The Amarna period was marked by the inauguration of Akhenaten, the prince formerly known as Amenhotep IV. Succeeding his father Amenhotep III, Akhenaten then reigned for 17 years married to the famously beautiful Nefertiti. In those 17 years he revolutionised Egyptian culture, enacting great changes in religion, art, and politics. Akhenaten also created a new capital city from which he ruled which we refer to as Amarna because of the Beni Amran tribe that lived in the area but in its time it was called Akhetaten, or Horizon of Aten by the ancient Egyptians. Amarna is located on the East Bank of the Nile, roughly 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 miles north of Luxor. The short duration of its occupancy combined with the fact the site was built on virgin soil and the large Amarna Letter collection that was discovered allow us to “reconstruct an unusually accurate picture” of life in the city (Encyclopedia Britannica 2016).
From this accurate picture of the city, we can reconstruct a comparison of life in Ancient Egypt before, during and after, Akhenaten. The most marked difference was seen in Akhenaten’s religious revolution which replaced the traditional polytheistic religion centred on Amun-Ra with a new semi-monotheistic religion that worshipped Aten above all over gods (David 1998, 125). Amun-Ra had been the customary cult of choice for the royal family and a great many temples were located in Thebes, which may have been one of the motivations for the construction of Akhetaten. Unlike the other traditional Egyptian’s Gods who took on anthropomorphic forms, Aten was seen as a solar deity above mere Gods and whose form was represented by the sun whose rays extended downwards ending in hands reaching down from the heavens.
Figure 1: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters under Aten (Kemp 1992, 282)
It was not unusual for a pharaoh to associate himself with a certain God, however, Akhenaten was the first to proclaim himself the living embodiment of a God proclaiming himself as “the dazzling Aten” (Van Dijk 2004, 276). Some scholars have even compared Akhenaten’s relationship to Aten to Jesus Christ’s relationship to God supporting their argument with Akhenaten’s self-descriptions of being “Thine only son that came forth from thy body” and “the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc” (Redford 1987). I would reject these notions as leaping to conclusions, as Redford concludes “there is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible” (1996). Perhaps there is a possibility in the speculations of Sigmund Freud that Akhenaten, like Moses, was striving to for a completely monotheistic religion but ultimately the Egyptian people rejected the cult of Aten unlike Judaism (112, 1939). Despite the full measure’s Akhenaten took to distance the Egyptian people from the old religion, it was a mere four years after his death that his son Tutankhaten took the throne and moved the capital back to Thebes and took the name Tutankhamun to reinforce the restoration of the cult of Amun and rejection of Aten. And so the worship of Aten disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
As with Akhenaten’s other sudden changes the Amarna art style was also a swift break from the established style and was revolved around the new worship of Aten. Before the Amarna period, the style of Egyptian art changed very little and at a slow rate. The way Akhenaten is depicted in illustration and sculpture differed greatly from past pharaohs, portraying himself as an almost androgynous figure with “an elongated neck, almost feminine breasts, a round protruding belly, wide hips, and fat thighs” (Van Dijk 2004, 281). Some theories have suggested that Akhenaten may have suffered from genetic abnormality due to incestuous parentage, but I would agree with Montserrat’s dissertation of that theory and that Akhenaten’s exaggerated physical portrayal “is not to be read literally” (2000, 36). Most speculation points towards Akhenaten wanting to portray male as well as female elements in his images, posing as “the mother and father of the Egyptian state emphasising his close affinity with Aten” (McArthur 2011, 33). However, Akhenaton’s symbolic mother and father position did not extend to foreign nations.
Figure 2: Akhenaten’s androgynous figure
(http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/cairo%20museum/cm,%20akhenaten/ accessed 02/05/2016.)
Foreign relations deteriorated greatly as of a result of the religious reforms in which Egypt’s concerns stopped at their own borders. Even despite Egypt’s relatively wealth and prosperity, Akhenaton simply ignored requests from neighbouring nations for assistance in their various affairs choosing to remain inwardly occupied in only affairs within Egypt’s borders (Mark 2014). Even 50 letters for military assistance sent by Rib-Haddi, the king of Byblos, which was one of Egypt’s closest allies at the time were largely ignored (Watterson 112). Akhenaton’s neglect of foreign politics even took the form of annoyance demanding from Rib-Haddi “why do you alone keep writing to me?” as quoted in Amarna Letter EA 117 (Moran 193). This relationship heavily contrasts from his father and precursor Amenhotep III whose approach to foreign policy resulted in a significant peace treaty with the Mitanni leading to a period of unprecedented prosperity and artistic flourishing for Egypt.
Akhenaten’s legacy is a difficult topic to discuss. On one hand, the heretic king’s memory was “scorned as that of a felon”, his religion and city were abandoned after his death (Freud 1939, 26). However, more than 3000 years after his death and Akhenaton still attracts fascination as well as inspiring many artists, writers, and musicians from Agatha Christie to Philip Glass. Whether his reign was an ultimately positive influence on religion and politics in Ancient Egypt could be debated endlessly with no clear answer. Though what is clear is that Akhenaten is truly deserving of the title of “the first individual in history” (Breasted 1933, 301). Although he failed as to manage proper relations with many neighbouring empires I reason that he eclipsed this small pitfall with the freedom he gave to the artists, sculptures and musicians of his era. For he was a man that challenged the ordinary and accepted norms of his time, to which he deserves only respect for having the daring to bring a dangerous dream into reality.
Amenhotep IV/ Akhenaten
1350BCs – 1330BCs Amarna Letter EA 117
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