Akhenaten was a pharaoh of Egypt. When he ascended to the throne his name was Amenhotep IV. Scholars believe his reign over Egypt lasted for around 17 years ruling sometime around 1353 B.C. to 1335 B.C.
Few monarchs in history achieved as much notoriety as Akhenaten in his lifetime. Akhenaten’s reign began conventionally enough showing little of the turbulence that was to follow later.
His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted for five years. Throughout this time Akhenaten adhered to the traditional policies established by his popular father and supported Egypt’s entrenched religious traditions. However, in his fifth year on the throne, all that changed. Scholars debate whether Akhenaten underwent a genuine religious conversion or whether he struck at the heart of the growing power of the religious elite.
Around this time, Akhenaten abruptly changed his observance from the cult of Amun to that of Aten. In Amenhotep IV’s sixth year on the throne, he changed his name to “Akhenaten,” which roughly translates as the “Benevolent one of or for the Aten.”
For the following dozen years, Akhenaten scandalized Egypt achieving fame and infamy in equal measure as Egypt’s `heretic king’. Akhenaten shocked the religious establishment by abolishing Egypt’s traditional religious rites and replaced them with history’s first recorded monotheistic state religion.
Egyptologists call Akhenaten’s reign “The Amara Period,” so named from his decision to relocate Egypt’s capital from its dynastic site at Thebes to a purpose-built city he called Akhetaten, later known as Amara. The Amarna Period is by far Egyptian history’s most controversial era. Even today, it continues to be studied, discussed and argued over more than any other period in Egypt’s long narrative.
Table of Contents
Facts About Akhenaten
- Akhenaten ruled for 17 years and was co-regent with his father Amenhotep III during the last year of his father’s reign
- Born Amenhotep IV, he reigned as Amenhotep IV for five years before adopting the name Akhenaten to reflect his belief in Aten the one supreme deity
- Akhenaten shocked Egypt’s religious establishment by abolishing its traditional gods, replacing them with history’s first recorded monotheistic state religion
- For these beliefs, Akhenaten was known as the Heretic King
- Akhenaten was an outcast from his family and only succeeded his father due to his older brother Thutmose’s mysterious death
- Akhenaten’s mummy has never been found. Its location remains an archaeological mystery
- Akhenaten married Queen Nefertiti, one of ancient Egypt’s most beautiful and well-respected women. Egyptologists believe she was only 12 years old when she married
- DNA testing has shown that King Akhenaten was most likely Tutankhamun’s father
- Egyptologists call Akhenaten’s reign “The Amara Period,” after his decision to relocate Egypt’s capital from its dynastic site at Thebes to Akhetaten his purpose-built city, later known as Amara
- King Akhenaten is thought to have suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome. Other possibilities include Froelich’s Syndrome or elephantiasis.
Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Family Lineage
Akhenaten’s father was Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) and his mother was Amenhotep III’s wife Queen Tiye. During their reign, Egypt sat astride a flourishing empire whose might spanned from Syria, in western Asia, to the Nile River’s fourth cataract in what is now Sudan.
Akhenaten also came to be known as `Akhenaton’ or `Khuenaten’ and `Ikhnaton’. Translated these epithets denote `of great use to’ or `successful for’ the god Aten. Akhenaten personally selected this name following his conversion to the sect of Aten.
Akhenaten’s wife was Queen Nefertiti one of the most powerful women in history. Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife or favoured consort when he ascended the throne. Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamun by Lady Kiya, a lesser wife went on to be pharaoh in his own right, while his daughter with Nefertiti Ankhsenamun married Tutankhamun her half-brother.
A Radical New Monotheism
The Aten or the sun-disc had long been part of the ancient Egyptian religion. However, Akhenaten’s decision to elevate it to the prime focus of Egyptian religious life was both shocking and scandalous to the ranks of the Egyptian priesthood and many of his conservative traditionally minded subjects.
Akhenaten ordered a series of Aten temples built at the existing temple complex of Karnak near Luxor. This complex and its priesthood served Amun-Ra. Some scholars believe this new temple complex was initiated during Akhenaten’s first year on the throne.
Akhenaten’s philosophical and political issues with the worship of the divinity Amun were evident early in his rule. The orientation of Akhenaten’s growing Aten compound faced the rising sun. Building these structures facing to the east was in direct contradiction to Karnak’s established order, which was aligned towards the west, where the underworld was believed to reside by most ancient Egyptians.
