Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic Pharaoh, and the Amarna Revolution


Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Lost to humanity for three millennia until “[t]he Prussian exploration expedition of 1842-45 gave special attention” (Niebuhr & Hutchison, 1901, p. 1) to the ruins of a great city along the eastern bank of the Nile at what is now known as el-Amarna in Middle Egypt, Amenhotep IV (or Akhenaten, as he was later called) was a figure unlike any other in Egyptian history. Ruling Egypt as Pharaoh for less than two decades from ca. 1353-1336 B.C., Akhenaten nonetheless distinguished himself as an apostate who discarded a spiritual tradition that stretched unbroken for nearly two thousand years. Rejecting the Theban god Amun who, joined with Re at the start of the New Kingdom era (ca. 1539 B.C.), became Amun-Re, Akhenaten is said to have devoted himself to the worship of “a manifestation of the sun god” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 4), the Aten. Since Akhenaten’s discovery at el-Amarna, where he built a city called Akhet-Aten (which translates as “The Horizon of the Aten” [Brewer, 2012, p. 163]), his devotion to the Aten has branded him a monotheist and invited speculation about his motives for shunning Egyptian polytheism. Such is the public’s interest in Akhenaten that some, myself included, wonder about a connection between Atenism and the genesis of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition; it should be noted, however, that though the biblical Exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred only a century after Akhenaten’s reign (ca. 1250-1200 B.C.), and Moses himself is said to have lived during Akhenaten’s reign, there exists nothing but circumstantial evidence (if even that) to support any such connection. In any case, Egyptologists have since cast doubt on Akhenaten’s status as a monotheist, instead postulating that he was a henotheist (someone who worships one god, but accepts the existence of other gods) or an atheist. But whatever Akhenaten’s religious beliefs, he remains an enigmatic figure worthy of further study. Thus are Akhenaten and his short-lived religious movement, now known as the Amarna revolution, the subject of this paper.

Contrary to popular belief, Akhenaten’s religious revolution, or, rather, his resolve to supplant the priests of Amun, to whom he was in many ways politically subordinate, by strengthening “the divinity already latent in kinship” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 4)––a pharaoh was said to be descended from divinity, and his “divine nature, traditionally expressed by his identity with the falcon-god Horus and his status as the ‘Son of Re,’ came to include a subsidiary role as the ‘Son of Amun’” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 3)––was not a sudden and unexpected affair. Quite the opposite, Akhenaten’s efforts to distance himself from the Amun priesthood carried over from his father Amenhotep III’s reign. Indeed, much of Akhenaten’s early reign was characterized by an assiduous regard for his predecessor’s legacy that “would emerge more clearly as a continuation of his father’s policies if he could be shown to have been his father’s co-regent for any length of time.” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 5) Thus, to better understand the genesis of the Atenist revolution a brief study of pre-Amarna history, along with a study of Amenhotep III’s thirty-seven-year rule (and how it affected that of his son Akhenaten), is necessary.

Amenhotep III

Amenhotep III

Egyptologists estimate that the Aten was conceived as early as the Twelfth Dynasty, “when Ammenemes I [a pharaoh who ruled from ca. 1991-1962 B.C.] is referred to in The Story of Sinuhe as dying and flying to heaven to unite with Aten.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 239) However, there was no mention of the Aten for the next four hundred years until after the reign of Amenhotep I of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and even then the Aten remained but a footnote in Egypt’s pantheon of gods. Only when Amenhotep III came to power did “references to the Aten as a solar divinity become more numerous.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 239)

As is, we have available only a number of references to the Aten from the reign of Amenhotep III that allow us to speculate about the existence of a continuum between Akhenaten and his father. One such pre-Amarna reference can be found upon a life-size statue of Amenhotep III that was uncovered late last century “at the west side of the ‘sun court’ which Amenhotep III built in front of his temple at Luxor [near Thebes].” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 19) The statue is noted for an inscription along its back pillar, where the king describes “himself in association with the solar disk (‘Aten’) even while professing loyalty to the Theban gods.” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 19) Note the reference to a sun court, a roofless architectural design that was replicated at Akhet-Aten during Akhenaten’s construction of a temple designated “the Per-Aten, [or] ‘House of Aten’.” (Brewer, 2012, p. 167) Akhenaten’s sun courts (“the Gem-Aten, [or] ‘The Aten is Found’” [Brewer, 2012, p. 167]), wherein believers of the Aten could worship beneath their god’s radiance, are alluded to in EA #16 of the Amarna letters, a collection of over 300 cuneiform tablets recovered in 1887 from amongst the ruins at el-Amarna, on which were inscribed missives mostly of a diplomatic nature:

