Akhenaten is one of famous pharaohs in the history of ancient Egypt, not only because he was the father of King Tut, but also for his extremely unique reign. Some give him a credit as the founder of the monotheism in the world history or positively assert him as ‘history’s first individual’ (Sooke, 2014), whilst criticism is also associated with such views saying, ‘modern history has been kinder to him: we perhaps value individualism more’ (ibid) than the pharaoh’s contemporaries and successors, who tried to delete him from the historical record completely. This short blog entry will have a look at this controversial pharaoh from various points of views: his biographic background; how and when he might have begun his reign; his religious reforms and construction of the new capital; his royal family and its importance during his reign; disappearances of important figures around the time of his death; and how successors of Akhenaten dealt with the aftermath of his reign.
The second son of Amenhotep III
It is said that Akhenaten was born as the second son of Amenhotep III, who ‘ruled for almost 40 years during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt’s history that represented one of its most prosperous and stable periods’ (Dunn, 2011). The foundation of this stability was largely established by Tuthmosis III, the pharaoh’s grandfather, so that ‘little or no military actions were called for’ (ibid) during the pharaoh’s reign. Despite his fame as a successful pharaoh, little is known about when actually he bagan to rule. It is widely accepted that ‘Amenhotep III succeeded to the throne… as a child, sometime between the ages of two and twelve years of age… at the time of his father’s death. It is unlikely that his mother, Mutemwiya, served as a regent for the young king, and whoever may have been in charge at the beginning of his reign seems to have remained in the background’ (ibid).
Regardless to his actual age, it is said that Amenhotep III married Queen Tiy, the principle queen of the pharaoh, ‘in year two of his reign’ (ibid) and Tiy gave birth to ‘at least six of his children consisting of two sons and four daughters’ (ibid). Since he was not the eldest son, ‘Akhenaten was not supposed to become pharaoh. The son of Amenhotep III… Prince Amenhotep, as he was then called, was younger brother to the crown Prince Thutmose’ (Sooke, 2014). However, Thutmose’s unexpected early death made Akhenaten the sole surviving heir and ‘when his father died in 1353 BC, he took the throne as Amenhotep IV’ (ibid). In addition, it is allegedly said that ‘Amenhotep III may have died in about the 39th year of his rule, perhaps when he was only 45 years old. His wife, Tiy, apparently outlived him by as many as twelve years’ (Dunn, 2011).
Before moving to the reign of Akhenaten, it should be pointed out that ‘There is much debate about when his rule started. Some suggest he was Amenhotep III’s co-regent for up to 12 years; others think Amenhotep III died before his son took over’ (Mieroop, 2011, p. 199). While art historians tend to argue for co-regency theory ‘ because this would explain the mixture in artistic styles’ (ibid) during the overlapping period between Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, other scholars who work with written sources ‘see no conclusive evidence for co-regency, certainly not one that lasted more than a couple years’ (ibid). Now, it would be worthwhile to apply the given account – Amenhotep III died in 1353 BC at the age of 45 – to the theories above:
If the co-regency lasted for 12 years, it must have started when Amenhotep III was about 33 years old. Given another factor that Akhenaten was the pharaoh’s second son, his birth can hardly be traced back to the time before his father was 14 years old at least. However, being the ‘second son’ doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the ‘second born’ child among his siblings including four sisters. If Queen Tiy gave birth one child every year since her husband turned to 13 years old, at the time when the sixth child was born, the pharaoh must have been the age of 18. If Akhenaten was the fifth or sixth child, when the co-regency began, he was most likely in his age of 16 or 17. The same calculation applies to the case where the co-regency of two years; he was 26 or 27 years old whilst his father was 43, and the case where there was no such thing as the co-regency; he was older than 29 years old when his father died at the age of 45, respectively. Therefore, by simply calculating possible ages of the pharaoh and his son, it would be safe to say that technically all theories can not be rejected in this criteria alone.
In addition, as for the later years of Amenhotep III, it is argued that ‘to judge from his last portraits, (Amenhotep III) suffered a lingering malady of some sort which slowly killed him, so it would make sense that, as his health declined, he handed at least some of the reins of government to his chosen successor’ (Damen, 2013). This allegation has been even endorsed by examinations of his mummy, however, others oppose against this argument by pointing out that ‘the identity of his mummy is uncertain’ (Mieroop, 2011, p. 199).
Whatever the case, due to his father’s death, the son succeeded the throne initially as Amenhotep IV in 1353 B.C. The new pharaoh seems to have shown his interests on launching a radical religious reform from relatively early years of his reign. Within a year or two since he took the throne, Amenhotep IV began to build ‘temples to the Aten or divinised sun-disk at Karnak in a very different artistic style’ (Spence, 2014) and he also changed his name from Amenhotep, which means ‘Amun is content’ – honouring the state god Amun-Re – to Akhenaten, meaning ‘effective for the Aten’ (Sooke, 2014). Meanwhile, there are some arguments that point out some connections between the possible self-deification of Amenhotep III in his life time and Akhenaten’s worship of Aten. It is said that ‘Amenhotep III was somewhat insistent that he be identified with this sun god during his lifetime’ (Dunn, 2011), therefore ‘the worship of the sun god, Aten, by his son may have directly or indirectly also involved the worship of his father’ (ibid). Furthermore, some scholars suggest Akhenaten’s ‘cult of Aten was a simple admiration for his father. They point out that the name Aten, which was pronounced yati, sounded much like the Egyptian word for father, perhaps pronounced yata‘ (Mieroop, 2011, p. 199). For the argument’s sake, it would be also important to point out that Egyptian pharaohes were ‘expected to merge with the sun after his death’ (Dunn, 2011) and there is no physical evidence that proves ‘Amenhotep III (being regarded) as a major deity during his lifetime’ (ibid).
Regardless to whether his worship involved the deification of his father or not, Akhenaten’s next step towards his religious reform shows unparalleled uniqueness of this pharaoh in the Egyptian history: ‘In the fifth year of his reign, around the time that he changed his name, Akhenaten decided to build a new royal capital’ (Sooke, 2014). In doing so, he made it clear that ‘the worship of the Aten required a location uncontaminated by the cults of traditional gods’ ( Spence, 2014) and in this logic, he decided to ‘ban the traditional gods altogether, making redundant up to 2,000 time-honoured deities’ (Sooke, 2014). Taking the contemporary circumstance into the consideration, Akhenaten’s religious reform, in political view point, could be recognised as ‘declaration of warfare against the dominant religious authority in the day, the Amun priesthood based in Thebes… which by then was siphoning off a hefty percentage of the taxes collected in Egypt’ (Damen, 2013). Whatever the case, Akhenaten then ‘began closing down Amun temples across Egypt and even had the name Amun erased from some inscriptions. Later, he went so far as to order the word “gods” removed and changed to “god,” wherever it occurred in public inscriptions. Whether or not this is monotheism by theological standards, it’s certainly grammatical monotheism (ibid). In terms of theological view point, the key elements of this grammatical monotheism could be represented in the following account: ‘Akhenaten’s aten is the font of all being, which means by nature he cannot be restricted in form, and thus is almost always presented as the aptly universal and geometric solar circle… Even to say “he” of the aten is perhaps too restrictive for this universalist conception of deity—gender is clearly not relevant to sun-disks’ (ibid). Nonetheless, even though his religious reform is said to have ‘raised the Aten to the position of “sole god”… Akhenaten’s religion is probably not strictly speaking monotheistic, although only the Aten is actually worshipped and provided with temples. Other gods still existed and are mentioned in inscriptions’ ( Spence, 2014).
Construction of the new capital city didn’t take long, partly because ‘relatively small blocks were used’ (Damen, 2013) being ‘set in a strong mortar’ (Spence, 2014) to build the city and ‘after just two years (from the pharaoh’s declaration), the ruling family took up residence to the north of the city’ (Sooke, 2014), newly named as ‘Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten” (Spence, 2014). The location of this new capital was about ‘200 miles south of Cairo, in the heart of Middle Egypt’ (Sooke, 2014), where was ‘a desert site surrounded on three sides by cliffs and to the west by the Nile and is known today as el-Amarna’ (Spence, 2014). The place ‘had never before been settled’ (Damen, 2013), therefore, ‘it lent the site a sense of austerity and religious purity… and unlike even the remotest Egyptian village, this locale had not as yet been connected with any cult or deity. Theologically, it was a “clean slate,” so to speak. Before Akhenaten’s arrival, the place had no name even’ (ibid). The site was ‘virtually impossible to feed and house a self-sustaining populace of any real size—certainly not one large enough to govern a nation like ancient Egypt—so, maintaining the army of bureaucrats and office-workers needed to run Akhenaten’s realm depended on the collection of taxes and importation of food stuffs, an expensive and labor-intensive investment of resources’ (ibid).
In construction of his new capital city, Akhenaten revolutionised the place of worship. It is said that ‘Akhenaten’s temples incorporated vast open-air courts with offering tables and unroofed shrines’ (Sooke, 2014). This signifies a clear-cut contrast to worship of Amun, whose shrines ‘are invariably situated in the middle of temple complexes, roofed and dark, where priests alone may enter and then only on special occasions (Damen, 2013). In addition, Akhenaten’s such move towards the sun-worship at the open-air shrines was not brand new but was stemmed from ‘Old Kingdom theology, by now a millennium old, and (infamous for its)… pervasive reputation for tyranny’ (ibid).