In effect, Akhenaten’s very first major construction project flouted convention by turning its back to the temple of Amun. In many ways, this was to be a metaphor for events that followed later in Akhenaten’s reign.
Egyptologists note that sometime in the middle of Akhenaten’s ninth and 11th years on the throne, he altered the long form of the god’s name confirming the Aten status was not just that of the preeminent god but that of the sole god. Supporting this change in religious doctrine, Akhenaten initiated a campaign designed to desecrate the inscribed names of the gods Amun and Mut, together with other minor deities. This concerted campaign effectively removed the old gods from power over religious worship as well as whitewashing them from history.
Akhenaten’s devotees began erasing the names of Amun and his consort, Mut, on public monuments and inscriptions. They also progressively began a campaign of changing the plural… ‘gods’ to the singular ‘god.’ There is surviving physical evidence to support the contention that the temples honouring older gods were similarly closed, and their priesthoods dissolved around this time.
The effects of this religious upheaval rippled throughout the extended Egyptian empire. The name of Amun was erased from letters in the diplomatic archives, on the tips of obelisks and pyramids and even from commemorative scarabs.
How far and how willingly Akhenaten’s subjects adopted his radical new form of worship is debatable. In the ruins of Amara, Akhenaten’s city, excavations unearthed figures depicting deities, such as Thoth and Bes. Indeed only a handful of ancient Egyptians have been found with the word “Aten” attached to their name to honour their god.
Neglected Allies And An Ailing Empire
Traditionally, the pharaoh was viewed as a servant of the gods and identified with a god, usually Horus. However, prior to Akhenaten’s ascension to the throne, no pharaoh prior to Akhenaten had gone so far as to proclaim himself as an incarnation of a god.
Evidence suggests that as a god resident on Earth, Akhenaten felt the matters of state were far beneath him. Indeed, Akhenaten seems to have simply stopped attending to administrative responsibilities. An unfortunate byproduct of Akhenaten’s devotion to ushering in his religious reforms was the neglect of Egypt’s empire and the atrophying of its foreign policy.
Surviving letters and documents from that time show Egyptians wrote many times asking Egypt for its assistance in dealing with a range of military and political developments. The majority of these requests appeared to have been ignored by Akhenaten.
Egypt’s wealth and prosperity had been steadily growing since before the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE). Hatshepsut’s successors, including Tuthmosis III (1458-1425 BCE), adopted a balanced blend of diplomacy and military force in dealing with foreign nations. Evidence suggests Akhenaten opted to mostly ignore developments beyond Egypt’s borders and even most events outside of his palace at Akhetaten.
History Revealed Through The Amarna Letters
The Amarna Letters are a treasure trove of messages and letters between the kings of Egypt and foreign rulers discovered in Amarna. This wealth of correspondence bears testimony to Akhenaten’s apparent neglect of foreign affairs, save those, which personally interested him.
The preponderance of the historical evidence, collated from the archaeological records, the Amarna letters and from Tutankhamun’s later decree, firmly suggests Akhenaten served Egypt poorly in terms of looking after the interests and welfare of his subjects and outlying vassal states. Akhenaten’s ruling court was an inward-focused regime that had long surrendered any political or military investment in its foreign policy.
Even the surviving evidence that points to Akhenaten engaging with matters outside of his palace complex at Akhetaten inevitably returns to Akhetaten’s abiding self-interest rather than a commitment to serving the state’s best interests.
Palace Life: The Epicentre of Akhetaten’s Egyptian Empire
Life in Akhenaten’s palace at Akhetaten appears to have been the pharaoh’s main focus. Built on virgin land in the middle of Egypt, the palace complex faced east and was set precisely to channel rays from the morning sun towards its temples and doorways.
Akhenaten built a formal reception palace in the centre of the city, where he could meet Egyptian officials and foreign embassies. Each day, Akhenaten and Nefertiti proceeded in their chariots from one end of the city to the other, mirroring the sun’s daily journey across the sky.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti saw themselves, as deities to be worshipped in their own right. Only through them could the Aten be truly worshipped as they officiated as both priests and gods.
Impact On Art And Culture
During Akhenaten’s reign, his impact on the arts was as transformational as his religious reforms. Modern art historians have applied terms such as ‘naturalistic’ or ‘expressionistic’ to describe the artistic movement that prevailed during this time.
