Akhenaton or Akhenaten

views updated


AKHENATON or AKHENATEN (Amenophis iv ; c. 1367–1350 b.c.e. or 1350–1334), Egyptian pharaoh. Son of *Amenophis iii and one of the most controversial figures in Egyptian history, Akhenaton has been credited, with justification, as the earliest monotheist in history. When Akhenaton came to the throne, after the wars of the 18th-dynasty kings in Asia had ceased, the most important and most powerful deity in Egypt was Amun-Re, and his was the most powerful priesthood. Second to Amun was the cult of the sun god Re in his various manifestations. Amun-Re had given victory to Egypt's pharaohs. They, in turn, showed their gratitude with wealth and endowments to the Amun-Re priesthood. Fostering the cult of a minor manifestation of the sun god Aton, Akhenaton made a complete break with the Amun cult, eventually going so far as to ban it and persecute its adherents. He abandoned his given name Amenophis, "Amun-is-satisfied," for Akhenaton, "He-who-is-useful to the sun-disc," or "Glorified-spirit-of-the-sun-disk." Although the king's actions had social and economic ramifications, and clearly weakened the Amun-Re priestshood as well as the priesthoods and cults of the other gods, it would be inaccurate to see his religious revolution as a pretext. Akhenaton broke sharply with the past, suppressed the cults of all the ancient gods, and championed a dehistoricized god of light and time. His solar deity was the creator of what would later be called "the universe," its sustainer and the mirror image of pharaonic monarchy. Akhenaton's iconoclasm extended beyond the elimination of images of deity and ridding the cult of myth. He even had the hieroglyphic script purged of its anthropomorphisms and theriomorphisms (images of gods in animal form) and did away with the world of The Beyond. Akhenaton's iconography reduced the sun to a solar disk, the Aton/Aten. Some scholars point to the fact that only Akhenaton and his wife worshipped the Aton, while the king himself was worshipped by the people, as proof that that the teachings of the king did not amount to true monotheism. But it might be more productive to compare Akhenaton's role to that of Jesus as the door to the Father in Christianity (Ephesians 3:4) and to a lesser extent, to that of the *Ẓaddik as the mediator between God and humanity in Ḥasidism. As the army sided with the king, Akhenaton's revolution temporarily succeeded. The capital was transferred from Thebes to Akhetaton (modern El-Amarna), Amun-Re was suppressed, and the Aton became the paramount deity of Egypt. After Akhenaton's death, the old religious order triumphed and Atonism was vigorously stamped out.

Akhenaton's capital at Amarna was not only the center of a vigorous naturalistic art that broke with tradition in subject matter, though not in form or canon, but was also the site where the Amarna tablets, some 380 cuneiform texts, mostly letters, representing a portion of the foreign archives of the Egyptian court, were found. When first studied, these texts, the most important contemporary sources for Egypt's foreign policy toward Palestine and Syria, presented a picture of the empire's decline due to Akhenaton's indolence and pacificism. The threat of a Hittite invasion, the raids of *Habiru nomads, and treason on the part of the Egyptian vassals all seemed to be ignored by the Egyptian court. This was not the case, however. Egypt's main interest was to keep the trade routes to Mesopotamia open, and only incidentally to keep the tenuous peace. When Egyptian interests were really threatened, action was taken. There is even evidence in the Amarna Letters that Akhenaton was planning a campaign in Asia at the time of his death (see also *Tell el-Amarna). Forty years later the only mention of him in an Egyptian text is as "that criminal of Akhenaton."


J.A. Wilson, Culture of Ancient Egypt (1958), 208–9, 215–28, 230–3; A.R. Schulman, in: Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 3 (1964), 51–69; C. Aldred, Akhenaten (1968); A. Weigall, The Life of Akhnaton (19222); D.B. Redford, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (1967), 88–182. add. bibliography: Idem, Akhenaten, the Heretic King (1984); idem, abd, 1, 135–37; idem, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (1992), 377–82; J. Assmann, in: Bibel und Kirche, 49 (1994), 78–82.

[Alan Richard Schulman /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]