Akhnaton (Amenhotep IV)

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Akhnaton is the name that Amenhotep IV gave to himself, although Egyptologists, following the practice of Manetho, usually call him Amenophis IV. He was the son and successor of Amenhotep III and ruled for some 17 years, about the middle of the 14th century b.c. (13721354, according to E. Drioton and J. Vandier, L'Égypte, 3d ed., 631; 13531336, according to W. Helck-E. Otto, Kleines Wörterbuch der Ägyptologie 37). His mother was Tiye. His wife, Nefertiti, cannot be identified, as some have claimed, with Princess Tadukhepa, the daughter of the Mitannian King Tushratta; her nurse was Teye, the wife of Ay, and she had a sister in Egypt named Benremut. The history of the reign of Amenhotep IV is dominated by the religious revolution that he unleashed against Amon and the other Egyptian gods. This revolt so engaged his energies that it caused the collapse of the empire that Thutmosis III had built up in Syria and Phoenicia.

The Aton Reform. From the beginning of his reign, Amenhotep IV showed his devotion to a particular form of the sun-god, the solar disk, which was called Aton. Aton appears more and more frequently on the monuments and in the texts that date from the beginning of the New Empire, especially under Amenhotep III; but from this it does not follow that the solar disk had already been the object of a special cult. East of the temple of Amon at Karnak, Amenhotep IV built for Aton a solar temple like the one in Heliopolis. Its god was represented under the form of a solar disk, the rays of which ended in human hands. It is important to note that the colossal statues of the king that adorned this temple were made in a new style that was to become characteristic of the Amarna Art, as it is called. In the tombs of his officials, e.g., that of the vizier, Ramose, the traditional art is also suddenly replaced by this realistic style. This shows that the sovereign was able to impose his novel ideas on his contemporaries, and we can suppose that these art forms served merely as means to express his equally revolutionary notions in religious matters. Thereupon the conflict that this involved with the traditionalists reached a critical point, and things began to happen quickly. In the sixth year of his reign Amenhotep IV left Thebes and founded a city, halfway between Luxor and Cairo, on a site that is currently known as el-Amarna, but that he called Akhetaton (the Horizon of Aton). Here he surrounded himself with officials who were homines novi and were totally devoted to him. Soon he proscribed the cult of most of the other gods, particularly that of Amon. Their temples were closed, their statues smashed, and their names chiseled out of every monument, whether big or little. His own name, Amenhotep, "Amon is merciful," he changed to Akhnaton, "Useful to Aton."

Akhnaton's new doctrine finds its best expression in the famous hymn to Aton that appears in certain tombs of his officials at el-Amarna, most notably the tomb of Ay, who later succeeded Tut-ankh-Amon on the throne of Egypt (see J. B. Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 36971). Akhnaton himself is credited with its composition. The tenor of this hymn is thoroughly monotheistic; yet a careful study of it shows that it does not really contain much that had not been said before in the hymns to Amon and various other gods. Actually, the traditional cults also showed a strong monotheistic tendency (see egypt, ancient), but the syncretism that is the basis of the old religion is entirely absent here, and it is precisely this that constitutes, above all else, the novelty of the hymn. The new faith ignored all the old gods that were venerated under animal or human forms and worshiped only the sun-god, under the form of the solar disk. An exception, however, must be made for the cult of the bull, Mnevis, which was also introduced at Akhetaton. This detail shows how much the religion of Akhnaton was indebted to the Heliopolitan cult. The conclusion can be drawn that what the king really did was to carry to its extreme the ideology of the ancient solar religion by abolishing, as E. Drioton expresses it, "the contradiction, that had always been felt by the more enlightened thinkers, between the monotheism professed by the educated classes and their official polytheism" ["Le monothéisme de L'Ancienne Égypte" Cahiers d'histoire égyptienne (Cairo 1949) 167]. There is no need, therefore, to look outside of Egypt, as some have done, for the motives that inspired this reform.

The relations with Heliopolis are evident also in the plan of the sanctuary at Akhetaton, which, though more complicated, belongs to the general type of solar temples. The first part consisted of the per-hat, "house of jubilation," a courtyard with two altars, and of the gem-Aton, "Aton was found," a series of courtyards with altars. The second part, the house of benben, likewise comprised two courtyards, one of which was enclosed with a peristyle within which was probably an obelisk.

End of the Reign. Such simple and rational doctrine, however, proved insufficient, even though it was propagated by a fanatical prophet, who was at the same time both a poet and an originator of a new aesthetic ideal. Immemorial tradition showed itself still stronger. The Aton doctrine won few adepts apart from Akhnaton himself, and scarcely was he dead when even his former friends returned to the old religion. The last years of his life were not happy. His second daughter, Meketaton, died. His wife, Nefertiti, fell into disgrace, and in her palace to the south of Akhetaton her name and image were everywhere replaced by those of her oldest daughter, Meritaton, the wife of Akhnaton's younger brother, Smenkhkarē, who began to make conciliatory gestures to the Amon priesthood. Tut-ankh-Aton, the husband of Akhnaton's third daughter and later his successor, changed his name to Tut-ankh-Amon for his short reign at Thebes, during which he officially restored the Amon cult. Horemheb, when ascending the throne, wiped out the last traces of the Aton heresy. It was probably at this time that Akhnaton suffered his damnatio memoriae and that his body was doomed to destruction, though perhaps secretly saved by some of the small group of his loyal followers. Succeeding generations regarded him merely as "the enemy at Akhetaton."

Bibliography: j. a. wilson, The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture (Chicago 1951) ch. 9; also available as The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago 1956). a. h. gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford 1961) ch. 9. l. g. leeuwenberg, Echnaton (The Hague 1946).

[j. vergote]