born: c. 1371 bce • Egypt
died: c. 1334 bce • Egypt
Akhenaten, which means "One useful to Aten," was the name taken by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV. He ruled Egypt from about 1350 to 1334 bce. In the fourth year of his rule, he elevated a minor deity or god, Aten, to the position of state god of Egypt, and moved his capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, a deserted spot midway between Thebes and Memphis. He is often cited in history as one of the first leaders to direct religion toward monotheism, or belief in one god. Egypt had been a polytheistic society, or one that believes in many gods, before Akhenaten's reign. His switch to monotheism made him hated by many people in Egypt who did not like the change. A few years after his death the pharaoh Tutankhamen (reigned 1361–52 bce) moved the capital back to Thebes and reestablished the power of the earlier gods. Attempts were later made to erase Akhenaten's name from historical records. This effort was successful until modern archaeology, which is the
"How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight. / Unique god, there is none beside him. / You mould the earth to your wish, you and you alone…."
scientific study of past human culture and behavior, established the identity of this mysterious ruler.
From Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten
Historical dating in ancient Egypt is a difficult matter because not all records survived or were accurately recorded. As a result, the exact date of the birth of Amenhotep IV is unclear, but most sources put his birth at 1371 bce. He was the second son of Amenhotep III, a pharaoh, or king, during the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1540–c. 1307 bce). He grew up in his father's court at Memphis, near modern-day Cairo, and then later at the court in Thebes, modern-day Luxor. After the early death of his older brother, Thutmose, Amenhotep IV became next in line to become pharaoh. It is believed that he served as coregent (co-pharaoh) with his father for a time, and when Amenhotep III died in about 1353 bce, Amenhotep IV took the throne.
Amenhotep IV inherited a rich empire that stretched from North Africa to the Middle East. As pharaoh he was considered by his subjects to be both a ruler and a godlike person. Egypt had long been a theocracy, a government ruled by religious authority. Even though he was viewed as a god himself, the pharaoh still had to ask the most powerful gods for divine assistance. He prayed to the gods through the priests. During the time of Amenhotep IV, the primary god was Amen (also Amun or Amon), king of the gods. Next in importance was Ra (or Re), the sun god. These two were jointly worshipped by the powerful cult of Amen-Ra.
At the beginning of his reign Amenhotep IV appears to have followed the practices of previous Egyptian rulers. He worshipped the old gods, such as Amon and Re, and built temples in their honor at Thebes. There were some early hints, however, that he was not destined to be a completely traditional pharaoh. Like his father before him, Amenhotep IV married a commoner. This was noteworthy because Egyptian rulers were expected to marry only within the royal bloodline. Amenhotep IV took Nefertiti as his wife before he assumed the throne. Noted for her beauty, Nefertiti later shared divine status with her husband. She was the daughter of a military advisor, Ay, who may have been a brother of Amenhotep IV's mother, Queen Tiy. Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti had six daughters.
In the first year of his rule Amenhotep IV worshipped a minor god, Aten (also spelled Aton), a local variation of the sun god. Aten was the Egyptian word for the sun as seen in the sky, and Aten was portrayed as a disk with rays shining from it. The rays sometimes had human hands at the ends, holding out the ankh, or symbol of life, to the king and queen. It is unknown what drew Amenhotep IV to this minor deity. It may have been the idea of the sun as the source of all life. Some also believe that Amenhotep IV was sickly and the warmth of the sun eased his discomfort. Other historians say that there was a more practical reason for the pharaoh's attraction to this god. There was no powerful priest class built around Aten as there was around Amen-Ra. No great rituals were performed, and no temples had been erected. Therefore, by making Aten his god, Amenhotep IV may have been attempting to win more power for himself. He may have wanted to weaken the power of the priest class and centralize it in the office of pharaoh.
During the Amarna period, as Akhenaten's rule is known, the art of Egypt went through a revolution. Egyptian art traditionally portrayed people in a lifeless, dignified, and stiff manner. In profile, their faces appeared calm and almost expressionless. Emphasis was on angular lines. Realism became more common during Akhenaten's rule. In the visual arts there was more use of curved lines and roundness. Portraits showed motion and close relations between people. Vegetation and nature were added. Akhenaten and his wife, Neferneferuaten, were shown in formal poses making offerings to the sun god, Aten, but they were also seen in happy domestic scenes, playing with three of their daughters. This emphasis on realism and human qualities even translated to writing. The vernacular, or common spoken language, was introduced into the written language for the first time.