Why should messengers be made to stay constantly out in the sun and so die in the sun? If staying out in the sun means profit for the king, then let him (a messenger) stay out and let him die right there in the sun, (but) for the king himself there must be a profit. (Moran, 1992, p. 39)

One of over 300 cuneiform tablets recovered from el-Amarna

One of over 300 cuneiform tablets recovered from el-Amarna

Akhenaten’s appropriation of the sun court indicates that, if nothing else, he was influenced by his father’s architectural tastes, which in turn may have been inspired by “the Old Kingdom temples at Abu Gurob, which were [also] open to the sun.” (Brewer, 2012, p. 165)

Needless to say, during Amenhotep III’s reign the moniker ‘Aten’ was already very much in use, and numerous references to “the Dazzling Aten” have since been found etched onto the walls of contemporaneous tombs and temples, two notable examples being the unfinished Tomb of Nefersekheru, “a palace administrator who played an important role in [Amenhotep III’s] first jubilee,” and the Luxor Temple, where Amenhotep III himself is referred to as “Nebmaatre the Dazzling Aten.” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 21) That Amenhotep III, whose regnal name means ‘Amun is satisfied’, should be identified with the Aten, at whose behest his son Akhenaten later sought to suppress those who worshipped Amun, is curious indeed. In a composition that Murnane and Meltzer (1995) entitle “The Ritual of the King’s Divine Birth from Luxor Temple,” Amun-Re extols at great length the birth of Amenhotep III, promising the infant pharaoh-to-be “all life and dominion, all health, all happiness, all offerings and all sustenance like Re forever.” (p. 23)

One can infer by this effusive blessing that during the reign of “the Dazzling Aten” there existed a healthy understanding, though perhaps not a symbiosis, between Amun-Re and the Aten. Or, alternatively, one can hypothesize that prior to Akhenaten’s rule the Aten may not yet have been fully lionized, and therefore could hardly have threatened to supplant the long-established pantheon of Egyptian gods, among whom Amun-Re was foremost. But, though “[t]he theogamous nature of [Amenhotep III’s] birth” (his connection to Amun-Re and the Aten) has already been well established, what has still to be remarked on is the

clear evidence that he [too] was worshipped like a god in the form of a graven image at Sulb, Memphis, Hierakonpolis, Thebes and elsewhere during his lifetime. . . . This increase in the aura of majesty may have owed something to antiquarian research which was resolutely pursued during his reign, a harking back to a remote past when the pharaoh had been the Egyptians’ greatest god [i.e., the Old Kingdom’s pyramid era]. It was also prompted, however, by the steady growth in the idea of a single, universal, supreme deity of whom the king was at once the offspring and the incarnation. (Aldred, 1988, p. 151)

In due course, Akhenaten likewise sought to be worshipped as an avatar of divinity, one whose authority “was expressed in a familial form. The king is still called . . . ‘Son of the Sun-god’, but now with the addition of ‘The beautiful child of the Aten’.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 240) In any case, one cannot deny that the interaction between traditional Egyptian polytheism and Atenism was by all appearances benign, a far cry from the ruthless iconoclasm that blackened relations between devotees of Amun-Re and those of the Aten during and after the Amarna revolution.

During his youth, Akhenaten, who had an elder brother named Tuthmosis, was probably not deemed the heir-apparent, and therefore could not have held “the office of Governor of Memphis and High Priest of its god Ptah” (Aldred, 1988, p. 259); such important positions were delegated to the Crown Prince. And despite that Akhenaten eventually inherited these offices upon his elder brother’s untimely death, “it is probable that he was more deeply committed to the pursuit of the arts” (Aldred, 1988, p. 259) than to the upkeep of the state. Aldred (1988) makes the claim that, in his study of the arts, young Akhenaten found solace in the teachings of Heliopolis, “the city of the sun-god [Re] whose doctrines deeply influenced the rest of the pantheon.” (p. 260) Influenced as he was by Egyptian polytheism, Akhenaten, when having to justify his replacement of Egypt’s traditional gods with the Aten, argued that

the [old] gods had existed as graven images, their forms defined by descriptions in books kept in temple archives. But the god whom he announced was not of this kind, made by the speculations of theologians and the hands of craftsmen, but was a self-created god who renewed himself every day and was gloriously alive. (Aldred, 1988, p. 261-262)

