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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).


views updated Jun 08 2018

Akhenaten (14th century bc), Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, reigned 1379–1362 bc, who came to the throne as Amenhotep IV. The husband of Nefertiti, he introduced the monotheistic solar cult of Aten and moved the capital from Thebes to the newly built city of Akhetaten. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Tutankhamen, who abandoned the new religion early in his reign.

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