Akhenaten and the Amarna Pharaohs


Por el Dr. Nicholas Reeves

Conferencia impartida en Madrid, 30 de Mayo de 2002

(**1) In the north of Egypt, around 1370 BC, a child was born to the Egyptian queen Tiye, great royal wife of the powerful pharaoh Amenophis III.

  A second son, the child was named after the divinity he would later come to revile: Amenophis, ‘The god Amun is content’. Educated for a priestly career in the temple at Heliopolis, the centre of Egypt’s ancient solar cult, it was not envisaged that the boy would ever rule. For Egypt, as we shall see, it might have been very much better if he never had ...

  (**2) Prince Amenophis is best known today by the name he adopted at or soon after his accession to independent rule, following the death of his elder brother Tuthmosis and a brief co-regency with his father. This name was Akhenaten, ‘He who is beneficial to the Aten’. And it is Akhenaten which today conjures up visions of the gentle monotheist, almost Christ-like in character, familiar to us from the influential writings of the great American historian James Henry Breasted at the start of the 20th century.

  (**3) For Breasted, Akhenaten was special, a sensitive beacon of light in what he, a devout Christian, saw as a sea of spiritual darkness—‘the first individual in history’. And the king was, without doubt, a ruler of rare intellect, originating the intimate art-style which characterizes the reign and authoring one of the most sensitive literary compositions of antiquity—(**4) the Great Hymn to the Aten, inspiration for the 104th Psalm. If he was somewhat eccentric in interest, with his elongated face and wide hips Akhenaten was equally odd in appearance—(**5) a sufferer, perhaps, of the medical condition nowadays known as ‘Marfan’s Syndrome’. He was, in short, as far from the traditional warrior-pharaoh as can be imagined. In consequence, the man tends now to be regarded as something of a brilliant, caring but unworldly bungler—fiddling, like Nero, while Rome burned down around him.

  In the present state of our knowledge, Akhenaten may indeed make claim to be history’s first personality; but was he truly the beautiful if fumbling creature the modern world has come to accept? This is the view I wish to consider this evening.

  (**6) As good a place as any to start is the ancients’ own view of the man—and here we receive our first considerable jolt. In contrast with Breasted’s assessment of Akhenaten as benevolent visionary, the ancients themselves saw nothing in the reign of this king to admire or emulate. Indeed, they were unanimous in their condemnation of both the man and his mission. For the Egyptians pharaoh was ‘the enemy of Akhetaten’—the city he had dedicated to his special god—, responsible for the time ‘of the rebellion’. So disruptive does Akhenaten’s reign seem to have been, so much were his actions and ideas loathed and feared by those who came after, that all memory of him was erased from history. Pharaoh’s image was defaced, his cartouches hacked-out, his monuments dismantled—(**7) while his name was wilfully omitted from all subsequent kinglists. It was as if he had never existed; and, until the discovery two hundred years ago of his ruined city at el-Amarna, Akhenatenan did indeed remain totally forgotten.

  (**8) The king’s ‘crime’, we see, was to have instigated revolution from above—in one of the most conservative countries in the ancient world. At a stroke, the beliefs of millennia had been overturned by pharaoh’s peremptory denial of Egypt’s traditional gods. In place of the many and varied cults of old, he imposed the unwanted rule of a (**9) single divine essence—the Aten, or solar disc. Distracted by his new god, Egypt’s hitherto flourishing empire began to disintegrate; and, further destabilised by Akhenaten’s closure of the old temples, powerhouse of the Egyptian system, the economy faltered. Seventeen years after his accession, the country was very much on the brink of ruin.

(**10) The treatment meted out to Akhenaten by his successors was extreme—too extreme, I feel, to have been provoked by the head-in-the-clouds and essentially well-meaning hero of Breasted’s history. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any creature of good provoking a reaction as violent as this, however unfortunate had been the consequences of his actions. Clearly, Akhenaten was hated by his people—and it seems that this hatred was inspired less by the inaction of a religious dreamer than the pro-action of a political manipulator.

(**11) We tend today to assume that kingly power in Egypt was as constant as, perhaps, its art appears, at first glance, to the uninitiated; but it was not. Power ebbed and flowed, and since the apogee of kingly power during the pyramid age things had changed. The recurrent theme in the history of Egypt’s New Kingdom, 1200 years on from the pyramids, is a jostling for earthly control between the throne and the priests of Egypt’s principal god, Amun of Thebes. (**12) Thanks to Amun’s divine support, Akhenaten’s predecessors had achieved a series of brilliant military victories in Syria-Palestine; and from these victories an empire was built. But there was a serious downside. The vast tribute which began to flow into Egypt to be dedicated, in great part, to the country’s principal god made this god’s servants rich and greedy for power. Eventually, Amun’s  priests controlled a virtual state within a state—and they aimed higher still.