Akhenaten suggested that the Aten was beyond man’s conception, only recognizable as “a symbol of the daylight that radiated from the disk of the sun by which his power was manifest” (Aldred, 1988, p. 262), and therefore peerless in every way conceivable; one can see clear parallels between this evolving conception of the Aten and that of Heliopolis’ Re, who, during the reign of Amenhotep III, transcended his stature as a sun-god, becoming “the Universe who has assimilated all the other gods in his being . . . [and] ‘the sole god who has made himself for eternity’.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 239) Noteworthy, however, is the fact that, though Akhenaten most definitely subscribes to the idea of the Aten as being Egypt’s supreme deity, never does he appear to deny the existence of gods other than the Aten; indeed, the possibility that Akhenaten was influenced by Heliopolis when fleshing out his conception of the Aten is telling in that it suggests Akhenaten had, at least until this early point in his life, adopted a more practical, henotheistic attitude.

That the so-called “heretic king” chose not to change his regnal name from the lesser known Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, which means “‘One Effective on behalf of Aten’ or ‘Illuminated Manifestation of Aten’” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 7), until the fifth year of his rule suggests that Akhenaten did not embark on his religious crusade immediately after becoming Pharaoh. This delay in the implementation of Akhenaten’s Atenist theology is corroborated by the fact that “[t]he first five years of the king’s reign are mostly reported from Karnak [where Amun was worshipped]” (Aldred, 1988, p. 268), and Akhet-Aten’s construction did not commence until shortly after––a month, to be precise––the king assumed his new regnal name. This is not to say, however, that Akhenaten chose not to publicize his religious beliefs before the move to el-Amarna. During his time at Karnak, Akhenaten, though not the iconoclast that he was during the latter years of his reign, was hardly quiescent. He authorized the construction of a temple dedicated to the Aten called Gempaaten, or “The Aten is Found in the Estate of the Aten.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 262)

Of particular interest at Gempaaten are the “[p]ainted sandstone [depictions of Akhenaten and his immediate family, in particular, his exquisite wife Queen Nefertiti] . . . excavated . . . between 1926 and 1932 and now in the Cairo Museum.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 100) These, amongst other such depictions of the royal family recovered from the ruins of Akhet-Aten and Hermopolis, have occasioned much speculation about Akhenaten and his family’s physical appearance, which is decidedly bizarre, and health. Akhenaten is depicted as being effeminate, remarkably so that “his elongated neck, broad hips, swelling breasts and plump thighs . . . have often been confused with those of the queen, . . . especially when his distinctive headgear has been destroyed, or when Nefertiti wears a crown similar to a pharaoh’s.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 231) Egyptologists have suggested that Akhenaten’s physical traits, described above, are characteristic of a male who suffers from Fröhlich’s Syndrome, “a disorder of the endocrine system, more specifically from a malfunctioning of the pituitary gland . . . [that] may affect the adiposity of the patient” (Aldred, 1988, p. 231-232) and, for those yet to reach puberty, result in stunted growth and retarded sexual development. A pronounced jaw and platycephalic skull, both of which Akhenaten is depicted as having had, are likewise characteristic of victims of Fröhlich’s Syndrome. However, Aldred (1988) reasons that, though Akhenaten may very well have had a platycephalic skull––facial reconstructions of Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamun, whose mummy was recovered in 1922 during a now-world-renowned expedition to the Valley of the Kings, reveal that Tutankhamun, perhaps like his father, bore an exaggerated cranium––that he may have had as many as six daughters and at least one son, possibly two (Smenkhkarē’s parentage is disputed, but Egyptologists widely suspect that Akhenaten fathered him), casts doubt on the theory that he suffered from Fröhlich’s Syndrome, which normally causes a man to become impotent.

Akhenaten's androgyny

Akhenaten’s androgyny

Aldred (1988) instead posits that “the grotesque aspect of [Akhenaten’s] appearance on the monuments owes more to the artistic” innovations he pioneered as part of his religious revolution than to any physical ailment (p. 234). Egyptologist J. R. Harris proposes that these strange depictions of Akhenaten and, to a lesser extent, Nefertiti “may be intended to represent Re-Herakhte (Aten) in different hypostases, or symbolic personifications.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 235) Harris’s justification would certainly explain Akhenaten’s epicene appearance, for the Aten is described by the late Dominic Montserrat (2000) in his book Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt as being gender-neutral.

