Bust of Akhenaten. Photo credit: Scott Noegel.
| Scott Noegel on Akhenaten
Dynasty XVIII (13521338 b.c.)
No pharaoh of ancient Egypt inspires as much debate and controversy as this enigmatic man who has been at various times called a visionary, the worlds first monotheist, a mystic, and a madman. He came to be known to ancient Egyptians as "the criminal" and "the heretic." At the height of Egypts influence and wealth, he initiated an unprecedented religious experiment that shook Egypt to its foundations and caused a backlash that resulted in an attempt to erase his name from history.
Born to Amenhotep III and his chief wife, Tiye, Amenhotep IV may have spent the last years of his fathers reign in co-regency with him. Recent scholars have suggested that Amenhotep IVs religious revolution had its roots during the reign of his father. Nevertheless, the full flowering of the new religion began to take shape after the assumption of the throne by the son.
Amenhotep IVs chief wife was Nefertiti. A famous bust of Nefertiti, now in Berlins Egyptian Museum, is one of the most recognizable images of the ancient world known today. It is easy to see why she is considered perhaps the most beautiful woman of the ancient world. Nefertiti bore the pharaoh six daughters, and there is evidence that she played a very prominent role in both the new religion and the court.
The pharaoh began his revolution with a change of his name. Amenhotep IV, a name with an association to the god Amun, became Akhenaten, meaning "effective for the Aten." In this new religion the disk of the sun was worshipped as the worldly physical manifestation of the god Aten. Although worship of the sun god Re is attested from very early in Egypts history, the idea of an abstract, universal, all-encompassing deity was new. Temples to other gods were closed and the name of the god Amun was removed from many monuments. In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved the royal court to Middle Egypt, building an entirely new city he called Akhetaten ("Horizon of the Aten").
A new style of art was initiated, showing the royal family in uncharacteristically intimate scenes and depicting them in a very naturalistic style. In these depictions, Akhenaten sometimes looks grotesque and deformed, leading some scholars to suggest he was suffering from a disfiguring disease. However, while the naturalistic style remained, the figures of the royal family were rendered in a somewhat more conventional fashion later in the reign.
During Akhenatens reign, the Aten religion was possibly confined to his new city. It didnt have time to gain a broad foothold in the population, and its appeal was likely limited by other factors. By the time of the New Kingdom, the Egyptian nation and religion already had thousands of years of history. The Egyptians were polytheists, believing in many gods. The idea of an abstract, universal god was alien and this revolution probably violated their concepts of maat. It also likely upset many powerful and wealthy officials and priests formerly attached to the temples of other gods.
Akhenatens religion did not survive his death. Once he was gone, officials at the helm of state began to restore the old gods. At some point his city, temples and monuments all over Egypt were dismantled, defaced, and destroyed, their stones being used for new projects. The fervor with which this endeavor was undertaken points to the amount of disturbance that Akhenatens experiment had caused. Fortunately for Egyptologists, the destruction was not as complete as the ancients would have wanted, and many artifacts from this reign have been recovered. Akhenaten remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic leaders of the ancient world.
Related exhibit piece: Seated Figure of Ptah, early reign of Amenhotep IV (catalog p. 48).