Akhenaten and Atenism: a loser dreamer or a progressive ruler?

 

Akhenaten is the second name of Amenhotep IV, the Egyptian ruler of the well-known 18th dynasty1.Approximately from the middle of the 16th to the 14th century BC or the beginning of the 13th century of BC.. He made his mark on the history of the Egyptian Empire more strongly than anyone else in just a 17-year reign. However, opinions on this historical figure vary widely, even within the academic community of eminent Egyptologists. Some consider him as a dreamer or even mentally ill person who destroyed the glory and power of the New Kingdom, that he inflicted a great blow on the traditional Egyptian system of religion, subverted Egypt’s powerful influence abroad, and began the decline from which the Empire of the Nile never recovered. Among Akhenaten’s critics, for example, is the famous Canadian Egyptologist Donald Redford. Some of the more extreme opinions about this ruler include that ‘he’ was a woman, or a perverted Nubian prisoner(!). In contrast, for the British Egyptologist Arthur Weigall2.An author of a popular biography about Akhenaten. He also participated in the searching of tomb KV55, where Akhenaten may have been buried., Akhenaten was the first person to whom God himself appeared, giving him a message3.Cf. JACQ, Ch.: Nefertiti and Achnaton (Néfertiti et Akhénaton). Perrin, Paris, 1996, p. 12.. What is certain is that Akhenaten is still disputed after almost 3.5 thousand years, and continues to divide the world’s leading Egyptologists.
The archaeological site of Saqqara. Photo: Barbora Zelenkova

 

 


The road to Atenism


The history of ancient Egypt can be divided into distinct periods that are usually characterised by similar features. These are the Archaic period, the Old Kingdom4.The construction period of the Great Pyramids and Sun Temples. The last third of this period is almost identical to the Akkadian period in Mesopotamia., the First Transitional Period, the Middle Kingdom, the Second Transitional Period, the New Kingdom5.Approximately 1567-1085 BC. Traditionally, this is called the ‘golden period’ of Egypt, when the Empire reached its greatest cultural, territorial and military peak., the Third Transitional Period, the Late Period, the Macedonian Period and the Ptolemaic Period6.At the end of it (in 30 BC), Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire.. In the 3rd century BC the Egyptian priest Manéthó created a history of Egypt for Ptolemy II. Manéthó organised the Egyptian rulers into dynasties, and his work was later supplemented especially with data from the Palermo Plate and the Turin Papyrus.

Today the list is divided into 31 dynasties. The last ruler of the 31st dynasty was the Persian King Darius III, whose empire disintegrated in 332 BC under the military pressure of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian and Ptolemaic periods followed, ending with the reign of the famous Queen Cleopatra VII.

The important period for this article is the 18th dynasty, which together with the 19th and 20th dynasties fell within the New Kingdom period. First it is important to understand the Second Transitional Period, which plunged Egypt into chaos. During this period of darkness, when Upper and Lower Egypt7.The reader might assume that Upper Egypt lies in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. However, their names are not given by location, but by altitude and the Nile flows northwards from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt. broke up, the 13th and 14th dynasties coexisted. The 13th Egyptian dynasty controlled only some parts of Upper Egypt, while the Nile Delta was in the hands of the Canaanite rulers of the 14th dynasty. This is a difficult period to understand, and all the more so given that a large number of insignificant ‘rulers’ took power over a short period. At this time, the Semitic tribes called ‘Hyksos’ invaded Egypt from the Palestinian-Phoenician region. They ruled over Lower Egypt from the capital Avaris as the 15th dynasty.

The Egyptian rulers remained in Upper Egypt as the 16th dynasty. During the reign of the 17th dynasty, the situation in Upper Egypt stabilised slightly. The main capital city became again Thebes, whose main god was Amon8.Every major Egyptian city had its main god, but people recognised all the Egyptian gods.. The cult of Amon would be very important for the later internal order of power in Egypt. Individual local rulers gained more support from the people and thus military power and began to undertake military expeditions against the Hyksos. Among the most important warriors were Seqenenre Tao and Kamose the Brave, who obtained funds through the colonisation of Nubia to make more war expeditions to the North. Eventually, the later ruler Ahmose won a final victory when he conquered Avaris and seized Lower Egypt and united the Empire. He founded the famous 18th dynasty as one of the most important rulers of Egypt and the New Kingdom period began.