Realism was encouraged in paintings of Akhenaten. He was shown with a thin, drawn-out face, a pointed chin and thick lips, an elongated neck, and almost feminine breasts. He had a round belly with wide hips, fat thighs, thin legs, and long, spidery fingers. These portrayals have inspired many art and medical historians to consider the Akhenaten's physical condition. Many historians have speculated whether these depictions of him reflect a disease that affected his appearance, such as Marfan's syndrome, a disorder affecting the elastic tissue, skeleton, cardiovascular system, and eyes. There are many theories about Akhenaten and why he appears as he does in the artwork from the Amarna period. Until his mummy is found, however, no verification is available. Regardless of whether Akhenaten had such a disease, the art from his rule endures as a unique and curious period in Egyptian history.
In his third year of power Amenhotep IV decided to celebrate what was known as a Sed-festival. The festival was a royal celebration usually held only in the thirtieth year of a pharaoh's rule. This made it apparent to many that Amenhotep IV was trying to increase his power. Around 1347 bce he established Aten as the state god of Egypt. The following year he officially changed his name to Akhenaten. His wife changed hers to Neferneferuaten ("Exquisite Beauty of the Aten"). That same year Akhenaten decided to move the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new location two hundred miles distant, on the east side of the Nile. This place is now called Tel el-Amarna or Amarna, and Amarna is the name given to the brief period of Akhenaten's rule from that capital.
The Amarna period
On this desert site Akhenaten created a new capital, called Akhetaten ("Horizon of Aten"). It stretched for five miles on a narrow band of desert between high cliffs and the Nile River. To the north and south were the homes of merchants and government officials. In the center of the city lay the royal palace, the granaries (grain storage buildings), and the Great Temple of Aten. Akhenaten's worship of the sun influenced a new style of architecture. His temples to Aten were not the usual massive, closed structures, but a series of open courts facing east, the direction in which the sun rises. Even the doorways in these temples had openings in the tops of their frames to allow the light of the sun to reach every corner. The city appears to have been created as a huge stage for Akhenaten. His daily journey from his palace through the city and back again was said to symbolize the passage of the sun from sunrise to sunset.
Just as Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten worshipped Aten, so did the Egyptian people in turn worship Akhenaten and his wife. They believed Aten gave life through the pharaoh, who they saw as his direct representative and son. In the ninth year of his rule Akhenaten announced that Aten was not just the supreme god of Egypt, but the only god. Therefore the power of Akhenaten, who was Aten's representative, was multiplied along with the god's increase in status. The word "gods" on public monuments was erased. The priest class the pharaoh established competed with the older priests who served Amen and Ra and had assembled enormous power for themselves. Temples to Amen and Ra were closed or destroyed. Akhenaten even declared that Aten would take over the work of Osiris, god of the underworld and the dead, and look after the souls of the departed. No longer would there be an underworld where such spirits dwelled. Instead the spirits, or ba, remained on Earth. At sunset, spirits that were found loyal to Akhenaten traveled to the temple of Aten at Akhetaten, where they received offerings.
These later stages of Atenism were a form of monotheism. Since the people actually worshipped Akhenaten and his wife rather than Aten directly, however, it was different from the strict monotheism practiced in religions developed later such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Atenism had no apparent ethical system or code of conduct. Instead, it appears to have been more a form of nature worship. Hymns that were written to Aten praised nature and the power of the sun. Some historians have speculated that Akhenaten and his religion influenced the contemporary Hebrew lawgiver and religious leader Moses (c. 1392–c. 1272 bce; see entry). For example, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the father of modern psychiatry (the study of the mind and its ills), wrote in his Moses and Monotheism that Moses was a priest of Aten forced to flee Egypt after the death of Akhenaten. The lack of moral guidelines in Atenism, however, is in striking contrast to the many laws of Judaism.
Another interesting aspect of Akhenaten's reign and of Atenism is the stronger role women played during this period. Akhenaten's mother, Tiy, continued to play an important role in the government. Some historians even say that she may have been a coregent until her death. Neferneferuaten is believed by many archaeologists and historians to have had a strong influential role over her husband. Akhenaten also had other royal wives, including Kiya. She was probably the mother of Tutankhamen, the child-pharaoh, whose tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. In addition, there was Meritaten, the primary royal wife later in Akhenaten's rule, and Ankhesenpaaten. These last two may also have been Akhenaten's own daughters.