Akhenaten’s wife Nefertiti, beautiful, intelligent, and powerful, is regarded by more than a few Egyptologists as the Cleopatra of Ancient Egypt’s dynastic period. However, during her tenure as queen of Egypt, Nefertiti, who may have been an outspoken and influential figure, was unable for whatever reason to assume the title of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’,

or the ‘Hand of the God’, the god in this case being Amun, and the latter title referring to the act by which the demiurge Atum . . . fashioned the universe by ejecting from himself a male principal Shu, the luminous Void, and a female deity Tefnut, or Moisture, and so initiated the process of creation. (Aldred, 1988, p. 135)

Nefertiti’s inability to become God’s Wife, a position that should have been held by the pharaoh’s chief queen, may be ascribed to any one of a number of possible complications, one of which may have been the continued survival of Akhenaten’s mother Tiye, who, as Amenhotep III’s chief queen, might have been able to lay claim to the title––Aldred (1988), on the other hand, suggests that Tiye, like Nefertiti, was never God’s Wife. Be that as it may, “[w]hile Nefertiti could not enact the ritual proper to the God’s Wife of Amun, . . . [u]nlike other chief queens, she is shown taking part in the daily worship, repeating the same gestures and making similar offerings as the king.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 223) Diligent as she was in the worship of Egypt’s “primordial” sun god Atum, a direct precursor of the Aten, Nefertiti was, in nearly every sense of the word, Egypt’s highest priestess, a de facto God’s Wife.

From right to left, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Meritaten, and an unknown figure (a second daughter of Akhenaten's?) raise their arms in supplication to the Aten

From right to left, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Meritaten, and an unknown figure (another daughter of Akhenaten’s?), their arms raised in supplication to the Aten

Notwithstanding her duties as God’s Wife, and given Atum’s close connection to the Aten, Nefertiti seems to have supported her husband wholeheartedly in his efforts to introduce the Aten to Egyptian society as a supreme deity. Indeed, she is depicted in stelae found at el-Amarna as having joined him in worship of the Aten. For instance, in 1892, the archaeologist Howard Carter recovered from the Gem-Aten “small fragments” of a stela that “quite likely . . . followed the design of another huge stela found substantially intact at Heliopolis which shows Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Meritaten [the eldest of Akhenaten’s six daughters] kneeling before . . . the radiant sun-disk.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 275) Nefertiti’s position in her husband’s Atenist theology was, by all accounts, that of a “wife and daughter of the sun-god, an incarnation of Tefnut.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 225) Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests that Akhenaten and Nefertiti had attempted to recreate the creation myth of the Void and the Moisture by assuming the roles of Shu and Tefnut, respectively; the Tomb of Apy at el-Amarna reaffirms this connection, for to its entrance’s left “Akhenaten and Nefertiti are shown offering boxes to the Aten: these caskets are in the shape of double cartouches, with adjoining figures of Shu (king) and Tefnut (queen).” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 126) Her duties as de facto God’s Wife, which involved “maintaining [Amun] . . . in a state of perpetual arousal” (Aldred, 1988, p. 224), were adapted for the Aten, who, as an abstraction, could not be enticed as was Amun; rather, the object of Nefertiti’s charms was Akhenaten himself, who, in his capacity as ‘Son of the Sun-god’ and ‘The beautiful child of the Aten’, was ‘authorized’ to respond to his wife’s affections in the Aten’s stead.

Despite her great influence, Nefertiti is lost to history from the fourteenth year of Akhenaten’s reign onwards, suggesting that she perished at around then. Likewise, “Tiye, Meketaten [the second of Akhenaten’s six daughters], . . . , [and] Kiya and Meritaten [two of Akhenaten’s wives]” (Aldred, 1988, p. 289), amongst others, are said to have died coincidentally at around the same time, fueling speculation of a calamitous pestilence; it should be noted that Meritaten, who I previously identified as the eldest of Akhenaten’s six daughters, eventually became her father’s “consort . . . and ‘the mistress of [his] house’.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 227) This, however, should not serve as evidence of the licensed practice of incest, for it is more probable that Meritaten simply assumed Nefertiti’s duties as ‘Great Royal Wife’ upon the latter’s death. But I digress. Needless to say, Akhenaten suffered great personal loss from the effects of this hypothesized pestilence, and the strain indeed shows by the display of religious iconoclasm that presumably marked his last years as ruler of Egypt. Aldred (1988) has this to say of Akhenaten’s vicious crusade against the cult of Amun-Re:

The outburst of destruction that now assailed the monuments of Amun and his consort Mut has an element of desperation in its thoroughness and ubiquity. The tallest obelisks and highest architraves at Thebes were scaled to hammer out the name and figure of Amun. His statues were smashed; even small scarabs that bore his name were defaced; and the Amun element in the nomen of [Amenhotep III] was obliterated from the intimate toilet vessels belonging to Queen Tiye. (p. 289)

Aldred (1988) suggests that Akhenaten’s unabashed and presumably unwarranted persecution of Amun may have been brought on by a paranoid belief that Egypt’s problems, which by then were overwhelming, were the doing of the Aten who, offended at Egypt’s lack of regard for his unparalleled radiance, chose then to exact his vengeance against his chief devotee, the pharaoh himself.