The city of Thebes became a symbol of victory and a major centre during the New Kingdom. As a result, the beginnings of the 18th dynasty were characterised by the rise of the cult of the Theban god Amon, under whose symbols the Theban Kings liberated Egypt from the domination of the Hyksos. This began to give birth to a problem that eventually made Egypt vulnerable again. First of all, the power of the Theban priests was beginning to grow dangerously. Until that time, Egypt had different cults with its own priests who took care of various rites. However, Pharaoh always remained the Highest priest, performing the most important religious rituals as a mediator between humans and gods, and even as the son of God. This balance and ancient tradition began to fall apart and the priests of the Amon cult obtained great wealth, which flowed into the temple treasuries from the lands conquered by Pharaoh as a reward for Amon’s favour in the battle. The priests began to realise their power from this wealth, which eventually exceeded the value of the Pharaoh’s treasury. At this point, nothing stood in their way and they could begin to take advantage not only of the cult and religion itself, but also political power.

The story of King Thutmose III can be used to provide evidence of this. The statue of Amon allegedly bowed during the festivities at Karnak9.Karnak, the largest temple complex in Egypt, dedicated to Amon, is located on the east bank of the Nile in the city of Waset (Thebes). and the priests themselves installed Thutmose III on the throne. However, he proved a capable ruler, to the priests’ dislike; their intention had been to use him only as a puppet ruler to be manipulated. To seize more power for themselves, the priests deposed him, replacing him with Queen Hatshepsut, although Thutmose III managed to regain the throne later.

The real peak of priesthood power came under High Priest Meri, who was a true driver of political events. After Meri’s death, the power of the Amon priests was regulated by Pharaoh for a time.

Because of these events, the rulers began to consider how they could reduce and limit the power of the Amon priests. In order to gain the support of the people, or of priests from other cults, the rulers saw they needed to fall back on an established cult that had a traditional status in Egypt. That was the sun cult of the god Rea. If this cult were sufficiently supported by Pharaoh, it could gain influence. And that began to happen. The first record of this is the story of Thutmose IV10.The grandfather of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)., although researchers have doubts about his dynastic origin. Thutmose himself explains how he came to power. One day he allegedly fell asleep under the Great Sphinx, who appeared to him in a dream and promised him that if he cleared her of sand11.At that time, the Great Sphinx was covered in sand., he would become the ruler of Egypt. Thutmose did so and ascended the throne. From this we can conclude that he derives its legitimacy from the Great Sphinx, as a symbol of the solar cult, and not from Amon. These tendencies we can also observe in others of Akhenaten’s predecessors, especially in his father Amenhotep III. Interestingly, there is a statue of a scarab beetle on which Amenhotep III is described as ‘The lord of all that irradiates the Aton’ 12.Cited ZAMAROVSKY, V.: Bohové a králové starověkého Egypta. BRÁNA s.r.o., Praha, 2003, s. 23..

Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten) was born into this remarkable situation and political environment. We know that he was partially brought up in the northern city of Memphis, the former capital of Egypt which was located near to Heliopolis13.Heliopolis was an ancient Egyptian city dedicated to the sun god Rea. It is often identified with the Biblical city On, which was the alleged seat of Moses. – so, not far from the traditional city of the solar cult. Here, young Akhenaten was probably initiated into Egyptian religious teaching and thus encountered the cult for the first time. Later, he became the high priest of the sun god Re-Harakhte. This experience, together with his upbringing by his father, strongly influenced his religious ideas and gave him a vision for future reform.

 

 


Amenhotep IV and his family


Amenhotep IV took over after the unexpected death of his older brother, Thutmose. As was common during the 18th dynasty, he first shared his ruling responsibilities with his predecessor and at the same time with his father, Amenhotep III. According to Egyptian custom, a new year begins when a new monarch arrives. This fact complicates the process of dating individual events. What we do know is that Akhenaten’s reign lasted 17 years but we don’t know which year it started. Redford mentions the year 1377 BC, Zamarovsky 1367 BC, Trigger 1364 BC and Vernis 1353 BC.

In the sixth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten14.The name ‘Amenhotep’ means ‘God Amon is satisfied’; Akhenaten means ‘The living spirit of God Aton’.. Akhenaten also changed the capital city and the centre moved from Thebes (Veset) to central Egypt (i.e. the new centre located between Thebes and the capital of the Old Kingdom, Mennofer, which lies in northern Egypt). There, in the desolate desert, he built a new city called Akhetaton (meaning ‘Aton’s horizon’). The new city lay on the west bank of the Nile and Aton’s temples and tombs on the east bank. Akhetaton city was built on an area 100 km2 in size in an incredibly short time. Also the Egypt’s eminent authorities moved there from Thebes. Interestingly, about half of these old dignitaries were replaced by Akhenaten with new people, mainly from the lower social classes. This enabled him to cleverly secure their trust in the new Pharaoh.

