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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. Read the rest of this entry

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