Upon Akhenaten’s demise during the seventeenth year of his reign, his co-regent and presumed son Smenkhkarē assumed the throne. Smenkhkarē took as his “beloved” his half-sister Meritaten, and is believed to have acquired the regnal names Neferneferuaten and Ankhkheperurē during his three short years as Pharaoh. The reigns of his immediate successors––Tutankhamun and Ay––are similarly unremarkable, though it should be noted that Tutankhamun, who ruled for nine years from 1332-1322 B.C., made the rehabilitation of Egypt’s desecrated gods and “the steady abandonment of the more extreme aspects of the Aten religion” (Aldred, 1988, p. 300) a priority, so much so that “the epithet that is applied to him on one of the seals of his tomb, ‘[he] who spent his life in making images of the gods’, might very well serve as his epitaph.” (Aldred, 1988, p. 295) Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, improved on Tutankhamun’s legacy of restoration. However, when Haremhab, who served as Ay’s highest-ranking general, became Pharaoh after Ay died without issue, the benevolent restoration took a turn for the worse. Haremhab, during the reign of Tutankhamun, seems to have

played an influential role in the return to orthodoxy. On the Turin statue he claims most of the reforms which Tutankhamun had announced . . . , but his main statement of intent is contained in the greatly ruined stela which he erected at Karnak and . . . issued to ‘seek the welfare of Egypt’, by suppressing illegal acts [in a sort of reverse religious iconoclasm]. (Aldred, 1988, p. 301)

Haremhab’s iconoclasm only intensified once he became ruler of Egypt, for he then oversaw a systematic campaign of “execration” of the recent past, a campaign that lasted for the duration of his reign and whose sole objective was to expunge from history Akhenaten’s heresy. Tutankhamun and Ay were not spared from this extirpation––their names, like Akhenaten’s, were meticulously erased from the Amarna period’s archaeological legacy, perhaps in reflection of Egyptians’ belief that “knowledge of a person’s name gave power over its owner” (Contenau, 1966, p. 164)––and Murnane and Meltzer (1995) speculate that “[t]he extent of this damnatio memoriae no doubt reflects Horemheb’s [sic] personal animus against Tutankhamun and Ay more than any orthodox rage at their previous connections with Akhenaten.” (p. 12) Personal vendetta or not, there is little doubt that to Haremhab should go the dubious honor of having nearly consigned Akhenaten and his various accomplishments in art and culture to the ash heap of humanity’s forgotten civilizations.

That Haremhab failed to completely undo Akhenaten’s legacy is fortunate indeed, for the corpus of archaeological and textual evidence recovered from the ruins of Akhet-Aten at el-Amarna, the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor near Thebes, and elsewhere may, or perhaps already have impressed on us a better understanding of how monotheism came to be. For though Akhenaten’s worship of the Aten cannot be described as monotheistic––that is, monotheistic in the present-day Christian sense––his religious unorthodoxy does illustrate an extraordinary divergence, made all the more remarkable by its nearly precipitate rise, from Egypt’s age-old polytheistic tradition. And if one would object to that audacious statement, one cannot refute the fact that Akhenaten and the Amarna revolution allow us a fascinating glimpse into pre-biblical Egypt, one that continues to captivate and therefore deserves more scrutiny, certainly more than that which I’ve imparted in this brief tract.

Works Cited

Aldred, C. (1988). Akhenaten, King of Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Brewer, D. J. (2012). The archaeology of ancient Egypt: beyond pharaohs. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Contenau, G. (1966). Everyday life in Babylon and Assyria. New York: Norton.

Montserrat, D. (2000). Akhenaten: history, fantasy, and ancient Egypt. London: Routledge.

Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Murnane, W. J., & Meltzer, E. S. (1995). Texts from the Amarna period in Egypt. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press.

Niebuhr, C., & Hutchison, J. (1901). The Tell el Amarna period The relations of Egypt and western Asia in the fifteenth century B.C. according to the Tell el Amarna tablets. London: D. Nutt.

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on December 17, 2013, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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