At this time, Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, was still ruling the whole country and he was at the historic peak of his power. Egypt at this time was a prosperous and peaceful power. Contacts were established between Egypt and surrounding countries. Amenhotep III built monumental buildings15.The most famous of which are the Memnon Colossi., rebuilt the entire Luxor Temple and also rebuilt and expanded Karnak. Amenhotep III was deified during his lifetime in Egypt and Nubia and was considered the greatest builder in the history of Egypt. The father of Amenhotep III, Thutmose IV, through his marriage to Princess Mutemwiya, established a peace treaty with the Indo-Iranian Mitanni Empire. His son Amenhotep III was able to follow in his footsteps and maintained peaceful and trade relations with the ancient Mesopotamian region.

Also, of importance is that Akhenaten’s mother, Tiye, was the daughter of an influential Egyptian couple Yuya and Tjuyu, who were prominent priests at the royal court. Tiye’s father is even identified by some authors (for example by Ahmed Osman in his book Stranger in the Valley of the Kings) with the Biblical Joseph. However, this is a highly speculative assumption. In any case, Queen Tiye was one of the most important women of Ancient Egypt. Christian Jacq concludes from surviving documents showing Amarna’s correspondence that after the death of her husband Amenhotep III, she was still a powerful counsellor to Akhenaten. For a long time, she resisted the disintegration of Egyptian foreign relationships, which Akhenaten refused to take more seriously.

Akhenaten had six daughters with his wife Nefertiti16.Nefertiti was daughter of the high Egyptian dignitary Ay, who is also, according to the speculative theories of some Egyptologists, the brother of Queen Tiye. What is certain, however, is that Ay survived the rule of the three Pharaohs and managed to stay in top positions in every situation during the turbulent years of Ancient Egypt. After Tutankhamun’s death, he even became a Pharaoh. and of these only Meritaten, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten are historically important. The latter was the wife of Tutankhamun – the son of Akhenaten and his co-wife. Present-day historians and Egyptologists call this woman ‘the Younger Lady’ on the basis of archeological excavations of the KV35 tomb and later genetic research. That research also suggests that she was a full sister of Akhenaten, although earlier research concluded that she could be Kiya, who may have been a Mitanni princess.

 

 


Amarna art: one of the most distinctive elements of Atonism


As may be apparent, Akhenaten was very different from other historic figures of the time as he began to change the religious and political system of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdom. His reforms included in the realm of art. In fact, Amarna art might be described as the most distinctive element of his new rule.

Traditional Egyptian art was characterised by its depiction of figures: the head and legs (from the waist down) were displayed in profile while the torso and shoulders were captured from the front, which is a rather unnatural position. Moreover, the depiction of Egyptian rulers and Royal Family was heavily idealised and gives us a somewhat rigid impression. For instance, the same scenes of battles, hunts or capturing or killing enemies are constantly repeated.

In contrast, Amarna art can be recognised immediately as being distinct from this traditional Egyptian art, even by the layperson. Akhenaten is depicted realistically and at some points as a woman, with wide hips, a big abdomen, breasts, wide thighs, and with contrasting very skeletal limbs. The skull is remarkably and unnaturally elongated and has a narrow shape, tending to recede backwards. The eyes are slanted, the upper lip is raised, the line of the nose is flabby, and the chin is too long. King Akhenaten is also depicted on statues without a phallus. Everything about him appears very feminine and points to the monarch’s hermaphroditic appearance.

Many historians believe that this is a true and realistic depiction of Akhenaten. He apparently suffered from so-called Fröhlich’s syndrome (Adiposogenital Dystrophy), which causes this asexual appearance. However, other authors argue that his atypical appearance could have been inherited from his grandmother Mutemwiya or his grandfather Yuya (who, as mentioned above, was sometimes identified as the Biblical Joseph). Nevertheless, this statement is far-fetched and speculative.