Decline and fall
Akhenaten's focus on religion led to a decline in the economic power of Egypt. Great sums were spent on the building of Akhetaten and the construction of temples to Aten throughout the country. The property and wealth of other temples were transferred to those honoring Aten. This ultimately led to misuse of funds and corruption. Additionally, Akhenaten's focus on religion had harmful results on the politics of Egypt, both within the empire and internationally. Akhenaten made many political enemies when he destroyed the religious traditions of centuries in a few short years. He also neglected the army, and without a strong army, order could not be kept.
Akhenaten ignored the outposts of his empire in Syria and Palestine, as documented in the writings later called the Amarna Letters. These 380 clay tablets present letters between Akhenaten and the kings or princes of colonies all over the Middle East. They include requests for aid from the local princes, who were being invaded by other tribes. It appears Akhenaten did nothing to help these princes. The vast Egyptian empire he had inherited eventually began to fall apart. Foreign trade was lost, and new enemies threatened Egypt. There was also an outbreak of influenza (flu) or the plague during the later Amarna period. The sickness spread into the Middle East. The Egyptian people began to wonder if the old gods had turned against Akhenaten.
Toward the end of his seventeen-year reign, Akhenaten appears to have tried to strengthen his failing rule. His successor, Smenkhare, may have acted as coregent for a time. Historical documents do not note what happened to Neferneferuaten at the end of her husband's reign. Archaeologists suspect that she either took a stronger role in the government or died and was replaced by other wives. Akhenaten died peacefully at about thirty-five years of age. He was succeeded by Smenkhare, probably one of his sons by Kiya. When Smenkhare died suddenly, Tutankhaten took over the leadership. He soon changed his name to Tutankhamen, embracing the old god Amen and moving the capital back to Thebes.
The Amen-Ra priesthood once again came to power. After the death of the next pharaoh, Ay, and the takeover by the military leader Horemheb, all four pharaohs that were associated with the Amarna period were erased from the historical record of Egypt. The ruins of Akhenaten's once-glorious city eventually crumbled back into the desert. His experiment in monotheism was a forgotten part of history for three thousand years. It was not until the late nineteenth century that archaeologists uncovered the riches of this era in Egyptian history. The site of Akhetaten was initially investigated by archaeologist John Gardner Wilkinson in 1824. Its story was then gradually revealed to the public.
For More Information
Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: King of Egypt. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Assmann, Jan. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
Johnson, Paul. The Civilization of Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998.
Montserrat, Dominic. Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.
Redford, Donald. Akhenaten, the Heretic King. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Reeves, Nicholas. Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet. London; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Ohayon, Stephen. "In Search of Akhenaten." American Imago (summer 1982): 165-179.
Ray, John. "Akhenaten: Ancient Egypt's Prodigal Son?" History Today ( January 1990): 26-32.
Skurdenis, Julie. "Akhetaten: A Heretic Pharaoh's City." International Travel News (November 1992): 79-82.
Wassef, Ayyam. "Aket-aton, City of the Sun." UNESCO Courier (February 1991): 22-24.
"Akhenaten." Egyptology Online. http://www.egyptologyonline.com/akhenaten1.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)." Egypt: Rulers, Kings, and Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. http://www.touregypt.net/18dyn10.htm/ (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"Great Hymn to the Aten." Digital Egypt. http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/amarna/belief.html (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Spence, Kate. "Akhenaten and the Amarna Period." BBC Online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/akhenaten_01.shtml (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Both defiled and admired during his lifetime and long after, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1385 B.C.–c. 1350 B.C.) was a revolutionary who transformed Egyptian society by instituting history's first monotheistic religion. Rejecting belief in Egypt's numerous traditional gods, Akhenaten worshipped the sun disk, or Aten, as the only true god. With his attempted eradication of Egypt's primary god, Amun, Akhenaten earned the hatred of Amun's high priests who called him Egypt's "heretic pharaoh." A pioneer who also encouraged a radical art movement and became founder of the city of Amarna, Akhenaten survived the attempt to wipe his name from history. With his androgynous and deformed appearance, Akhenaten is one of the most fascinating pharaoh's of all time, and one who was considered to be well ahead of his time.