Early in Akhenaten’s reign, Egypt’s artistic style performed an abrupt metamorphosis from Egypt’s traditional approach of portraying people with idealised, perfect physiques, to a new and some say a disturbing use of realism. Egypt’s artists appear to be portraying their subjects and Akhenaten in particular with unsparing honesty, to the point of becoming caricatures.
Akhenaten’s formal likeness could only have been created with his blessing. Hence, scholars speculate his physical appearance was important to his religious beliefs. Akhenaten styled himself as ‘Wa-en-Re’, or “The Unique One of Re,” emphasizing his distinctive features. Similarly, Akhenaten emphasised the unique nature of his god, Aten. It could be that Akhenaten believed his atypical physical appearance conferred some divine significance, which linked him to his god Aten.
Toward the latter portion of Akhenaten’s rule the ‘house’ style changed abruptly, once more, possibly as Tuthmose a new master sculptor assumed control of the pharaoh’s official portraiture. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of Tuthmose’s workshop yielding a spectacular collection of artistic masterworks, together with valuable insights into his artistic process.
Tuthmose’s style was substantially more realistic than Bek’s. He produced some of the Egyptian culture’s finest art in. His portraits are also believed to be some of the most accurate portrayals of the Amarna family we have today. Akhenaten’s daughters are all portrayed with a strange elongation of their skulls. The mummies of Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen were found with skulls, similar to Tuthmose’s statues, so they appear to be an accurate depiction.
Two-dimensional art also changed. Akhenaten is shown with a smaller mouth, bigger eyes, and softened features, making him look more serene than earlier depictions.
Similarly, Nefertiti’s striking face emerged during this period. The images of Nefertiti from this later period are some of the most famous works of art from the ancient period.
Akhenaten’s changed appearance was also adopted in Egypt’s three-dimensional art. His features are often softer, rounder, and plumper than in earlier portraits. It remains unclear if this reflects a shifting social mood at that time, changes in Akhenaten’s actual appearance or the result of a new artist taking control.
Apart from the colossal statues of Akhenaten from Karnak and the iconic bust of Nefertiti, it is the Aten worship scenes, which are the most prolific images linked to the Amarna period. Almost every “disc worship” image reflects the same formula. Akhenaten stands before an altar, making an offering to the Aten. Nefertiti is positioned behind Akhenaten while one or more of their daughters stand dutifully behind Nefertiti.
In addition to the new official style, new motifs appeared during the Amarna period. Images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten were so numerous during this time that archaeologists unearthing finds from Akhetaten christened Akhenaten and Nefertiti “disc worshippers.” Imagery dating to the Amarna period is more relaxed and informal than any other period in Egyptian history. The cumulative effect was to portray the pharaoh and his family as slightly more human than their predecessors or their successors.
Akhenaten straddles the dimensions of both hero and villain in Egypt’s history. His elevation of the Aten to the pinnacle of Egypt’s religious practices altered not only Egypt’s history but also arguably the future course of European and Western Asian civilization.
To his successors in Egypt, Akhenaten was the `heretic king’ and `the enemy’ whose memory was determinedly erased from history. His son, Tutankhamun (c.1336-1327 BCE) was named Tutankhaten upon his birth but later changed his name when he was elevated to the throne to reflect his absolute rejection of Atenism and his determination to return Egypt to the ways of Amun and Egypt’s old gods. Tutankhamun’s successors Ay (1327-1323 BCE) and particularly Horemheb (c. 1320-1292 BCE) demolished Akhenaten temples and monuments honouring his god and had his name, and the names of his immediate successors, stricken from the record.
So effective were their efforts that Akhenaten remained unknown to historian until Amarna was discovered in the 19th century CE. Horemheb’s official inscriptions placed himself as Amenhoptep III’s successor and omitted the rulers of the Amarna Period. The prominent English archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered Akhenaten’s tomb in 1907 CE. With Howard Carter’s famous excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 CE interest in Tutankhamun spread to his family shining attention once more on Akhenaten after almost 4,000 years. His legacy of monotheism perhaps influenced other religious thinkers to reject polytheism in favour of one true god.
Reflecting On The Past
Did Akhenaten experience a religious revelation or were his radical religious reforms an attempt to reduce the growing influence of the priesthood?
Header Image courtesy: Egyptian Museum of Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons