Akhenaten, known as Amenhotep IV at the start of his reign, was a Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. He was born to Amenhotep III and his Chief Queen Tiy at some point during his father's reign. Amenhotep IV succeeded his father after Amenhotep III's death at the end of a 38-year reign, possibly after a co-regency between the two for up to 12 years. Suggested dates for Akhenaten's reign (subject to the debates surrounding Egyptian chronology) are from 1367 B.C.E. to 1350 B.C.E. or from 1350 B.C.E./1349 B.C.E. to 1334 B.C.E./ 1333 B.C.E.
Akhenaten's chief wife was Nefertiti, who has been made famous as the most “beautiful women in the world” by her bust in the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. Akhenaton was vilified by his successors for his neglect of the traditional religious cult and as a heretic in introducing monotheistic reforms. He was all but struck from the historical record. However, he remains a figure of great interest and at least one writer decribes him as the most original thinker of all the Pharaohs. His exclusive worship of one God and advocacy of universal values represent an early expression of what was later championed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The possibility that he made some contribution to the development of the three Abrahamic or Semitic faiths and their ideas, although unacceptable to many people, cannot be ruled out.
The possibility that monotheism somehow and for some reason inspired him is a fascinating proposition, suggesting that a single divine will is to include all nations and cultures and people in his embrace. As Akhenaten expressed it, “Thoe settest every man in his place, and makest sustenance, each one possessing his food, and his term of life counted; tongues made diverse in speech, and their characters likewise; their complexions distinguished, for thou has distinguished country and country” (Montet 1968, 141). The short-lived nature of his reform was caused by his neglect of politics and of the economy, which unfortunately declined during his reign. This serves as a lesson that internal or spiritual affairs need to be balanced by care of external, material concerns. Akhenaten is also remarkable for having afforded his chief wife considerable authority, which has been described as unprecedented in Egyptian history.
- Akhnaten', Akhenaton, Akhnaton, Ankhenaten, Ankhenaton, Ikhnaton
Unusually, Pharaoah Amenhotep IV was not invested as custom dictated at the main Temple in Karnak but at Hermonthis, where his uncle Inen was High Priest (Ptahmose) of Amen-Re, the Sun God. However, very soon after his coronation, the new Pharaoh began to build a roofless temple to a previously obscure God Aten (or Atum), the disk of the rising sun. He soon forbade the worship of other gods, especially of the state god Amen of Thebes.
In the sixth year he changed his name from Amenhotep ("Amen is satisfied") to Akhenaten ("beneficial to Aten") and left Thebes for a new capital at Akhetaten (El Amarna), which he started to build. Funds were diverted from the Amun or Amen cultus to the new one. No image of this God was ever made, thus it is often referred to in English in the impersonal form, ‘the Aten.’ Akhenaten vastly simplified Egyptian religion by proclaiming the visible sun itself to be the sole deity, thus introducing monotheism. Some commentators interpret this as a proto-scientific naturalism, based on the observation that the sun's energy is the ultimate source of all life. Others consider it to be a way of cutting through the previously ritualistic emphasis of Egyptian religion to allow for a new ‘personal relationship’ with God.
This religious reformation appears to have begun with his decision to celebrate a Sed-festival in his third regal year—a highly unusual step, since a Sed-festival (a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharaoh's divine powers of kingship) was traditionally held in the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh's reign. Perhaps absence of any reference to the realm of the dead, so prominent in Egyptian religion, was the most remarkable feature. So much wealth and effort was traditionally invested in preparation for death that this aspect of the Armana episode is quite astonishing, although Freud (1955) saw this as a necessary part of the struggle against the “popular religion, where the death-god Osiris played perhaps a greater part than any God of the upper regions” (29).
In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt, including one at Karnak, close to the old temple of Amun. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as the old gods had been. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten, which began:
The hymn goes on to proclaim that Aten's “works are manifold [and] mysterious in men's sight.” He is “the sole God, like to whom there is none other [who] didst create the earth [after his own] heart.” Aten “makest the seasons in order to prosper all” that he had made (Montet 1968, 140-141). Aten is both near and distant.
Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Ra-Harakhti (itself the result of an earlier fusion of two solar deities, Ra and Horus), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However, by the ninth year of his reign, Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He even ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt. Departing from the traditional of claim of divinity, Akhenaton was himself the high priest and his chief wife, Nefertiti, was high priestess. It may have been believed that only through the combination of husband and wife or priest and priestess could the full power of the deity be revealed. Reliefs show king and queen offering flowers as gifts to Aten.
Akhenaten's reform may have been partly motivated by the desire to curb the power of the priests, whose wealth and power rivaled the Pharoahs, by assuming a priestly role for himself. The old cultus was neglected, no priests or high priests were appointed and the temples fell into neglect. Amenhotep III had also favored Aten, especially towards the end of his reign, “probably in opposition to the worship of Amon in Thebes” (Freud 1955, 22). Montet points out, too, a certain henotheistic trend in Egypt that had many earlier Pharoahs “of vaguely monotheistic tendency [speak] more often than not of the god than they did of the gods” (1968, 144). Certainly, it seems that the priests of Ra led the backlash against his reform following his death.
Nefertiti exercised a great deal of authority, perhaps almost as much as her husband. This is suggested by the fact that in the art of the period (known as the Amarna period) there are more depiction of her than of the Pharaoh himself, while one relief has her adopting one of the poses of the Pharaoh, that of the victor in battle. Towards the end of the period, however, she appears to disappear from the artistic record. In artwork, her status is evident and indicates that she had almost as much influence as her husband. It has even been suggested that after his death she ruled in her own right. Indeed, she is once even shown in the conventional pose of a pharaoh smiting his (or in this case, her) enemy. In other depictions, she wears crowns that usually only male royalty wore. On the other hand, she is typically depicted as much smaller than her husband, which accentuates his power. In contrast, the images of Rameses II's wife, at Abu Simbal, show his queen Nefertari equal in stature.
Aten's name is also written differently after Year 9, to emphasize the radicalism of the new regime which included a ban on idols, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten, who by then was evidently considered not merely a sun god but rather a universal deity. This is indicated by references in the hymn to Aten's also blessing the Syrians and the Nubians. The hymn refers, as cited above, to all peoples and their racial characteristics as Aten's creation. Aten, too, is “life” and “men live by [him].” Representations of the symbol (the solar disc) of the god, too, were accompanied by an inscription pointing out that something that was transcendent could not properly or completely be represented by anything of which god was the original creator.
There has been much speculation about possible links between Akhenaten and Moses. While there is no empirical evidence of any link, scholars have been fascinated by the possibility that monotheism may have started in Egypt and influenced Judaism or that there may have been at the least some traffic between Judaism and Akhenaton's creed. It could equally be argued that it was Moses who influenced Akhenaton, if indeed there was any contact at all. It is usually assumed that prior to Moses, the Hebrews were henotheists (gave exclusive allegiance to one God but did not deny the existence of others) and that Moses introduced monotheism. For Muslims, however, Abraham was a monotheist (many say the first, although that designation usually belongs to Adam) (see Q16:123). The early stage of Atenism also appears to be a kind of henotheism familiar in Egyptian religion, but the later form suggests a proto-monotheism. Texts frequently refer to Akhenaten's theology as a "kind of monotheism" (Montserrat: 36). Some have described him as the "world's first monotheist." (Petras: 16). Osman, for example, writes " from historical sources, Akhenaten is the first person we know of to introduce worship of one God" (Osman: 162). Some argue that Egyptian religion was monotheistic anyway, thus Akhenaton cannot be described as introducing a completely new notion; "Despite the polytheistic nature of Egyptian religion, it derived from an essentially monotheistic belief in a single creator deity responsible for all that existed, including the other deities" (Greenberg: 155).
The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis), in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness. According to Freud, Moses was an Egyptian (not a Hebrew) close to Akhenaten. His “slowness of speech” could be explained by his not being a native Hebrew speaker (1955: 37-8). Freud's theory has generated a great deal of interest because it represents a possible interpretation of the little historical evidence that is available on when Moses might have lived in Egypt. The theory does challenge a traditional Jewish and Christian view, so it is easy for 'insiders' to dismiss contributions from outside religion as unqualified to speak about religion, as if scientists and psychologists have no genuine interest in religious matters, claiming a privileged right to speak on matters of faith.
Moses was, said Freud, probably either of royal or priestly blood conscious of his own “great abilities.” “Ambitious and energetic,” when he was passed over for advancement or succession following Akhenaten's death, he decided to lead another people instead. The “dreamer Akhenaten” had alienated his own people, too, who did not warm to his new creed, so Moses thought that another people might be more receptive. He chose a “certain Semitic tribe” in the region of Goshen, of which he may have been Governor. Freud dated the Exodus between 1358 and 1350 B.C.E.; “that is to say, after the death of Ikhnaton and before the restitution of the authority of the state by Haremhab” (33) (Haremhab was a general under both Akhenaten and Amenhotep III, then co-king with Tutankhamun, whom he succeeded and possibly murdered).
