AKHENATON (or Akhenaten) was the tenth pharaoh of Egypt's eighteenth dynasty (c. 1352–1336 bce) and the founder of the earliest historically documented monotheistic religion. Son of Amenhotep III and the chief queen, Tiya, Akhenaton succeeded to the throne as Amenhotep IV and took a throne name meaning "the sun's ultimate perfection, unique one of the sun," reflecting the traditional Egyptian belief that the pharaoh derived his physical being, as well as his authority, from the sun god, ruler of the world. Marriage to his chief queen, Nefertiti, produced six daughters, the first and third of whom, Meritaton and Ankhesenpaaton, were to play important roles at the end of his reign and during its aftermath. In addition, a minor queen, Kiya, gave him another daughter, whose name is not known, and Akhenaton may also have fathered, by one or both queens, the two men who eventually succeeded him as the pharaohs Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen.
At the time of Akhenaton's accession, Egypt's most important deity was Amun, "king of the gods," whose chief cult center lay in the state temples of Karnak and Luxor at Thebes (modern Luxor). Amun was worshiped as the transcendental creator, existing independently of the world he had created; this characteristic is encapsulated in his name, which means "hidden." Throughout the eighteenth dynasty, Egyptian theologians wrestled with the problem of reconciling Amun's primordial and transcendent nature with the traditional Egyptian concept of the gods as the elements and forces of the world's daily existence. Their primary solution to the difficulty was the combined god Amun-Re, representing Amun as manifest and active in the created world through its major force, the sun (the Egyptian word Re, also used as a name of the sun god, means "sun"). This process of combining two or more gods into a single deity, known as syncretism, was embedded in Egyptian thought. It reflected the realization that different gods could be understood both as independent entities and as complementary manifestations of a single, larger force—in essence, much the same as the Christian concept of the Trinity.
Akhenaton's original name, Amenhotep, means "Amun is content," and the king began his reign by honoring Amun-Re on royal monuments, as his predecessors had done. Akhenaton's earliest known project, however, was a monument erected in Karnak not for Amun-Re but for a separate form of the sun god under a new name: "Harakhti, who becomes active from the Akhet in his identity as the light that is in the Aton." Harakhti, meaning "Horus of the Akhet," was one of the traditional Egyptian gods, the sun viewed as king of nature, rising into the world from the Akhet, the liminal zone between the netherworld, where
the sun was thought to go at night, and the visible horizon. The remainder of the new name identified the sun's power of kingship (Horus) as the light emanating from the solar disk itself: the word Aton, meaning "sundisk," referred to the physical form of the sun, visible in the sky—and depicted in Egyptian art—as a disk.
The new god's name is unlike those of other Egyptian deities; it represents not so much an appellation as the manifesto of a new creed (Egyptologists commonly refer to it as the "didactic" name). Through it, Akhenaton, who identified himself as chief priest of the new god, promulgated an innovation in Egyptian theology: recognition of the physical phenomenon of light—which in ancient Egypt meant essentially sunlight—as the primary force in the universe. This concept was further emphasized by another early innovation, enclosing the god's name in a pair of oval rings, known as cartouches, like those surrounding two of the king's own names (see figure 1). The new god was now overtly identified as king of the universe, ruling in consort with Akhenaton as king of the living.
Early depictions of the god were modeled on traditional representations of Harakhti, symbolic images of a human body with the head of a falcon (emblem of the god Horus) bearing a sundisk. These were soon superseded, however, by a new image: that of the Aton, a solar disk with its rays extending toward earth, giving the symbol of life to the king and his family (see figure 2). Because Akhenaton's inscriptions also frequently refer to the god as "the Aton" rather than by his full didactic name, his theology has often been misunderstood as a form of sun worship. As the full didactic name makes clear, however, Akhenaton saw the Aton merely as the vehicle through which the god manifested himself in the world. Like the traditional representations of Harakhti and other Egyptian gods, the image of the Aton in Akhenaton's art was not meant to be understood literally as a depiction of the god: instead, the solar disk with its rays is nothing more than a large-scale version of the Egyptian hieroglyph for "light."