On top of architectural discoveries at the site of el-Amarna, there remains ‘A number of hymns to the Aten (that) were composed during Akhenaten’s reign and these provide a glimpse of … the ‘natural philosophy’ of Akhenaten’s religion’ (Spence, 2014). According to such available sources, elements of Akhenaten’s religious philosophy could be described as following:
‘Akhenaten and his family are frequently shown worshipping the Aten or simply indulging in everyday activities beneath the disk. Everywhere the close ties between the king and god are stressed through art and text. The king forms the link between the god and ordinary people whose supposed focus of worship seems to have been Akhenaten and the royal family rather than the Aten itself’ (ibid).
Regarding to whom to be worshipped, it is said that Akhenaten, as the pharaoh, is ‘said to serve as the conduit between humanity and the aten. In other words, it’s through and because of him the sun-disk bestows life on the planet. In his own words, a hymn Akhenaten claims to have composed himself about the aten, “There is no other who knows you except your son, Akhenaten.” That makes the pharaoh and his family some species of divine beings among humankind, earth-bound extraterrestrials on whose good will the benefits of the sun, and thus all life, depend’ (Damen, 2013).
Akhenaten’s royal family
The royal family formally consisted of Akhenaten, Nefetiti, who was known as ‘great king’s wife’ (Spence, 2014) and the couple’s six daughters. Additionally, ‘There were also other wives, including the enigmatic Kiya who may have been the mother of Tutankhamun. Royal women play an unusually prominent role in the art of the period and this is particularly true of Nefertiti who is frequently depicted alongside her husband’ (ibid). In visual art during Akhenaten’s reign, ‘The royal family are shown with elongated skulls and pear-shaped bodies with skinny torsos and arms but fuller hips, stomachs and thighs’ (ibid). Furthermore, it is said that ‘Although formal scenes of the king worshipping remain important there is an increasing emphasis on ordinary, day-to-day activities which include intimate portrayals of Akhenaten and Nefertiti playing with their daughters beneath the rays of the Aten… While traditional Egyptian art tends to emphasise the eternal, Amarna art focuses on the minutiae of life… Even official inscriptions changed, moving away from the old-fashioned language traditional to monumental texts to reflect the spoken language of the time (ibid). In summary, it can be said that ‘Like no pharaoh before or after him, Akhenaten was family-oriented’ (Damen, 2013). In architectural findings, Akhenaten’s emphasise on the role of royal family ‘as intermediary between the Aten and the people’ (Sooke, 2014) could be culminated in ‘one of his palaces at Amarna (that) was designed with a special balcony known as the “window of appearances”’ (ibid).
However, in terms of popular support for Akhenaten’s religious reform and political revolution, it should be pointed out that ‘Recent discoveries at Amarna… suggest that Akhenaten’s cult of the Aten was not as successful as he might have hoped (ibid). Quoting from Anna Stevens, who ‘has excavated the cemetery where the workers who erected Akhenaten’s palaces and temples’ (ibid) Sooke picks up some counter evidences for Akhenaten’s revolution as it follows: ‘More than two thirds of these workers were dead before they were 35 years old. Moreover, Stevens noticed a surprising absence among the grave goods buried in the cemetery. There were lots of amulets and votive objects depicting popular minor deities… “But there is not a single representation of the sun disc at this cemetery, nor mention of Akhenaten on finger rings or scarabs or anything,”’ (ibid). Negative impact of Akhenaten’s revolution doesn’t seem to be limited to his domestic subjects. There is a letter of complaints ‘found among the remains of Akhetaten’ (Damen, 2013) relating to Akhenaten’s open-air sun worship. In which, it is said that ‘the Assyrian king complains that the emissaries he sent to Egypt nearly died of sunstroke when they were attending some royal ceremony at the pharaoh’s capital’ (ibid).
Disappearances and the death
The later days and the death of Akhenaten are also surrounded by uncertainties and mysteries. First of all, his first wife Nefertiti ‘disappears from the archaeological record around year 12’ (Spence, 2014) of his reign; circa 1341 B. C. Her disappearance is coincided with the emergence of Akhenaten’s co-regent Smenkhare, who ‘appears suddenly in the historical record two years before Akhenaten’s death’ (Damen, 2013). The circumstance was that Nefertiti gave birth to Akhenaten ‘six daughters but no male heir—and Egyptian tradition demanded some sort of “son of the pharaoh” succeed. Thus in the absence of a crown prince, the son of a secondary wife usually stepped in as successor’ (ibid). In this context, there remains ‘a few documents showing that he (Smenkhare) married one of Akhenaten’s daughters, surely an attempt to secure his claim to the throne after Akhenaten’s death’ (ibid). Whatever the case, during the Smenkhare’s co-regency, it is said that Nefertiti completely disappears from being depicted in the art of El-Amarna, except for only one occasion, where she is shown ‘in a funerary tableau recording the death of one of her and Akhenaten’s daughters’ (ibid).