Family Worshipped Amun – Re
Akhenaten ruled during the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. He was the son of King Amenhotep III and his chief wife Queen Tiy, a commoner from the south. Amenhotep III had a long and prosperous reign characterized by diplomacy with neighboring nations rather than long military campaigns, a strategy that strengthened Egypt's security and power. Akhenaten grew up worshipping the traditional gods of the Egyptian people, based on natural elements and forces such as birds, animals, and the sun. The supreme deity was Amun–Re, a merger of the god of the cult Amun with the sun god Re. Sun worship had gained prominence as the universal power of the sun served as a metaphor for the power of Egypt and its kings. Some historical sources say that Queen Tiy had belonged to the cult of the sun disk, called the Aten, a variant of Re–worship, and brought her son into the religion.
In a society in which religion and politics were indivisible, the priests of the chief god Amun gained power and wealth. With increased political influence, the priests of the Temple of Amun at Karnak were beginning to threaten the authority of the pharaohs. Noticing this growing power of the Amun priests, Amenhotep III perhaps had warned his son to curb this threat once he inherited the throne. According to some reports, a co–regency existed for several years between Amenhotep III and his son, Amenhotep IV, as Akhenaten was known for the first few years of his reign. The new king's chief wife was Nefertiti, whose great beauty was immortalized in the famous bust sculpture. Akhenaten and Nefertiti were known to have had six daughters, and with one of his other wives, Kiya, he had a son, the famous Tutankhamen.
Changed His Name to Akhenaten
The date of Akhenaten's ascension to the throne varies from 1370 B.C. to 1358 B.C. Most sources agree that in the fifth year of his reign he dramatically altered Egyptian society and religion, introducing a new iconography, art, and the concept of monotheism. Rejecting the primary god Amun as superstition, Akhenaten strengthened his devotion to the sun god, whom he visualized as the round sun disk, called the Aten, "the visible sun." He replaced the traditional image of a falcon as the symbol of deity with the sun disk showing rays of light shooting down and terminating in hands that reached out to the king and his family. Akhenaten issued a new epithet to Aten, according to David P. Silverman in the book Ancient Egypt: "The living one, Re–Harakhte, who becomes active in the Akhet, in his identity of the light that is in the sun disk."
Akhenaten's claim to history was his innovation in proclaiming the sun disk not as a chief among gods, but as the sole god, thus the first recorded monotheism in history. According to Akhenaten, the sun was the supreme force of light and life. Its motion across the sky brought the creation of all living things into the world. The new king even changed his royal name, Amenhotep IV, which meant "Amun is content," reflective of his position as head of the Amun cult, to that of Akhenaten, meaning "effective for Aten." Akhenaten began construction of new temples to the Aten at Karnak and inspired an entirely new artistic style.
Built a Temple at Amarna
The radical new religion was slow to gain a foothold among the Egyptian establishment and especially incurred resentment among the Amun priests. To completely divorce himself and his beliefs from tradition and perhaps to escape the division growing among his people, he abandoned Thebes and decided to built a new capital city devoted entirely to the worship of the Aten.
For his city, he sought virgin land uncontaminated by the cults he despised, land that "belonged to no god or goddess and no lord or mistress, and no other person has the right to tread upon it as the owner," according to Paul Johnson in The Civilization of Ancient Egypt. He found such a place on a desolate strip along the Nile in Middle Egypt halfway between the political capital Thebes and the traditional capital Memphis, an area surrounded on three sides with mountains and on the west with fertile land along the Niles river. He relocated his extended family, loyal nobility, and 20,000 of his subjects to the new capital, which he called Akhetaten, "place where the Aten is effective," or "horizon of the sun." The site today is known as Amarna.
Akhenaten spent great care in designing the layout of the city, royal suites, palaces and temples, as well as workshops and administrative offices. His temples were unique in Egyptian design. Located near the river, they were roofless, open to the sky so the rays of the great sun could blaze down upon the worshippers. In these temples, Akhenaten performed new rituals and sophisticated ceremonies for his new god. Akhenaten's rituals included hymns. He is believed to have composed the "Great Hymn to the Sun" around 1340 B.C. which is noteworthy for its cosmotheistic approach to understanding the world. The hymn, which presents the universal power of the sun as the creator of the natural world, is similar to the famous Psalm 104, and scholars believe it may have directly influenced the Biblical verse.