Freud comments that while we do not know much about Akhenaten's religion because he followed the restoration of the cult of Amon who destroyed artifacts, but Freud nonetheless compares and contrasts Mosaic and Armana religion. While he notes significant differences (for example, the Egyptian religion retained an element of sun-worship) similarities include the name of the deity (Atun for the Egyptians, Adonai (“Lord”) for the Hebrews), rejection of images and absence of interest in what happens “beyond the grave” (28-29). Also, all “myth, magic and sorcery” were excluded from Armana religion (26). Freud thinks that circumcision, an ancient Egyptian practice, was also introduced by Moses (not Abraham) and that Moses intended to establish his people as a “holy nation” (34) who could look down on people who did not circumcise themselves (33). The Levites, Freud suggests, were relatives of Moses. The Greek historian, Strabo (64 B.C.E.-24 C.E.) refers to an ancient belief that “the Egyptians were the ancestors of the present Jews” . The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (37 to 100 C.E.) also denied the charge that “our fathers were not originally Egyptians” in his reply to Apion (Book 2: 2; ) suggesting that this was a popular notion at the time (Whiston Vol. 3, 569).
Recently Ahmed Osman has claimed that Moses and Akhenaten were one and the same person, supporting his belief by interpreting aspects of biblical and Egyptian history. This would mesh with Osman's other claim that Akhenaten's maternal grandfather Yuya was the same person as the Biblical Joseph. Others have identified Akhenaton not with a Pharaoh of close to Moses' times (usually identified as Rameses II) but with the Pharoah who appointed Joseph as his vizier. Mainstream Egyptologists do not take these speculations seriously, pointing out that there are direct connections between early Judaism and other Semitic religious traditions, but no identifiable links to Atenism. It is also known that Yuya's family were part of the regional nobility of Akhmin, in Upper Egypt, which would make it very unlikely that he was an Israelite. In his book Oedipus and Akhnaton (1960), Immanuel Velikovsky argued that Moses was neither Akhenaten nor one of his followers. Instead, Velikovsky identifies Akhenaten as the history behind Oedipus and moved the setting from the Greek Thebes to the Egyptian Thebes.
There is a modern-day religion akin to ancient Egyptian religious practice (with the exception of Atenism), which is referred to as "Kemetic Orthodoxy." Practitioners consider both the ancient Egyptian religion and their modern equivalent to be monolatrous Monolatrism. Changes in Atenism are easier to understand as a shift from monolatry to proto-monotheism is considerably less radical than a shift from henotheism.
The aim of this art and the philosophy that informed it has been described as “living in truth” (Montet, 142). Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, expressing a new freedom that perhaps accompanied the new religion. Several artists of distinction flourished. Akhenaten himself was a poet and musician. Depictions bearing a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated ugliness of Akhenaton and the beauty of Nefertiti have been found. Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. The king and queen's daughters are seen sitting beside them on cushions, exchanging caresses (Montet, 142). Nefertiti and Tyre, the Queen Mother (who lived on in the royal household as a revered “wise woman”) are often depicted drinking from the same goblet. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly bizarre appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips, giving rise to controversial theories such as that he may have actually been a woman masquerading as a man, or that he was a hermaphrodite or had some other intersex condition. In some depictions, he had no genitalia. The fact that Akhenaten had several children argues against these suggestions. Given Nefertiti's fabled beauty, could it be that Akhenaten was being self-deprecating in his portraits of himself? Discovered facing what had been the Temple of Aten, was the king depicting himself as a mere human, unworthy of kingship or of paying homage to the great God? Depictions also show that the king had a healthy appetite. Also, since the Pharaoh controlled what was sculpted, he must have wanted to be pictured as he was.
Many scholars have speculated about possible explanations for Akhenaten's physical appearance. Bob Brier, in his book The Murder of Tutankhamen, suggests that Akhenaten's family suffered from Marfan's syndrome, a dominant autosomal mutation of chromosome 15, which is known to cause elongated features, a long thin face, arachnodactyly (spider-like fingers), a sunken chest and an enlarged aorta, with a proneness for heart problems. Conic shaped eyes also gives a distinctive slit eyed appearance, and may be associated with shortsightedness. Brier speculates that this may explain Akhenaten's appearance, and perhaps his fascination with the sun - since Marfan's sufferers often feel cold easily. See Rosensweig 1999.