The first promulgations of Akhenaton's new theology appeared on monuments erected in Karnak. This was the chief religious center in Egypt, but it was also home to Amun-Re, "king of the gods." Akhenaton's early activities were thus a direct assault on the primacy of Amun-Re. Political considerations undoubtedly played a part in Akhenaton's policies: through the benefactions of Akhenaton's predecessors, Karnak had become an establishment whose wealth and influence rivaled that of the royal family. But Akhenaton's actions were not guided alone, or even primarily, by politics. Egyptian religion was not merely a set of beliefs but the way in which all Egyptians understood the world around them and by which they governed and interpreted their own actions. Akhenaton's new theology was first and foremost a religious revolution.
The Move to Amarna
The second stage in this revolution occurred in Akhenaton's fifth year on the throne. Abandoning the religious center of Karnak and the seat of government at Memphis (south of modern Cairo), the king founded a new capital city on virgin land in Middle Egypt to serve as both his residence and the center of worship for his new god. The site today is known as Amarna, a name that is also used to refer to the period of Akhenaton's rule and its artistic and intellectual manifestations. Akhenaton called the new city Akhetaton, meaning "place where the Aton becomes effective." Coincident with its founding, the king changed his own name from Amenhotep to Akhenaton, which means either "he who is effective for the Aton" or "the effective form of the Aton."
As far as is known, the king spent the remainder of his seventeen-year rule within Amarna. The new city gave Akhenaton the opportunity to develop his theology and intellectual vision free of associations with Karnak or any other religious establishment. Amarna witnessed the flowering of Akhenaton's innovations not only in religion but also in architecture and art. One of these made it possible to build the new city in the space of only a few years: in place of the monumental stone blocks of traditional Egyptian architecture, which required teams of workers to maneuver and dress, Akhenaton's builders employed smaller blocks that could be handled by a single man. Known today as talatat, these blocks were eventually decorated with reliefs in a new style of art, to modern eyes more naturalistic than the traditional Egyptian hieroglyphic style.
Like all his innovations, Akhenaton's art and architecture were developed in the service of his new theology. They emphasized the natural world, enlivened by the power of light. Previous Egyptian temples consisted of forests of columns and dark, mysterious sanctuaries; Akhenaton's were open and airy, unroofed so as to be bathed in light. In place of the divine figures that pervaded traditional Egyptian reliefs, Amarna's monuments were decorated with scenes of nature and everyday life; private stelae and even tomb walls showed the king and his family not in heroic poses but in intimate and tender interaction with one another—all under the central hieroglyphic icon of the Aton, image of light.
The new style, however, was not entirely free of the conventions of traditional art, and one of these, employed in representations of Akhenaton and his family, has led to misplaced speculation about the king's health. The royal family was depicted in somewhat exaggerated form, with elongated heads, thin necks and waists, and large thighs. In the conventions of Egyptian art, such images were normally used for those outside the sphere of elite society: in Amarna art they reflect not physical reality but the status of the royal family as "other," unlike common human beings.
The End of Akhenaton's Reign
Amarna also witnessed the onset of the third and final stage of Akhenaton's religious revolution. Throughout his reign, the king had tolerated—and early in it, even honored—traditional Egyptian gods, though their names and images were soon banished from official reliefs. Sometime after his eleventh year of rule, however, Akhenaton's policies became more rigid. Teams were sent throughout the country to remove Amun's name and the plural word "gods" from all monuments. At the same time, the name of Akhenaton's own god was altered by replacing the name of Harakhti with "the sun," changing the word for "light" to a more neutral synonym without other divine associations, and emending the phrase "that is in the Aton" to "that comes through the Aton" (see figure 3). Besides "purifying" the name from all reference to older gods, these changes made it even clearer that the Aton was merely the god's vehicle and not the god himself.
Akhenaton seems to have died in his seventeenth year of rule. Toward the end of his reign he appointed a coregent—probably his eldest daughter, Meritaton—to rule as joint pharaoh. She may have succeeded him directly but was soon replaced by her husband, Smenkhkare. After a year or less, Smenkhkare was succeeded by his younger brother, Tutankhaton, who was married to Akhenaton's third daughter, Ankhesenpaaton. The new couple soon changed their names to Tutankhamun (or Tutankhamen) and Ankhesenamun (honoring Amun), left Amarna, and restored the traditional religion.
