Akhenaten (“He who is of service to the Aten” or “Effective Spirit of Aten”) is one of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt, despite the attempts of later rulers to omit him from the lists of kings.
Almost 200 miles south of Cairo, in the heart of Middle Egypt, the archaeological site of Amarna occupies a great bay of desert beside the River Nile. To the uninformed eye, this semicircle of barren land, bound by the east bank of the river and enormous limestone cliffs, looks like nothing much: a vast, stricken dust bowl, approximately seven miles long and three miles wide, scattered with sandy hillocks. But 33 centuries ago, this spot was home to tens of thousands of ancient Egyptians, brought there by the will of a single man: the pharaoh Akhenaten.
Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) was a pharaoh of Egypt of the 18th Dynasty. He is also known as `Akhenaton’ or `Ikhnaton’ and also `Khuenaten’, all of which is translated to mean `successful for’ or `of great use to’ the god Aten. Akhenaten chose this name for himself after his conversion to the cult of Aten. Prior to this conversion, he was known as Amenhotep IV (or Amenophis IV).
AKHENATEN: ALIEN KING | Name change
On day 13, Month 8, in the fifth year of his reign, the king arrived at the site of the new city Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). A month before that Amenhotep IV had officially changed his name to Akhenaten.
Amenhotep IV changed most of his 5 fold titulary in year 5 of his reign. The only name he kept was his prenomen or throne name of Neferkheperure. He was the son of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye, husband of Queen Nefertiti, and father of both Tutankhamun (by a lesser wife named Lady Kiya) and Tutankhamun’s wife Ankhsenamun (by Nefertiti). His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt.
One of the first works which Akhenaten undertook as an emperor was modifying the temples in his kingdom.
He decorated the south entrance of ‘The Temple of Amun-Re’, where one of the walls depicted Akhenaten worshipping the sun god ‘Re-Harakhte’.
However, it became clear early in his reign that the young king was prepared to go against convention. In his first year, he built a Temple dedicated to the Aten at the perimeter of the Temple of Amun at Karnak.
He took the unconventional step of celebrating a Sed-festival in his third year (this festival was usually conducted in the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh’s reign) but still presented the Aten as a variant of Amun-Ra.
The Eighteenth Dynasty was characterised by powerful women, but Akhenaten seems to have granted his chief wife, Nefertiti, with power surpassed only by the Pharaoh himself.
Some scholars even suggest that she ruled as co-regent for part of his reign.
The introduction of a new cult was accompanied by innovations in the portrayal of the human form in both relief and sculpture. The royal family was depicted with features that, by comparison with standard conventions of Egyptian art, appear noticeably exaggerated: a prognathous jaw, a thin neck, sloped shoulders, a pronounced paunch, large hips and thighs, and spindly legs. Facial features were characterized by angular, slitted eyes, fleshy lips, nasolabial wrinkles, and holes for earplugs, while the princesses are often each depicted with an inflated, egg-shaped cranium.
Much scholarly debate has centred on whether these features reflect the actual appearance of the king—extended by convention to his family and retainers—and various theories have been argued about the presumed pathology of Amenhotep IV and what medical conditions might produce the anatomical traits shown. The Karnak colossi, in particular, show these new characteristics in notably exaggerated form, including one that apparently depicts the king without male genitalia.
Whether such statues were intended to represent the male and female element combined in the person of the divine king or whether they are simply statues of Nefertiti has not been satisfactorily settled. More simply, the remarkable innovations of Amenhotep IV in several cultural spheres at once may be reasonably viewed as a manifestation of the intimate connection in Egyptian culture between art and religion.
In devising a radically different cult based on the worship of the sun’s natural form, the king was forced to develop a new artistic idiom with which to express it. That Amenhotep IV was personally involved in these changes seems clear: the biographical text of one of the reign’s master sculptors indicates that he was instructed by the king himself.
Nefertiti also appears, both beside the king and alone (or with her daughters), in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she enjoyed unusual status for a queen. Early artistic representations of her tend to be indistinguishable from her husband’s except by her regalia, but soon after the move to the new capital, Nefertiti begins to be depicted with features specific to her. Questions remain whether the beauty of Nefertiti is portraiture or idealism.
Akhenaten’s chief wife was Nefertiti, made world-famous by the discovery of her exquisitely moulded and painted bust, now displayed in the Altes Museum of Berlin, and among the most recognised works of art surviving from the ancient world. Queen Nefertiti is often referred to in history as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” The Berlin bust, seen from two different angles, is true, the most famous depiction of Queen Nefertiti. Found in the workshop of the famed sculptor Thutmose, the bust is believed to be a sculptor’s model.
The technique which begins with a carved piece of limestone requires the stone core to be first plastered and then richly painted. Flesh tones on the face give the bust life. Nefertiti’s origins are confusing. It has been suggested to me that Tiye was also her mother. Another suggestion is that Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s cousin. Her wet nurse was the wife of the vizier Ay, who could have been Tiye’s brother. Ay sometimes called himself “the God’s father,” suggesting that he might have been Akhenaten’s father-in-law. However Ay never specifically refers to himself as the father of Nefertiti, although there are references that Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnojme, is featured prominently in the decorations of the tomb of Ay. We will never know the truth of this bloodline. Perhaps they didn’t know either.
