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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

Akhenaten's Amarna, Egypt!

Have you ever known a political "leader" so polarizing that you wished their face was scratched off of every mural, billboard, and wall? A "leader" whose name, rule, and existence you wished could be erased from your memory and future history books? I do. But, I'm not alone. The ancient Egyptians knew a "leader" just like that, too. The individual for them was the Pharaoh Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, or even, Tutankhamun's father. He ruled the large and powerful kingdom of Egypt for 17 turbulent years from 1353 - 1336 BC. During that time he created such chaos and upheaval in the kingdom that we are still talking about him now ... over 3000 years later. His reputation for rogue behavior has kept him in the spotlight of books, exhibitions, and even operas, to this day! He just can't seem to stay out of the media. Funny, yet strange, how the public seems intrigued with such bad boys!

A bust of his beautiful wife, Queen Nefertiti, is a masterpiece that you may be familiar with and sits in the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Together, ultimately as co-rulers, they ABRUPTLY changed the kingdom's long-celebrated religious traditions, re-located the kingdom's capital to a newly built city named Akhetaten, and in the process plundered the riches of the empire for their own personal gain.

This bust was excavated from the workshop of a sculptor, named Thutmosis, who lived and worked in the new city of Akhetaten, known today as Tell el-Amarna.

What's the big deal about the new city?

For two hundred years preceding Amenhotep lV, the empire of Egypt was ruled from the center of Egypt, from a city named Thebes (modern-day Luxor). That is where the New Kingdom was established in the mid-1500s BC. At that time and for several centuries prior, Amun was the main revered god, the 'king of the gods,' for the Egyptians. (Although the ancient Egyptians revered many "lesser" deities, as well.) Hundreds of priests and high officials were involved in the administration and resultant wealth of the temples of Amun, at Karnak and Luxor, in Thebes. Not long after Amenhotep lV obtained power, he abruptly veered from established tradition and changed the game plan. He condemned the worship of "the hidden god", Amun, promoting instead, the worship of his "radiant" new god, the sun disc Aten. He dismissed the MANY priests and officials involved with the Amun temple administration. He changed his own name from Amenhotep (meaning "Amun is pleased") to Akhenaten (meaning "beneficial to Aten"). He changed the traditional art form. He re-located the capital of the kingdom 250 miles northward to a remote, virgin location on the east bank of the Nile. There, he quickly had a new city built, named Akhetaten, featuring several open-air temples dedicated to the worship of the sun disc, Aten, as well as several palaces for himself and his family. Excavations in Tell el-Amarna suggest that Akhenaten conscripted a workforce of thousands of children and adolescents to very quickly construct his new city. Their skeletons have recently been found in mass graves showing severe malnutrition, traumatic injuries, degenerative conditions, and work-related skeletal deformations. Religious indoctrination and abusive labor practices aside, the financial cost of his mega-relocation depleted the coffers of the kingdom. Finally, but most importantly, Akhenaten commanded his royal stonemasons to chisel out images and references to Amun at the Luxor and Karnak Temples, as well as at numerous temples throughout the entire kingdom. That final act was the linchpin of his heresy. It is unclear what exactly motivated Akhenaten to wage an all-out attack against Amun ... religion, retribution, politics, power, economics?

The chiseled out name of Amun in the Luxor Temple glyphs is still evident, as shown below.

The open-air courtyards of Akhenaten's sun temples to the Aten housed HUNDREDS of altars, or offering tables. He demanded that the Egyptians fill the tables with DAILY offerings of food ... loaves of bread, grain, fruits, vegetables, and meats ... which ultimately he, his family, his close officials, and his priests consumed. The excess was stored or wasted, while most of the citizens hungered.

Below is the ruin of the Small Aten Temple in Amarna (L), a model of the Great Aten Temple (R), and a talatat block showing the abundant offering tables.

New God, New City, and New Art

Since the earliest of days, Egyptian figures were displayed with rigid, idealized formality, as shown below of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep lll; and his parents, Amenhotep lll and Tiye; and his great-great-grandfather, Thutmose lll.