Tutankhamen reopened the temples and appointed all new priesthoods—the latter action an indication that his policies were not dictated by the older hierarchy. Rather than repudiate Akhenaton's theology, Tutankhamen evidently tried to integrate it into the traditionally open structure of Egyptian religion, judging by one of the thrones from his tomb, which shows him and his wife, with their new names, under the symbol of the Aton. Later kings were less lenient. Beginning with Haremhab, Tutankhamen's second successor and last king of the eighteenth dynasty, they tore down Akhenaton's monuments, defaced the royal family's names and images, and removed all the kings between Amenhotep III and Haremhab from the official register of pharaohs. Whenever it was necessary to refer to Akhenaton, he was simply called "the heretic of Akhetaton."
The Nature of Akhenaton's Religion
Because Akhenaton's monuments were systematically destroyed, much is still unknown about his revolution, and the significance of the evidence that has survived is often hotly debated. One of the chief points of contention is the monotheistic nature of Akhenaton's theology. With its practice of syncretism, Egyptian theology had theoretically been open to the notion of a single god behind the multiple gods of its traditional polytheism. Evidence in fact exists that some theologians had
discovered such a notion long before Akhenaton: essays on ethics from the Middle Kingdom (c. 1980–1780 bce), for example, routinely use the generic term god instead of the name of a specific deity; since the language of these essays has no articles, this term can mean "a god," "the god," or simply "God."
Such a notion was consonant with traditional Egyptian theology, which accepted different views of divinity as equally valid (reflected, for example, in the multitude of names for the sun god). In this intellectual atmosphere, Akhenaton's new god could easily have been accommodated within the structure of Egyptian theology. Akhenaton insisted on the sole reality of his god—"unique, with no other except him," as his texts declare. Other gods had previously been given similar descriptions, but without exclusivity. Given the intellectual background from which it arose, Akhenaton's innovation was not so much the notion of a single god but his ultimate insistence on the exclusive validity of his vision. This feature qualifies Akhenaton's religion as a true monotheism. Diametrically opposed to traditional Egyptian thinking, it was probably also one of the prime factors leading to the religion's rejection by later generations.
Apart from its monotheistic nature, however, Akhenaton's theology had little in common with that of later monotheistic religions from the same part of the world. Its god was a force of nature—light—and was dependent on an element of nature—the sun—for its presence and activity in the world, far different from the transcendent sole god of Judaism and Islam. For this reason it is probably specious to speculate—as Sigmund Freud did, for example—on the possible influence of Akhenaton's thought on early Hebrew religion. With its focus on the ultimate reality of a single physical phenomenon, Akhenaton's theology has more in common with early Greek philosophy than with biblical monotheism. Like the physical elements of Greek philosophy, Akhenaton's deity is also less a personal god than a force of nature: where the traditional Egyptian gods were often shown as replying to human worship and prayer, Amarna texts and reliefs depict the Aton being adored and beseeched but never as responding in return.
The history of Jewish and Islamic monotheism, and that of Christianity as well, is marked not only by their adherents' insistence on the exclusive validity of their theology, but also by their attempt to destroy the manifestations, if not the practice, of other religions. In this too, Akhenaton's religion qualifies as truly monotheistic. His attempt to destroy the images of Amun and the notion of more than one god is the first historically documented instance of religious fanaticism.
Besides being the earliest recorded monotheism, Akhenaton's theology is also the first example of a revealed religion. The hymn to his god says: "there is no other who knows you except for your son, The Sun's Ultimate Perfection, Unique One of the Sun [Akhenaton's throne name], whom you have made aware of your designs and your strength." Other texts emphasize that the new religion is Akhenaton's own teaching. His courtiers say: "My lord has taught me, that I might carry out his teaching" and "How fortunate is the one who hears your teaching of life." From these and similar texts, it is clear that the new religion was revealed to Akhenaton alone. Akhenaton was the sole prophet of his new religion, just as Muḥammad and Joseph Smith were to be millennia later. Like the religions of these later prophets, Akhenaton's was also a secondary religion, one that arose in repudiation of existing beliefs.
The dominant role of the pharaoh in Egyptian society might suggest that Akhenaton's religion was imposed on his subjects and that they were forced to go along with it, even unwillingly, because he was king and his word was law. There is probably a certain amount of truth to this view. Akhenaton's religion was centered on the worship of light, but it also emphasized the divinity of the king himself—in contrast to the normal Egyptian belief that the king was the human vehicle of a divine power. One of his reliefs shows that Akhenaton himself had a priest, like traditional Egyptian gods but unlike any other pharaoh. While Akhenaton worshiped his god, other Egyptians were meant to worship not only the god but also Akhenaton himself, as the god's avatar on earth. In contrast to traditional Egyptian art, Amarna reliefs consistently show his subjects bowing low in Akhenaton's presence. The same reliefs often show the royal family surrounded by a military escort, as if in tacit recognition of possible resistance to the pharaoh's policies.
Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to conclude that the Egyptians tolerated Akhenaton's reforms only because of his position. Ancient Egypt was always ruled by one or two powerful families, and the king was their representative. He governed with their support, and if they did not share his views they could depose him: there is evidence that this happened several times in Egyptian history. It seems much more likely that Akhenaton's revelation initially swept up many of his countrymen in its enthusiasm, as history has shown with other new systems of belief—for example, in the birth of Islam, or more recently in the rise of Communism and Nazism. At first, many Egyptians were probably excited by the new vision of Akhenaton's theology and embraced it wholeheartedly.
History has also shown, however, how movements that start as enlightenment can turn to fanaticism and repression, and the same pattern is documented at Amarna—again, for the first time in history. This, in turn, usually gives rise to social unrest and disorder, and the Egyptian record indicates that this is what occurred at the end of Akhenaton's reign. In Egyptian eyes, the pharaoh's chief responsibility was the maintenance of peace and order, a concept known as Maat. Conversely, the absence of Maat was viewed as a sign that the king's authority was no longer legitimate. This was particularly significant in the reign of Akhenaton, who advertised himself as "living in Maat." With the new religion already on shaky ground in its opposition to traditional Egyptian thought, the disruption of Egyptian life at the end of Akhenaton's reign inevitably marked his ideas as antithetical to Maat, ultimately condemning them to the status of heresy.
Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten, King of Egypt. London, 1988. A standard history of the reign, somewhat outdated by more recent discoveries.
Allen, James P. "The Natural Philosophy of Akhenaten." In Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson, pp. 89–101. New Haven, 1989. An examination of evidence for Akhenaton's ideas as a form of natural philosophy.
Allen, James P. "The Religion of Amarna." In The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt, edited by Dorothea Arnold, pp. 3–5. New York, 1996. An overview of Akhenaton's theology.
Allen, James P. "Ikhnaton." In Collier's Encyclopedia, edited by L. S. Bahr et al., vol. 12, p. 495. New York, 1997. A short summary of the reign and religion of Akhenaton.
Allen, James P. "Monotheism: The Egyptian Roots." Archaeology Odyssey 2, no. 3 (1999): 44–54. An essay on monotheistic thought in traditional Egyptian religion and Amarna theology.
Arnold, Dorothea. The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt. New York, 1996. Catalog of an exhibition, including perhaps the best recent essays on Amarna art.
Assmann, Jan. Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun, and the Crisis of Polytheism, translated by Anthony Alcock. London and New York, 1995. An in-depth analysis of the theological background to Amarna.
Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. An examination of the possible influence of Akhenaton's monotheism on that of Moses and later religions.
Assmann, Jan. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001. One of the best overall presentations of Egyptian religious thought, including a section on Amarna religion.
Assmann, Jan. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, translated by Andrew Jenkins. New York, 2002. A study of Akhenaton's religion in the context of Egyptian thought.
Freed, Rita E., Yvonne J. Markowitz, and Sue H. D'Auria, eds. Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun. Boston, 1999. Catalogue of an exhibition of Amarna art, with studies on the art and culture of the period by several Egyptologists.
Gabolde, Marc. D'Akhenaton à Toutânkhamoun. Lyon and Paris, 1998. A study of the historical evidence for the end of Akhenaton's reign.
Gohary, Jocelyn. Akhenaten's Sed-festival at Karnak. London and New York, 1992. Presentation and discussion of Akhenaton's early monuments.
Hornung, Erik. Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999. Incorporates much recent analysis of Akhenaton's religion and its monotheistic nature.
Montserrat, Dominic. Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt. London and New York, 2000. An excellent study of modern theories and debate about the Amarna period.
Murnane, William J. Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. Atlanta, 1995. Translation of almost every known text relating to the reign of Akhenaton, with an excellent introduction to Amarna history and thought.
Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton, 1984. An overview by the excavator of Akhenaton's Karnak monuments, with an emphasis on the political background, generally unsympathetic in its analysis of the king's accomplishments.
Reeves, C. Nicholas. Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet. London, 2001. An overview, concerned more with history and archaeology than religion.
James P. Allen (2005)