The mysterious uncertainties followed by Akhenaten’s death. Again, the year of his death is disputable that some argues it was the 17th year of his reign in 1336 B. C. whilst others say it was 1338 B. C., which was the 14th year of his reign. More importantly, things known about his death is quite limited, as Damen describes as ‘there is no record of his death… it is safe to assume he died in middle age. The cause of his death is not known… The historical record contains not a single hint of foul play in his death, though he was far from old age’ (ibid). Curiously enough, it is suggested that ‘his tomb contained “shabti” figurines that were heresy for Atenism’ (Sooke, 2014).
According to archaeological findings, it is said that despite of Akhenaten’s death, Akhetaten, the newly build capital city ‘was not abandoned immediately’ (Damen, 2013) and it construction works even ‘continued, at least for a while’ (ibid), probably under the rule of the deceased pharaoh’s co-regent, Smenkhare, who ‘disappears two years into “his” reign’ (ibid), circa 1336 B, C. As for this mysterious successor of Akhenante, historians agree that ‘about whom next to nothing is known’ (ibid) because ‘No tomb for Smenkhare has ever been located nor have any of his burial goods been found. There is simply no further mention of him at all in Egyptian history’ (ibid).
After this ‘third’ disappearance of important figures for Akhenaten’s reign, following the pharaoh’s first wife and the phraoh himself, the throne finally ‘passed to a child, Tutankhamun (originally Tutankhaten) who was probably the son of Akhenaten and Kiya’ (Spence, 2014). In effect, actual political power for ruling the country was passed to the child phraoh’s regent(s), probably included the future successor of the child pharaoh, Ay.
Back to Amun
The key policies of the child phraoh’s regent(s) and their intentions are symbolised by the the phrao’s name change from T…aten to T…amun:
‘Fairly early in his reign, he was persuaded to change his name and, doing exactly the opposite of Akhenaten when he assumed power, took the aten out and put “Amun” in… At some point around this time, the royal court left Akhetaten and returned to Thebes’ (Damen, 2013). What followed is not hard to guess – the newly build capital city, ‘home to up to 50,000 people – was abandoned, as the court returned to the traditional capital of Memphis. Old religious customs were restored. Akhenaten was effectively written out of history’ (Sooke, 2014). Later rulers’ attitude towards Akhenaten was quite hostile and ‘His name and those of his immediate successors were omitted from official king-lists so that they remained virtually unknown until the archaeological discoveries at Akhetaten and in the tomb of Tutankhamun made these kings amongst the most famous of all rulers of ancient Egypt (Spence, 2014).
Thus, this short blog entry tried to have a look at Akhenaten, a controversial phraoh in the history of ancient Egypt. As for his biographic background, it examined that he was born Amenhotep, the second son of his father pharaoh Amenhotep III, known as the most prosperous pharaoh during the 18th Dynasty. His elder brother died before his father’s death in 1353 B. C. and he succeeded the throne as Amenhotep IV, though it may have been the case that he began to rule as his father’s co-regent some years earlier. As for his religious reforms, it started out from looking at potential relationship between Akhenaten’s worship of Aten and his father’s alleged self-deification. Subsequently, through the change of his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, it looked at its political implication – in relation to the powerful Amun priesthood based in Thebes – and its theological character, to which it argued that Akhenaten’s solar cult is not strictly speaking monotheistic. Furthermore, it also had a look at Aketaten, a newly built capital city in the desert site now called el-Amarna, chosen by Akhenaten not for pragmatic reasons but for the locale’s religious purity. Akhenaten’s public life in the new captal and his religious role as conduit between Aten, the sole god and common people led the focus to the role of his royal family, which mainly consisted of Nefetiti, his first wife, and the couple’s six daughters. Though it could find Akhenaten was exceptionally family-oriented pharaoh, it also found some evidence that proves his religious and political reforms were not successful. Finally, it looked at mysterious disappearances of important figures took place in the later years of Akhenaten’s reign; Nefetiti’s disappearance in c. 1341 B. C., coincided with the emergence of Akhenaten’s co-regent Smenkhare, Akhenaten’s death in c. 1338 or 1336 B. C., and the disappearance of Smenkharre, two years after the death of Akhenaten. By briefly looking at the reversal of Akhenaten’s revolution during the reign of Tutankhamen, it may have indirectly answered for the reason behind the history’s silence over the time of Akhenaten’s death – he was effectively written out of the history.
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Mieroop, Marc Van De (2011), A History of Ancient Egypt
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Sooke, Alastair (2014) ‘Akhenaten: mad, bad, or brilliant?’ The Telegraph 09 Jan (electronically accessed 25/02/2014)
Spence, Kate (2014), Akhenaten and the Amarna Period, BBC – History – Ancient History (last updated 17/02/2011, electronically accessed 25/02/2014)