Akhenaten's new Amarna-style art broke from traditional Egyptian conventions. Amarna figures were more dynamic, shown with more realism, and incorporated curvaceous contours. Often the Amarna figures appeared dysmorphic, with slender elongated necks, protuberant abdomens, full thighs, conical heads, and even sexual ambiguity. Akhenaten seemingly adored Nefertiti and their daughters as evidenced by numerous renderings illustrating the intimacy of the royal family, which in the previous traditional style was never displayed. Amarna reliefs of him and his wife, playing with the girls on their laps, riding in chariots together, or worshipping the Aten as a family, were commonly seen. The sun disc, Aten, also featured prominently in Amarna imagery. The sun disc was shown with its numerous radiating rays that ended in hands and extended the Ankh of life.

Another beautiful bust of Nefertiti recovered from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmosis, this one unfinished and shown below, is displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

Erasure of his name, but not his legacy

After Akhenaten died, his successors quickly attempted to bury his memory. The city of Akhetaten was abandoned just a few years after his death. The sun temples, palaces, and buildings were deconstructed, almost as fast as they were initially built. The bulk of the limestone talatat blocks that were used in the construction of Akhetaten was re-purposed for other building projects in Thebes and throughout the empire. Tell el-Amarna, the former Akhetaten now stands as a dusty archaeological ruin alongside a very poor village. It has no remaining monuments to speak of, just the outlines of a couple of sun temples, and a few interesting tombs along the desert cliff. A large boundary stele, carved into the cliff, which defined the boundary of the ancient city can still be seen, as shown below.

It is speculated that Akhenaten's wife, Nefertiti, ruled initially for a few years after her husband's death under the name Smenkhkare, although that is not confirmed, as Smenkhkare's tomb and mummy have yet to be identified. Subsequent to Smenkhkara, Akhenaten's son, named Tutankaten, inherited the throne when he turned 9 years old. The 'boy-king', undoubtedly with the guidance of high officials, attempted to rid the chaos and rebuild what was ruined. After a few years into his reign, he relocated the capital back to Thebes, restored the temples, re-instated the temple priests, redirected worship to the god Amun, and re-instituted the traditional style of art. He also changed his own name from Tutankaten (meaning "the living image of the Aten") to Tutankhamun (meaning "the living image of Amun"). It was Tutankhamun's tomb that was discovered full of riches and treasures by Howard Carter in 1922. Subsequent to Tutankhamun's reign, Nefertiti's (likely) father and Tutankhamun's general, an elderly man named Ay, became the pharaoh.

It's interesting to see Tutankaten's throne, from his early reign while still in Akhetaten, which was designed in the Amarna-style and displayed the solar disc imagery of Aten. The design of Tutankhamun's later statuary in the Karnak and Luxor Temples, after his move back to Thebes, shows how he re-instituted the traditional style of art.

In a deliberate desire to erase Akhenaten from the historical record, much of Akhenaten's statuary had been destroyed and his murals and royal cartouches chiseled out. That defacement is still visible on the walls of the extant tombs in Tell el-Amarna, as shown below.

Interestingly, in ancient times the sequence of pharaohs was recorded on so-called king lists. A sole remaining king list in its in situ location can be found carved on a wall in Seti l's Temple in Abydos, Egypt as shown below. There, less than 50 years after the 'Amarna heresy', Seti listed 75 of his royal predecessors beginning with Menes (Narmer) from the very 1st Dynasty. But Seti rewrote history by omitting the pharaohs that he considered 'unsuitable'. He thereby excluded the Amarna pharaohs of Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay from the historical record. (Sadly, however, he also omitted the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, my favorite, who ruled for about 20 years.) Seti clearly wanted to re-establish the traditional order of Egyptian kingship and the legitimate pharaonic succession, at least how he perceived it.

But as much as the Egyptians tried to erase Akhenaten's name and rewrite history, 3300 years later, Akhenaten remains an individual that sparks intrigue and garners the spotlight. Akhenaten's story, as recorded at the Metropolitan Opera, even won a Grammy Award just last month!

Akhenaten's legacy is quite potent and he continues to inspire much emotional feedback. He had many faces ... a radical, a philosopher, a prophet, an artist, a cynic, a tyrant. He was an individual who veered from tradition and instituted radical changes. A philosopher who stood out for his unique ideas and way of thinking. A prophet who put forth new religious ideas and fundamentally shook up the way religion used to be. An artist who loved aesthetics and beauty and changed visual representation. A cynic who manipulated old traditions to serve his own purposes and expressed beliefs that may not have even been genuine. A tyrant or megalomaniacal ruler who dominated all those around him. Depending on what sources you read, ANY and ALL of these descriptors are defendable and valid. Hence, Akhenaten's legacy lives on!

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