As evidence of Marfan's Syndrome, being a dominant characteristic it tends to be passed on to the children, usually appearing after ten years of age. Artists tended to show Akhenaten's children as suffering the same physical character as their father. If the family did suffer from Marfan's syndrome it could help explain the high mortality of three of Akhenaten's daughters and his son and co-regent, Smenkhkare, all of whom died within a brief period of five years at the end of Akhenaten's reign. Smenkhkare’s actual identity is also a matter of debate (see below). He may or may not have been the Pharaoh's son. Against the Marfan's diagnosis is the fact Tutankhamon (possibly Akhenaten's brother), does not appear to have suffered from the condition. An alternative source of the elevated mortality of the Royal Family of the Amarna period is the fact that a known pandemic was sweeping the region (see below).
It is possible that the history of the royal family inbreeding could have finally taken a physical toll. This claim is countered by the fact that Akhenaten's mother Tiy was not from within the royal family, probably being the sister of Ay (Pharaoh after Tutankhamon), and High Priest Anen. Nefertiti is also generally believed to have been from non-royal blood, although some suggest that she was Akhenaten's sister or cousin.
It has also been claimed that he suffered from acromegaly, a thyroid disorder that can cause longer and thicker bones, oversized jaw (dolicephaly), bilharzia and altered sex characteristics. However, other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation—though its also possible that his family and court were depicted as similarly formed to Akhenaten as a compliment to him. In addition, in Akhenaten's later reign, art becomes less idiosyncratic. Under the new chief sculptor Thutmose, Akhenaten is depicted as more normal looking. Some claim that his earliest portraits appear the most normal, with a progression towards more elongated and feminine features later in life, suggesting an endocrine disorder of post-pubertal onset, but the earliest images of the pharaoh are in the conventional pre-Amarna style.
Unless Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, these proposals are likely to remain speculative.
The Amarna period is also associated with a serious outbreak of a pandemic, possibly the plague, or perhaps the world's first outbreak of influenza, which came from Egypt and spread throughout the Middle East, killing Suppiluliumas, the Hittite King. Some scholars think that Akhenaton's children may have been victims of the plague, not of a hereditary illness. The prevalence of disease may help explain the rapidity with which the site of Akhenaten was subsequently abandoned. It may also explain the fact that later generations considered the Gods to have turned against the Amarna monarchs.
Crucial evidence about the latter stages of Akhenaten's reign was furnished by discovery of the so-called "Amarna Letters." These letters comprise a priceless cache of incoming clay tablets sent from imperial outposts and foreign allies. The letters suggest that Akhenaten's neglect of matters of state were causing disorder across the massive Egyptian empire. Subject kings begged for gold. Taxes may also have been neglected. Montet (1968) says that Akhenaten left state affairs to his scribes, from time to time expressing his appreciation for their services by appearing on the royal “balcony, [tossing] goblets and necklets to the fortunate recipients” (144).
The governors and kings of subject domains wrote to beg for gold, and also complained of being snubbed and cheated. Early on in his reign, Akhenaten fell out with the king of Mitanni. He may even have concluded an alliance with the Hittites, who then attacked Mitanni and attempted to carve out their own empire. A group of Egypt's other allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote begging Akhenaten for troops; he evidently did not respond to their pleas. However, by not protecting his allies or the trade routes, the economy suffered. For example, the king of Byblos had been unable to “send his men into the mountains to fell trees” because they were unprotected, thus he could not sell any to Egypt (Montet, 151). Conventional accounts of this period suggest that Akhenaten was too preoccupied with internal affairs to attend effectively with external ones and that, as a result, territorial losses followed, including upper Syria which fell to the Hittites.
Akhenaten (then known as Amenhotep IV) was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and the couple had six known daughters. This is a list with suggested years of birth:
His known consorts were:
Two other lovers have been suggested, but are not widely accepted:
Akhenaten planned to start a relocated Valley of the Kings, in the Royal Wadi in Akhetaten. His body was probably removed after the court returned to Memphis, and reburied someone in the Valley of the Kings. His sarcophagus was destroyed but has since been reconstructed and now sits in the Cairo Museum.
There is some debate around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Amenhotep III, or whether there was a co-regency (of as much as 12 years according to some Egyptologists).
Similarly, although it is accepted that both Smenkhkare and Akhenaten himself died in year 17 of Akhenaten's reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became co-regent perhaps two or three years earlier is still unclear, as is whether Smenkhkare survived Akhenaten. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten and became sole Pharaoh, he ruled for less than a year.
