The Heretic Pharaoh: The Amarna Period and its legacy

Many recognise Tutankhamun and all his splendour, but relatively few knew of his father, and by extension the legacy he left behind. Thought to be an iconic practitioner of monolatry, Akhenaten was labelled a heretic by the traditional polytheistic priests of Egypt after he declared the Aten not only supreme God over all others, but the only God. The Aten, to him, was a sovereign being who rose at dawn to gift his land bounty and rested by dusk – a figure he would become ever-obsessed with. Treading a thin line between madness and glory, Akhenaten abandoned Thebes, the contemporary capital of what was known as Egypt, for a new capital that would become the centre of worship for this revolutionary god.

 The Aten

 The Aten is recognized by a motif that is present anywhere relating to Egypt in modern pop culture but little is known about the Aten itself, let alone the controversy surrounding it. The Aten was known originally as one aspect of the sun God Ra, a sun disc worshipped by Akhenaten’s predecessor Amenhotep III, but was later adopted by Akhenaten to become the principal God in the Ancient Egyptian religious pantheon.  

                                        Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx basking in the rays of the
                                         Aten while worshipping it; via Wikimedia Commons

In Atenism, Akhenaten’s new religion, the Aten was considered a benevolent being who presided over the day and created all things good. Being responsible for the existence and success of all civilizations, the Aten created the lifeline of Egypt— the Nile—and gave the Syrians their own source of sustenance in the form of rain. The Aten took care of all the creatures in the world – including those who were deemed Egypt’s enemies. The Aten’s outstretched arms in the form of rays gave life only to Akhenaten and his family.

To obtain the blessings of the Aten, most people would have to pay fealty to the royal family, since only they could worship the Aten directly. Akhenaten styled himself as the son of the Aten, unlike other Pharaohs who were considered worldly embodiments of the god Horus. That in itself was a revolutionary move for the time, as it implied that the Aten was the one true god of Egypt, which is a blatantly heretical approach. This new being would become the focus of hymns such as this, depicting it as being meticulously caring for all it had created:

“How manifold it is, what thou hast made!

They are hidden from the face (of man).

O sole god, like whom there is no other!

Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,

Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,

Whatever is on Earth, going upon (its) feet,

And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,

Thou settest every man in his place,

Thou suppliest their necessities:

Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.”

 Furthermore, the Aten was considered to be beyond creation, and so could not be fathomed and thus accurately depicted by its own creations. This meant that there had never been a full representation of the Aten throughout Akhenaten’s reign. Due to the “connection” Akhenaten had with the Aten, he was considered to be the high priest of the religion and thus was responsible for all its dealings. With that, Akhenaten abandoned Thebes and formed a new one named Akhetaten – meaning “horizon of the Aten” – where the Aten would become the main focus of his subjects’ lives.

 What remains of  Akhenaten’s visionary city, Akhetaten. Now it is more commonly known as `Tell-el-Amarna, after the tribe that had lived there in more recent history. Via Wikimedia Commons

Because Aten’s domain was the day, he would only be worshipped under open roofs and the nighttime would become a source of fear. Akhenaten had established many such temples with open roofs in Akhetaten. This city became Akhenaten’s haven, where he would explore the devotion he had for his god. 

                                                      The Madman

Akhenaten, originally known as Amenhotep IV, was an enigma. Despite his revolutionary perspective, it was clear that Akhenaten had a megalomaniacal streak to himself. As his reign progressed, so did his obsession with Atenism. From declaring the new religion only in his fifth year of rule, to declaring Aten as the one true god by his ninth, Akhenaten by extension signed off on the cruelty that his own people would undergo. 

Though Akhenaten himself was free to pursue his beliefs in his city, the residents would live in fear over whom or what they would worship. At the beginning of his newfound religious fervour, Akhenaten would divert funds from other cults of worship to his own, displacing the priests of Egypt from their lofty positions. He thought that their gods were powerless in the face of his, and as a consequence, he limited the gods his people could freely worship. Even in the final years of his reign, Akhenaten would hold an iconoclastic position to any images of the Aten, insisting that the god should not be depicted as it was beyond the scope of the created.

In fact, there is archaeological evidence suggesting that many dwellers of Akhetaten would destroy, chisel or throw out anything from makeup pots to personal belongings such as decorative scarabs that would allude to Amun, who was a central god of the Egyptian pantheon at the time – a god that had been banned from worship by Akhenaten. With this act, Akhenaten had done something that would make him irredeemable to his successors, even his own son, who would attempt to erase Akhenaten and his legacy. Since there was now a single god who could be worshipped in Egypt, Egypt’s priests would become dejected and label their pharaoh a fanatic and heretic.

The Idler

More than anything, Akhenaten seems to have had a lackadaisical approach to ruling his country as well as foreign affairs, preferring instead to focus on writing hymns as well as some other artistic endeavours. There are even clay tablets that demonstrate his neglect of government.

These so-called Amarna letters are written in Akkadian, the lingua-franca of the region and time. These cuneiform tablets would inform the pharaoh of the events that had occurred in the surrounding power’s territories, some of which were of importance to Egypt. Akhenaten would usually ignore requests for aid, which led many late 19th and 20th century Egyptologists to believe that he was a pacifist. In reality, Akhenaten had very little control over these problems that had been lent to him by his predecessors. He likely did not have the resources necessary to respond in any meaningful way. Akhenaten would instead focus on the very things that would make his reign, known as the Amarna period, a very unusual point in ancient Egyptian history.

An official letter to Akhenaten found in Amarna informing Akhenaten of the death of an Egyptian commissioner Via Wikimedia commons

The Amarna period is known for its unusual art style. The depictions of Akhenaten’s family and court are almost caricature-like, with spindly legs, elongated features and large hips, lending these depictions somewhat androgynous features. These depictions were thought to be so unusual that some Egyptologists have pondered whether or not Akhenaten and his family had suffered from Marfan’s syndrome. Whether or not this choice of art was religious, it has certainly set the Amarna period apart from any other. The artistic choices of the period certainly match the peculiarity of its reigning pharaoh.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Edafe

    It was an insightful read but it didn’t really give a full story on the familial dynamic between the sun and father. But a great write up nonetheless.

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