death. Men sleep in the bedchamber with their heads covered, one eye does not behold the other.

Were all their goods stolen which are beneath their heads they would not be aware of it; every lion has come forth from his den, all the snakes bite. Darkness prevails, and the earth is in silence,
 Since he who made them is resting in his horizon, at daybreak, when thou dost rise on the horizon, Dost shine as Aten by day, thou dost dispel the darkness and shed thy rays.

Depiction of Aten from Tutankhamun's tomb
The two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt) arc in a festive mood, awake, and standing on (their) feet for thou hast raised them up; they cleanse their bodies and take (their) garments; their arms are (lifted) in adoration at thy appearing;

The whole land performs its labour. All beasts are satisfied with their pasture; Trees and plants arc verdant. The birds that fly from their nests, their wings are (spread) in adoration to thy soul; flocks skip with (their) feet; all that fly up and alight live when thou has risen [for] them. Ships sail upstream and downstream alike, for every route is open at thy appearing. The fish in the river leap before thee,

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States

Bronze Vessel from the Zhou Dynasty
In a previous post I wrote about the Shang Dynasty, the first dynasty of China to be archaeologically attested to. As recounted in that post the Shang Dynasty came to an end after the Battle of Muye, around 1046 BC, and the Zhou Dynasty took its place.

While other states may have ruled over portions of China at the same time as the Shang, there nevertheless seemed to be a sense in which the Shang rulers were supreme. To justify the overthrow of these supreme rulers, while at the same time discouraging thoughts of similar overthrow, the Zhou formulated a doctrine known as the Mandate of Heaven. This was a fairly loose doctrine, but the main idea was that the supreme ruler was chosen by Heaven. If the ruler displeased Heaven then natural disasters would occur on earth and one of the main ceremonial duties of the rulers was to perform rituals to appease Heaven. If the disasters continued and a successful rebellion took place it meant that Heaven now favoured the new rulers, who could command the same respect for their divine ordination as the previous rulers. In other words, it legitimised rebellion but in practice made it difficult, as the dynasty only lost the Mandate of Heaven when they were actually dethroned.

Statue of Charioteer
The capital of the Zhou was originally placed in Fenghou and the rulers were able to successfully expand their territory for several hundred years. However, the ever increasing size of their domains made communication and direct rule from the capital very difficult. The Zhou rulers attempted to continue the expansion by delegating power to local leaders who, if they served the king well, were given the incentive of allowing their sons to succeed them in their position. This system grew to closely resemble the much later European system of feudalism. The advantages were that any attack by outsiders would be faced by powerful local lords who knew the area and their opponents well and who were fighting for their lands and family. The disadvantage was that by allowing local lords to establish permanent power bases for themselves they gradually put local interests ahead of imperial ones.

As early as the mid-900’s BC it appears that local lords would actually attack the armies of the emperor. Having created this Frankenstein of a system the Zhou rulers now resorted to playing coalitions of local lords against each other. Originally the Zhou fielded six armies of varying strength to protect the various sectors of the realm but these were reduced to augmenting the strength of the local armies in a national emergency.

Arrows from Zhou Dynasty
In 771 BC an internal power struggle at court led to one faction mobilising the armies of their area, making alliances with outside barbarians and marching on the capital at Fenghao. Despite desperate pleas for aid, none of the other local lords aided the emperor, who was slain and his capital burnt. Their traditional power base was gone and their armies were reduced so the court fled eastwards to a new capital of Chengzhou. Here they were further away from barbarians and nearer to lords who might support them. They were allowed to set up a new capital but given very little land in which to do so. The Zhou Dynasty’s area of direct control was now reduced to a tiny enclave where the emperor performed ceremonial duties. The local lords still pledged allegiance but it was little more than lip service. While they tolerated the existence of the defunct regime they soon began to claim the title of king for themselves and the feuding that went on between the lordships escalated.

Bronze and iron weapons from Zhou Dynasty
Before the flight to Chengzhou the Dynasty is referred to as the Western Zhou and afterwards as the Eastern Zhou. The period of 771-403BC is referred to as the Spring and Autumn Period (after a chronicle describing the period) while from 475-221 BC is similarly referred to as the Warring States Period.

Originally there were hundreds of “states”, mainly centred around the old Shang heartland on the Huang He river, however the states on the periphery were able to expand outwards thus gaining more territory and becoming stronger relative to the inner states. They were then able to absorb many of the weaker states. By the end of the Spring and Autumn Period there were four strong states, Jin, Qin, Qi and Chu. Jin was the strongest and looked as if it might have been able to conquer the other states but instead splintered after a bloody civil war into the states of Han, Wei and Zhao around the year 403BC. With the addition of Yan, which came to power later, these seven states exploited the new political realities to struggle for ultimate supremacy.