As translated by Isaac Asimov in The Egyptians, the "Great Hymn to the Sun" reads: "The world came into being by thy hand . . . Thou art lifetime thy own self; For one lives through thee . . . Since thou didst found the earth; And raise them up for thy son; Who came forth from thy body: The king . . . Inknaton and the Chief Wife . . . Nefertiti."
Art Focused on Ordinary Activities
Art was revolutionized during the Amarna Period. In traditional Egyptian art, human subjects were portrayed in a statuesque, stylized, and dignified manner, expressions calm, and bodies in profile. The art of Akhenaten's time featured a new realism showing the close link between the king who was favored by god and the ordinary people. Paintings showed intimacy and motion, designs featured the naturalness of the surroundings including vegetation and frolicking animals, and royal women played a more prominent role in art. Amarna art centered on the king and his royal family, blessed from above by the sun disk of the Aten, in informal poses, conducting everyday activities. Reliefs and stelae in the tombs and temples showed Akhenaten and Nefertiti making offerings to the Aten. In one of the most famous carvings, Akhenaten and Nefertiti are seen in a blissful domestic scene, affectionately playing with three of their daughters beneath the rays of the sun disk.
The effort to portray realism was not spared in depicting Akhenaten himself, drawn as an ugly, deformed man. Contrary to depicting kings as strong, perfect specimens of manhood, Akhenaten was shown with an elongated face and neck, protruding chin, sunken chest, obvious breasts, pot belly, wide hips and thighs, and spindly arms and legs. Some historians mistook the androgynous figure for a queen instead of a king. As art of the time portrayed other subjects, such as animals, with realism, it is assumed the portraits of Akhenaten are accurate. Medical historians have attempted to diagnose the king's condition based on his pictures. One theory is that he suffered an endocrine disorder called Froehlich's Syndrome, which results in an androgynous form but also mental retardation and impotence.
Since it is well accepted that he fathered six daughters, he was more likely to have suffered from Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the skeleton and musculature. Interestingly, since Marfan's Syndrome victims have weak eye sight and sensitivity to cold, it may not have been surprising that Akhenaten was attracted to worshipping the sun. As many of his children were depicted with the same body shape and deformities, it is assumed that his daughters inherited his disorder.
Ordered Destruction of Amun
In his new capital in Amarna, Akhenaten retired from the world and devoted himself to his new religion. In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt's traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god.
In addition to this religious censorship, Akhenaten decreed that he, as pharaoh, was the only priest needed for the worship of the Aten, effectively eliminating the necessity for the priests of Amun. The seat of the Amun priesthood in Thebes viewed Akhenaten as a heretic and desecrator of all things holy. And for the most part, they had the backing of the Egyptian people, who could not relate to the impersonal nature of Akhenaten's single sun god and refused to give up the rich complexity of their traditional rituals and traditions. Akhenaten's intellectual revolution was doomed to fail.
While Akhenaten was secluded in his capital at Amarna and dedicating himself exclusively to his religious duties, the state of Egypt was declining around him. Akhenaten was neglecting domestic and foreign affairs. The economy had begun to collapse, and the empire was falling into bankruptcy. Ironically, it was the Amun priests he had demoted who had been effectively administrating the domestic day–to–day business. Internationally, Egypt's prestige was in decline. At the borders, the Hittite and Assyrian enemies were growing more bold and threatening. Akhenaten ignored messages from his generals in the field in which they stated that they faced a volatile situation and needed reinforcements, and that Egyptian allies were being conquered. Egypt was on the brink of collapse.
Reign Wiped from History
Before disaster to the empire could strike, Akhenaten died in the 17th year of his reign. He was succeeded by a little known pharaoh Smenkhkara who may have been married to Akhenaten's eldest daughter and ruled for only a short time. Following Smenkhkara, the boy king Tutankhaten, perhaps the son of Akhenaten and his other wife Kiya, took over rule of Egypt. He later changed his name to Tutankhamun and became famous around the modern world when his tomb of treasures was discovered.
After the death of Akhenaten, the priests of Amun were anxious to regain their old religion and their power, and the Egyptian people wanted their lives back to the way they had been. By the time of Tutankhamun, the great city at Amarna was abandoned, and what was left of the royal family and their subjects had moved back to the administrative center at Memphis.
