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,


  1. Hmm I had wondered about the name change. Thank you for clarifying! Your blog is so chock-full of information.

  2. Thanks Linda! Glad that you enjoyed the blog. It's always good to hear from readers, particularly as you have written on Egyptian antiquity yourself. Thanks again