Yan Helmet
Warfare became increasingly sophisticated. Armies could number in the hundreds of thousands and chariots were used with great efficiency. The definition of a great state was “a state of a thousand chariots”, but the latter stages of the Warring States period saw chariots becoming increasingly irrelevant. Iron was used for the body armour of soldiers and the disciplined infantry armed with spears and crossbows eventually made chariots obsolete. Cities were fortified with great walls and, as the northern states focused on fighting each other, they constructed long fortifications on their exterior borders to ward off barbarian invasion while their armies fought each other. Among other developments in war this period may have even seen the first use of poison gas in battle.

Self-proclaimed experts in war, diplomacy and statesmanship roamed from state to state offering advice. The Chinese script evolved into one that is still recognisable today. This was the period that saw Sun Tzu write the Art of War. This period of conflict also saw the rise of competing philosophies and the birth of Daoism, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism, but the intellectual activity of the time is so complex that it merits a post in its own right.

Map showing China in 260BC with Yan highlighted
The southern state of Chu was the largest of the states and had never fully been under the control of the Zhou Dynasty. It controlled the fertile Yangtze plains and had large manpower reserves but the inefficiency of its state bureaucracy hampered its expansion. Qi, on the east coast, was extremely efficient and pioneered many new ideas but found it difficult to expand. Zhao and Yan, in the north, were quite weak but were able to use their isolated position to attack central states when they were exhausted by the constant warfare. Both states copied the horse archer tactics of the northern horse-riding barbarians which gave them some advantages over chariot based armies. Wei and Han were central states with rich resources and numerous cities but their central position made them targets for the outer states.

First one state, then another, rose to prominence in the continuous wars of the time. Whenever a single state rose to power the others would coordinate their efforts in a temporary truce to cut down the rising state, with the alliance collapsing as soon as the rising state had lost pre-eminence. The states were quite evenly matched and the mobile nature of the bureaucrats of the time meant that, if one state adopted a winning strategy, the rest would soon follow suit. First Qi, then Zhao, then Chu attained prominence before foundering against the grand alliances.

Ceremonial sword from period
The state of Qin in the west of China was based near the old Zhou heartlands. Their capital of Xian was surrounded by a wall of mountains, through which there were only three passes through which an army could march. Its isolated position and proximity to northern barbarians meant that it was ignored in many of the wars of the early Warring States period. After a series of brutal but effective military reforms Qin armies were able to strike against the states of Zhao, Wei, Han and Chu with great success while the fortified passes meant that, even if their armies were defeated, the armies could regroup in safety and their heartlands were never raided. From around 300BC onwards Qin became the strongest of all the states.

The states tried to cope with the threat of Qin by forming great alliances against it. The Qin armies were well equipped and may possibly have numbered up to a million strong but the combined armies of the other states were stronger. This policy was known as a Vertical Alliance (the north and south against the west). However, the distrust that had built up between the states after centuries of warfare and betrayal meant that Qin was almost always able to detach states from these alliances by promising shares of the victory spoils. These were the Horizontal Alliances (west and north against south or vice versa). The temptation to join in the destruction of another state to enlarge one’s own possessions was very strong and by means of this tactic, Qin were able to continue expanding while avoiding facing any grand alliances.

Later depiction of Qin Emperor
In 256 BC King Nan of the Zhou Dynasty died and no one took his place. The last vestige of the old dynasty was dead but the irrelevance of the emperor meant that this was hardly noticed. In 230 BC Qin was able to destroy the state of Han, which had stood in the way of its armies when they emerged from the passes. With one of the seven states fallen and Qin’s armies far stronger than their competitors the end was near. Han had made it difficult for Qin armies to strike wherever they pleased but now they were given free access to the plains. The states of Zhao and Wei fell shortly thereafter. Chu fought off the invasion of the south initially but the returning Qin armies destroyed their capital and suppressed guerrilla resistance with extreme savagery. The northern state of Yan sent an assassin to kill the king of Qin (an incident upon which the film Hero is very loosely based) but failed. Yan was annexed leaving only the state of Qi, which surrendered shortly after, having failed to help any of the other states, possibly as a result of promises by Qin.

The ruler of Qin, King Zheng, was now ruler of all China. He renamed himself Qin Shi Huang Di, meaning First Qin Emperor. After one of the longest periods of continuous war the world has ever seen a new dynasty had been born. 

"...I have raised troops to punish violence and chaos and, with the support of the sacred power of the ancestral temples, the six kings have all admitted their crimes, and order is magnificently restored in all under Heaven." 

Excerpted proclamation of Qin Shi Huang Di quoted by Sima Qian and translated by Raymond Dawson from this edition.