As was done at the command of Akhenaten years before, the new kings attempted to erase all traces of the heretical religion. Akhenaten's name and images of the Aten sun disk were ordered removed from monuments and official king lists. His temples were dismantled and the stone reused. Amarna was left to crumble in the desert. The very memory of Akhenaten and his one god was lost after only a few generations, and inscriptions referred to him only as the heretic pharaoh of Akhetaten.
As befitting the "blasphemer," Akhenaten's mummy has never been found. A tomb east of Amarna was never completed and contained the body of one of his daughters. Excavation in the Valley of the Kings in tomb 55 presented a mummy that may have been Akhenaten. Although buried with items belonging to his mother, Queen Tiy, the body was later believed to be that of Smenkhkara.
Aldred, Cyril, Akhenaten King of Egypt, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1988.
Asimov, Isaac, The Egyptians, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1967.
Assmann, Jan, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, Metropolitan Books, New York, 1996.
Johnson, Paul, The Civilization of Ancient Egypt, Harper Collins, 1998.
Silverman, David P. ed., Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
"Akhenaten," Egyptology Online, http://www.egyptologyonline.com/Akhenaten1.htm (January 4, 2005).
"Akhenaten and the Amarna Period," The BBC Online, http://www.bbc/co.uk/history/ancient/Egyptians/Akhenaten–print.html (January 5, 2005).
"Diagnosing an Enigmatic Pharaoh," Discovery Channel Canada,http://www.exn.ca/Stories/1999/03/05/56.asp (January 5, 2005).
Circa 1353-1336 b.c.e .
King, dynasty 18
Beginnings . Akhenaten was the second son of King Amenhotep III of Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295 / 1292 b.c.e.) and his wife Tiye. When his older brother Thutmose died young, he became the crown prince. It is possible that Akhenaten served for a time as co-regent (co-king) with his father, but the evidence for a co-regency is disputed. When his father died around 1353 b.c.e., he ascended to the throne as Amenhotep IV. He was married to the beautiful Nefertiti, as his Great Royal Wife. She may have been his cousin, although this is uncertain. He was also married to a woman named Kiya, who may have been a Mitannian princess. By Nefertiti, Akhenaten had six daughters, three of whom died in infancy. It is also possible that he was the father of Tutankhamun (born Tutankhaten), but, as with so much from this period of Egyptian history, the evidence is inconclusive.
Aten . In the fifth year of his reign the king signaled a new religious direction for his kingdom by changing his name to Akhenaten, “He who is effective for the Aten.” Aten was the Egyptian word for the physical disk of the sun. In the same year the king began construction of a new capital for Egypt. At a vacant site in Middle Egypt he built the city of Akhetaten, “the horizon of the sun-disk.” In the sixth year of his reign Akhenaten moved his family and administration into his new capital.
New Religion . Akhenaten introduced a new religion to Egypt. He worshiped only one god, the light that was in the sun. This light was believed to grant the world life and to keep it alive. This new god was depicted as a sundisk emanating rays that ended in hands. These hands were frequently directed toward Akhenaten and his family and could be shown offering the breath of life, symbolized by ankh-signs, to their noses. In order to worship the Aten, Akhenaten had a new type of temple constructed, reminiscent of the sun temples of Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.). These temples consisted of a series of open courts oriented toward the east, centering on an altar. Such temples were built at Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis, and Akhetaten. In these temples even the doorways had broken lintels to allow the sun’s rays to reach all parts of the temple.
Royal Family . While Akhenaten and his family worshiped the Aten, the people of Egypt, especially those living at Akhetaten, were to worship the royal family. Akhenaten was considered to be the son of the Aten, and it was through him that the Egyptians were to worship the sun. Egyptian homes at Akhetaten contained stelae showing the royal family worshiping the Aten. These stelae served as the focal point of the cult of the Aten within their homes. One official, Panehsy, praised Akhenaten as “my god, who built me, who determined good for me, who made me come into being and gave me bread” (translation by Erik Hornung).