The next successor was certainly Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun or Tutankhanom), at the age of nine, with the country perhaps being run by the chief vizier (and next Pharaoh), Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of either Amenhotep III or Akhenaten. He was married to Akhenaton's third daughter.
With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded almost immediately fell out of favor. Tutankhamun is usually depicted as the heroic restorer of the Gods, while his father is reviled as a heretic. However, it can be debated whether Tutankhanmun was an ideological convert to the old religion, or a pragmatist (the majority of the people had not welcomed the new religion) or a puppet in the hands of the disgruntled priests of Amun. He was only 20 when he died. The priests may have convinced him that “a house divided against itself must fall” and that Egypt without Amun was like a “ship without a pilot” (Montet, 15) but regardless of motive, he re-instated the old cult. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in year two of his reign (1349 or 1332 B.C.E.) and abandoned Akhetaten, which eventually falling into ruin. Temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, were disassembled by his successors Ay and Haremhab, reused as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples, and inscriptions to Aten defaced. Tutankhamun built monuments to the old gods that “surpassed all the ones that had gone before” (Montet, 150).
Finally, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Haremheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Haremhab to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late nineteenth century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.
Freud (1955) comments that Akhenaton's memory was “scorned as that of a felon” (26). Montet wrote, “in the long list of Pharaohs, [Akhenaton] is unique.” He continues:
choir of blind singers and the sound of his new harps. Artists gave his ephemeral capital a brilliance beyond comparison. What the king had done by shaking off the farrago of old rites, sculptors like Thutnose, Beki and their followers had done for the rigid rules which encumbered art, They had brought in something irreplaceable: freedom. If Amenhotep IV has not existed, our gallery of famous Pharaohs would lack its most original figure. (146)
Akhenaten’s legacy also lives on through the Rosicrucians, whose Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, includes a shrine to the Pharaoh. Rosicrucians trace their ideological origin back to Egypt and teach that Akhenaten's ideal was that there was one divine force behind all things, even the many gods of Egypt.
Assessment of Akhenaten's legacy ranges from hero to villain, depending on whether the assessor wants to depict him as a weak Pharaoh who compromised Egypt's security and economy, or as an enlightened man, idealist, and religious reformer. Although his religious ideas had some antecedents, it is remarkable that against all the conventions of the time, he proclaimed worship of one god, who was the only god, and resisted any visual depictions of this god. Just as a link with Judaism has been argued, so has a link with the one God of Islam, which also cannot be depicted. Negatively, it has been suggested that all that Akhenaten and Muhammad did was to pick one god out of all the available ones, then become zealots for that one god over and against followers of other Gods.
However, while Akhenaten dismantled the old cult, there is little evidence that he persecuted its followers, who remained the majority of his subjects. Akhenaten was in many respects a weak ruler, who neglected external affairs to concentrate on internal ones. His material legacy, too, scarcely survived the zeal of his successors, who wanted to remove its traces from the record, yet his ideas have survived. In addition to his monotheism, Akhenaten’s concern for living in truth and his universal values are still worthy of admiration. In his novel about Akhenaten, Nobel Prize-winning writer Mahfouz Naguib leaves open the final assessment of his legacy, but more than suggests that he was a “dweller in truth.”
Some speculate what enabled or motivated Akhenaten. Was it a pragmatic attempt to subvert the power of the old cult? Was he an inspired religious leader? Was there, some speculate, something in the air that inspired him? Do changes in the nosphere impact the “Zeitgeist, the mental atmosphere, of a given epoch,” asks one writer, who continues, “it may be these changes that ... facilitate the flowering of such glowing epochs of mental creativity as that of Akhenaton [sic] in Egypt ... and of the Renaissance ... or, in contrast, of such epochs of obscurantism as that of the ‘dark ages,’ of the Inquisition ...?” (MANAS XIX 32 (August 10, 1966): 13).
Another lead article in the same journal (published by the E. F. Schumacher Society) suggested that Akhenaten's dream “of a single God who was but the impersonal, unifying principle that could make all men brothers” serves to remind Westerners that “the Christian tradition was this anticipated by Akhenaton - as it was by more than one ruler of ancient India - should be a contribution to cultural sanity” warning them against thinking that all good ideas belong solely to themselves (MANAS II 39 (September 29, 1948): 7).
Fascination for Akhenaten has resulted in quite a number of works of fictions, including two by Nobel Prize winners (Naguib and Thomas Mann).
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