Why representations of Akhenaten depict him in a bizarre, strikingly androgynous way, remains a vigorously debated question. Religious reasons have been suggested, such as to emulate the creative nature of the Aten, who is called in Amarna tomb texts, “mother and father” of all that is. Or, it has been suggested, Akhenaten’s (and his family’s) portraiture exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten’s mummy is positively identified, such theories remain speculative.
The Amarna Letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence discovered in modern times at el-Amarna (the modern designation of the site of Akhetaten), have provided important evidence about Akhenaten’s reign and foreign policy. This correspondence comprises a priceless collection of incoming messages on clay tablets sent to Akhetaten from various subject rulers through Egyptian military outposts and from the foreign rulers (recognized as “Great kings”) of the kingdom of Mitanni, of Babylon, of Assyria, and of Hatti.
The governors and kings of Egypt’s subject domains also wrote frequently to plead for gold from the pharaoh, and also complained that he had snubbed and cheated them. There are a number of letters from governors and kings of subject nations begging for help, usually money. The authors seem to feel abandoned by their powerful friend and left to the wolves. Other evidence suggests that Akhenaten quarrelled with the king of Mitanni, former allies of Egypt, and concluded an alliance with the Hittites!
This warlike nation then attacked Mitanni and stole their land. Many other small nation-states (who were also allied to Egypt) rebelled against the Hittites and wrote begging Akhenaten for help, but it seems that he did not respond and the Hittites captured or killed their leaders and seized a significant amount of land. It is suggested that Akhenaten increasingly left government and diplomats to their own devices. This made the vizier, Ay (father of Nefertiti), and the general Horemheb (who was married to Ay’s other daughter Mutnodjme) very powerful, and both men went on to become pharaoh.
Amarna is an extensive Egyptian archaeological site that represents the remains of the capital city newly established and built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten of the late Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1353 BC), and abandoned shortly afterwards. The name for the city employed by the ancient Egyptians is written as Akhetaten (or Akhenaton – transliterations vary) in English transliteration. Akhetaten means “Horizon of the Aten.”
The area is located on the east bank of the Nile River in the modern Egyptian province of Minya, some 58 km (36 mi) south of the city of al-Minya, 312 km (194 mi) south of the Egyptian capital Cairo and 402 km (250 mi) north of Luxor. The site of Amarna includes several modern villages, chief of which are el-Till in the north and el-Hagg Qandil in the south. The area was also occupied during later Roman and early Christian times, excavations to the south of the city have found several structures from this period. At its height, the city grew to more than 10,000 people – bureaucrats, artisans, boatmen, priests, traders and their families. Though most were happy, many were not, especially those who did not like to stand in the open sun. Akhenaten worshipers spent lots of time in the sun.
Akhenaten wanted everyone to be happy. He created a beautiful, idealistic religion and Utopia for his people but many just didn’t understand it. Akhenaten was not living in the reality of his worshippers. Though he had found himself and his God the people were used to Gods they could see, carved in stone with beautiful bodies, many with heads of animals. Akhenaten’s God was too much of an abstraction. Aten was the basic principle of the universe, Light! They also wondered why the sun God only shed its rays on the royal family and not everyone.
During the Amarna period, there seems to have been widespread famine and disease. It is thought that the plague or the first recorded epidemic of influenza spread through Egypt and the Middle East, killing thousands. It seems that the Hittite King, Suppiluliumas, died in the epidemic and it is also possible that it claimed the lives of a number of his children. Of course, many commentators have suggested that this was the biblical plague which accompanied the exodus, but there is no evidence in support of this view. It has also been suggested that Amenhotep III had tried to placate the (solar) goddess Sekhmet, “the lady of pestilence” to avert the plague, and when this failed his son Akhenaten went one step further and appealed directly to the sun god for deliverance. In any case, later Egyptians may well have viewed the plague as retribution for the neglect of the traditional gods of ancient Egypt.
The last dated appearance of Akhenaten and the Amarna family is in the tomb of Meryra II, and dates from the second month, year 12 of his reign. After this the historical record is unclear, and only with the succession of Tutankhamun is somewhat clarified. Similarly, although it is accepted that Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of his reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became co-regent perhaps two or three years earlier or enjoyed a brief independent reign is unclear. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten and became sole pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was Neferneferuaten, a female pharaoh who reigned in Egypt for two years and one month. She was, in turn, probably succeeded by Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country being administered by the chief vizier and future pharaoh.
Tutankhamun was believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. DNA tests in 2010 indicated Tutankhamun was indeed the son of Akhenaten. It has been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten With Akhenaten’s death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favour. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (1332 BC) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin. His successors Ay and Horemheb disassembled temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, using them as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples.
Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development — one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh’s death.
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