Afterlife . Even the traditional conception of the afterlife underwent a drastic change. No longer did the dead live on in the underworld in the company of Osiris or journey through the sky in the bark of Re. Essentially, there was no longer a world of the beyond. Both the living and the ba-spirits of the dead continued to live here on earth, under the sun’s rays. At sunrise the bas of the justified dead traveled to the Great Temple of the Aten in Akhetaten to receive the sun’s life-giving rays and to participate in the offerings made to Aten in his temple. Justification no longer meant being found innocent in the tribunal of Osiris but was a status reserved for those who were loyal to the king during life. Akhenaten, as Aten’s sole representative on earth, was the dispenser of provisions to the dead.
Amun . Not only did Akhenaten promote the worship of a new deity, he went so far as to close down the temples to the other gods of Egypt, particularly the temples of Amun. Also in his fifth year Akhenaten sent workmen throughout Egypt to remove the names of Amun, his consort Mut, and even the plural term “gods” from the monuments of Egypt. Akhenaten referred to the Aten as a god of whom “there is no other but him.” Aten had no consort, no children (other than Akhenaten), and no opponent. Akhenaten may have been the world’s first monotheist.
Lack of Appeal . Although Akhenaten’s new religion was popular among the royal family and the officials at Akhetaten, it never caught on among the masses. Prayers to Amun have been found even at the workmen’s village at Akhetaten. Akhenaten’s new religion was so closely associated with his person that it could not outlive him. When his seventeen-year reign came to an end, he was succeeded briefly by Semenkhkare, who was followed by Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun during his third year as king. He then abandoned Akhetaten, moving his capital to Memphis. In what has come to be called his “restoration stele,” Tutankhamun records that when he became king, the temples of the gods “had become desolate” and were overgrown with weeds. Because the gods were not being worshiped, they did not bless Egypt and ceased to answer prayers. Tutankhamun described how he had new statues of the gods fashioned, using the finest of materials. He restored the property of the temples to their rightful owners. As a result, the traditional gods of Egypt were said to rejoice once again.
Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten, King of Egypt (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988).
Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, translated by David Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).
Donald Redford, Akhenaten, The Heretic King (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Redford, The Akhenaten Temple Project (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1976).
Carl N. Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001).
Before 1352 b.c.e.–1366 b.c.e.
Founder of a New Religion
Akhenaten was the second son of King Amenhotep III (r. 1390–1352 b.c.e.) of the Eighteenth Dynasty and his wife Tiye. When his older brother Thutmose died young, Akhenaten became the crown prince. It is possible that Akhenaten served for a time as co-regent (co-king) with his father, but the evidence for a co-regency is disputed. When his father died around 1352 b.c.e., he ascended to the throne as Amenhotep IV. He was married to the beautiful Nefertiti, as his Great Royal Wife. She may have been his cousin, although this is uncertain. He was also married to a woman named Kiya, who may have been a Mitannian princess from a region north of modern Iraq. With Nefertiti, Akehnaten had six daughters, three of whom died in infancy. It is also possible that he was the father of Tutankhamun (born Tutankhaten), but, as with so much from this period of Egyptian history, the evidence is inconclusive.
In the fifth year of his reign, the king signaled a new religious direction for his kingdom by changing his name to Akhenaten, "He who is effective for the Aten." "Aten" was the Egyptian word for the physical disk of the sun. In the same year, the king began construction of a new capital for Egypt. At a vacant site in Middle Egypt he built the city of Akhetaten, "the horizon of the sun-disk." In the sixth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved his family and administration into his new capital.
Akhenaten introduced a new religion to Egypt. Akhenaten worshipped only one god, the light that was in the sun. This light was believed to grant the world life, and to keep it alive. This new god was depicted as a sun disk emanating rays that ended in hands. These hands were frequently directed towards Akhenaten and his family, and could be shown offering the breath of life, symbolized by ankh-signs, to their noses. In order to worship the Aten, Akhenaten had a new type of temple constructed, reminiscent of the sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 b.c.e.), nearly 1,000 years earlier. These temples consisted of a series of open courts oriented towards the east, centering on an altar. Such temples were built at Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis, and of course, Akhetaten. In these temples, even the doorways had broken lintels, to allow the sun's rays to reach all parts of the temple.
While Akhenaten and his family worshipped the Aten, the people of Egypt, especially those living at Akhetaten, were to worship the royal family. Akhenaten was considered to be the son of the Aten, and it was through him that the Egyptians were to worship the sun. Egyptian homes at Akhetaten contained stelae (carved or inscribed slabs of stone) showing the royal family worshipping the Aten. These stelae served as the focal point of the cult of the Aten within their homes. One official, Panehsy, praised Akhenaten as "my god, who built me, who determined good for me, who made me come into being and gave me bread."