Christian Jacq has offered a completely different theory, backed by strong arguments based on the fundamental characteristics of a new religion devoted to God Aton. The Al-Amarna art works depict all the members of the Royal Family in the same style, even some high dignitaries. They all have the same abnormal body features. The most common abnormality is an elongated skull17.Many considered this abnormality of the human skull to be a cap or a crown, but this was later refuted by researchers and Egyptologists.. It would be naive to think that the whole royal court suffered from Fröhlich’s syndrome. The fact that Pharaoh had at least seven children is also indisputable, which would not have been possible with such a serious illness. Another proof that Akhenaten’s depiction does not correspond to reality is the finding of the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti18.The bust of Queen Nefertiti made from polychrome limestone can be seen today in the Berlin Museum., which shows no signs of abnormality of her skull. All of this testifies to the fact that Al-Amarna art did not show realistic proportions of people, but rather had a symbolic meaning. Pirenne aptly wrote about this: “There is nothing more pathological on the female body of Amenhotep IV than the falcon head of the god Rea.”19.„Ženské tělo Amenhotepa IV. není o nic patologičtější než sokolí hlava boha Rea.” Jacq, 1996, p.165.

Another difference compared with traditional art is that it depicts intimate scenes. The royal couple is shown in a private setting, playing with their daughters under the life-giving rays of the sun. In another scene, we can see Nefertiti sitting on Akhenaten’s knee. Such scenes would have been completely unacceptable for earlier Egyptian Pharaohs.

Al-Amarna art includes elements of naturalism too. On the wall of Al-Amarna’s gardens fauna and flora are richly depicted; colourful plants and fascinating wildlife give the impression of a real living garden, with man surrounded by nature from all sides. This atmosphere was enhanced by music played on lyres and flutes.20.Extensive descriptions of the Al-Amarna gardens are described in the book ´Im Land des Falkengottes. Echnaton´ by the German writer Andreas Schramek.

Overall, then, we can confidently assert that the Akhenaten revolution introduced a whole new perspective into previously traditional and rigid Egyptian art. Some of these elements had a positive effect on the arts in particular.

 

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1. Approximately from the middle of the 16th to the 14th century BC or the beginning of the 13th century of BC.
2. An author of a popular biography about Akhenaten. He also participated in the searching of tomb KV55, where Akhenaten may have been buried.
3. Cf. JACQ, Ch.: Nefertiti and Achnaton (Néfertiti et Akhénaton). Perrin, Paris, 1996, p. 12.
4. The construction period of the Great Pyramids and Sun Temples. The last third of this period is almost identical to the Akkadian period in Mesopotamia.
5. Approximately 1567-1085 BC. Traditionally, this is called the ‘golden period’ of Egypt, when the Empire reached its greatest cultural, territorial and military peak.
6. At the end of it (in 30 BC), Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire.
7. The reader might assume that Upper Egypt lies in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. However, their names are not given by location, but by altitude and the Nile flows northwards from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt.
8. Every major Egyptian city had its main god, but people recognised all the Egyptian gods.
9. Karnak, the largest temple complex in Egypt, dedicated to Amon, is located on the east bank of the Nile in the city of Waset (Thebes).
10. The grandfather of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten).
11. At that time, the Great Sphinx was covered in sand.
12. Cited ZAMAROVSKY, V.: Bohové a králové starověkého Egypta. BRÁNA s.r.o., Praha, 2003, s. 23.
13. Heliopolis was an ancient Egyptian city dedicated to the sun god Rea. It is often identified with the Biblical city On, which was the alleged seat of Moses.
14. The name ‘Amenhotep’ means ‘God Amon is satisfied’; Akhenaten means ‘The living spirit of God Aton’.
15. The most famous of which are the Memnon Colossi.
16. Nefertiti was daughter of the high Egyptian dignitary Ay, who is also, according to the speculative theories of some Egyptologists, the brother of Queen Tiye. What is certain, however, is that Ay survived the rule of the three Pharaohs and managed to stay in top positions in every situation during the turbulent years of Ancient Egypt. After Tutankhamun’s death, he even became a Pharaoh.
17. Many considered this abnormality of the human skull to be a cap or a crown, but this was later refuted by researchers and Egyptologists.
18. The bust of Queen Nefertiti made from polychrome limestone can be seen today in the Berlin Museum.
19. „Ženské tělo Amenhotepa IV. není o nic patologičtější než sokolí hlava boha Rea.” Jacq, 1996, p.165.
20. Extensive descriptions of the Al-Amarna gardens are described in the book ´Im Land des Falkengottes. Echnaton´ by the German writer Andreas Schramek.