Even the traditional conception of the afterlife underwent a drastic change. No longer did the dead live on in the underworld in the company of Osiris, or journey through the sky in the barque of Re. Essentially there was no longer a world of the beyond. Both the living and the ba-spirits of the dead continued to live here on earth, under the sun's rays. At sunrise, the bas of the justified dead traveled to the Great Temple of the Aten in Akhetaten to receive the sun's life-giving rays and to participate in the offerings made to Aten in his temple. Justification no longer meant being found innocent in the tribunal of Osiris, but was a status reserved for those who were loyal to the king during life. Akhenaten, as Aten's sole representative on earth, was the dispenser of provisions to the dead.
Not only did Akhenaten promote the worship of a new deity, he went so far as to close down the temples to the other gods of Egypt, particularly the temples of Amun. Also in his fifth year, Akhenaten sent workmen throughout Egypt to remove the names of Amun, his consort Mut, and even the plural term "gods" from the monuments of Egypt. Akhenaten referred to the Aten as a god of whom "there is no other but him." Aten had no consort, no children (other than Akhenaten), and no opponent. Akhenaten may have been the world's first monotheist. After his death, however, Tutankhamun soon restored the full Egyptian pantheon. Akhenaten's revolution was short-lived and unsuccessful.
Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten King of Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988).
Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).
Donald Redford, Akhenaten: The Heretic King (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Ikhnaton (reigned 1379-1362 B.C.) was the tenth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. His reign was marked by the flourishing of the worship of Aten and by numerous uprisings.
Ikhnaton, son of Amenhotep III (Amenophis III), ascended the throne of Egypt as Amenhotep IV (Amenophis IV). A devotee of the cult of the Aten, or sun disk, the young king soon came into conflict with the priest-hood of Amun, one of Egypt's premier gods, and its supporters.
There is evidence that the cult of the sun disk existed in the reign of Thutmose IV (1425-1417 B.C.) and that during the reign of Amenhotep III its importance had grown until it was formally adopted by his son. Basically the cult was monotheistic. It was not anthropomorphic, its manifestation being the disk of the sun, the giver of heat, light, and life. The Aten is represented as the disk from which emanate rays ending in hands holding the sign for "life." Considerable emphasis was laid on maat, a word usually rendered "truth," but whose full meaning seems to have been "order" or "reality." While the Aten cult did not embody any complicated theology, at the same time it lacked moral content.
Early in his reign Amenhotep IV proscribed the worship of Amun and other state deities and moved his capital from Thebes to a fresh site on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt which he named Akhetaten, "the Horizon of the Aten" (now Tell el Amarna). Here, together with his queen, Nefertiti, and his supporters, many of them apparently "new men" taking advantage of the collapse of the old noble class, Amenhotep adopted the new name Ikhnaton (Akhenaten) and devoted himself to the promotion of his new faith.
Ikhnaton found little general support for his ideas, and a number of setbacks toward the end of his 17-year reign obliged him to modify his policies. An apparent disagreement with Nefertiti, together with unrest within the Egyptian Empire, so weakened his position that a rapprochement with the Amun priesthood became necessary, though this may perhaps not have occurred during his lifetime.
Ikhnaton appears to have displayed little interest in foreign affairs and to have done little to maintain the empire created by his predecessors. His inactivity resulted in the rise of subversive movements among the vassal princes of Palestine and Syria and in incursions into friendly areas by hostile forces. Many of the so-called Amarna Letters (discovered in 1887) contain desperate appeals from loyal vassals of the Pharaoh for help against marauding neighbors. After his death the memory of Ikhnaton was abhorred and his name hacked from the monuments.
An excellent general account of Ikhnaton and his times is given in Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt: A New Study (1968). For a clear and succinct account of the topography of Akhetaten see J. D. S. Pendlebury, Tell el-Amarna (1935). For material on the Aten cult see Jaroslav Č erný, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1952). Contemporary affairs outside Egypt are discussed in W. F. Albright's chapter, "The Amarna Letters from Palestine: Syria, the Philistines and Phoenicia," in I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2 (rev. ed. 1966). □