(**13) Crisis point had been reached around 1480 BC, a century before Akhenaten was born. Tuthmosis II, the ruling king, died and the throne was seized by his widow, the chief royal wife Hatshepsut, who blocked the accession of the true heir, Tuthmosis III, for 15 years. (**14) Supporting the fiction of the queen’s divine birth, and thus her right to rule, the Amun priesthood was instrumental in keeping her in office. The reward? Overriding temporal power and influence. With others pulling the strings, however, royal prestige fell to an all time low. 

The interlude is, for us, a significant one, revealing clearly the extent of the Amun cult’s simmering ambitions—and its danger to the throne.

(**15) For a very brief moment the curtain of history lifts, to reveal series of vulnerable, all too human rulers—and a kingship whose power, despite the bombastic propaganda of Egypt’s temple walls, was in practice very much limited. The graffito on the left, found above the queen’s famous mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, says it all. In the wake of the Hatshepsut episode, however, a determined if cautious reaction by the royals may be discerned; what could be done by Hatshepsut’s successors to prevent a repetition of such priestly meddling clearly was done.

The danger would be averted by various means. (**16) From the thwarted heir, Tuthmosis III, on, the existence and number of pharaoh’s heirs was publicly emphasized for the first time, to ensure that the succession was clear and legitimate; and, for some years after the Hatshepsut episode, no queen of the ruling king would be elevated to the influential springboard-position of chief wife.

The kings pulled other levers too. Ancient tribal loyalties were brought into play, with (**17) a northern high priest, Ptahmose, appointed to head Amun’s cult, neutralizing the power of that southern god’s priesthood. More dramatically, the very basis of royal power began radically to be reassessed. The aim, towards which each of Hatshepsut’s successors would vigorously strive, was to re-establish the kingship on a sounder, stronger theological footing: in ways both large and small there would be a determined return to the values of the pyramid age, when the king’s divine, all-powerful status was unchallenged—a time when (**18) the principal power in the heavens was the sun-god Re, Amun’s more ancient and less politicised rival at Heliopolis in the north.

(**19) By the reign of Tuthmosis IV, two kings after Hatshepsut, a quickening growth may be discerned in pharaonic promotion of the sun cult. By the end of the reign of Amenophis III, further dramatic change occurs. It was traditionally believed that, in death, the Egyptian king’s soul would join with the Aten, the solar god’s sentient energy; now—apparently at the point Amenophis IV-Akhenaten is elevated to rule as junior king by his father’s side—(**20) Amenophis III proclaims that he has joined with this divine essence in life. Pharaoh is now a god.

(**21) With the death of Amenophis III comes further change: from this time on, the Aten is consistently shown in a new and peculiarly disembodied form—as a solar disc pouring its rays of light and life on Akhenaten and his family, and on them alone; and, significantly, the hieroglyphs which spell out the god’s name are now contained within two cartouches, or royal ovals.

How are we to understand these changes? What do they signify?

In fact, the conclusion is inescapable: pharaoh Amenophis III and his son’s increasingly powerful god, the Aten, had not only become one—the solar divinity of this elder king was now formalized in an abstract iconography which parallelled pharaoh’s own newly disembodied state in death. In other words, the Aten, focus of Akhenaten’s coming religion, seems from the very start to have been his father, Amenophis III.

Akhenaten’s first attempts to honour the Aten would be made at Thebes, the ancient centre of the Amun cult. This old god’s city, as we learn from an inscription, now received a new name—Akhetenaten, ‘Horizon of the Aten’. (**22) And here, in the midst of Amun’s realm, within the immense Karnak temple-complex, Akhenaten determined to erect a series of enormous structures, open to the sky, for the worship of his new god.

It was a brave challenge: with the arrogance of youth, Akhenaten had called the bluff of Amun’s troublesome priests. But it failed: opposition to the king’s plans was evidently intense. What happened, (**23) the king records in an obscure and badly damaged passage of his boundary stelae at el-Amarna: ‘it was worse than those things heard by any kings who had ever assumed the white crown [of Upper Egypt]’. Precisely what this ‘it’ was is never specified, but we may guess that a warning had been sounded. Perhaps in fear of his life, Akhenaten decided to head for friendlier territory further north.

(**24) Abandoning the old religious capital was a clever and immensely pragamatic response, which Egyptian history had seen employed at least once before—by Ammenemes I, founder of the 12th Dynasty 600 years earlier. This forebear, similarly anxious to by-pass hostile vested interests within the regime he had recently inherited, decided to establish a new capital at Itjtawy in the Faiyum—shortly, and significantly, just before he was murdered. By abandoning Thebes to Amun’s priests, Akhenaten, we may guess, was attempting to shake off his principal opposition in a similar way. Any residual rumblings to the changes pharaoh wished to impose, he hoped would be silenced by the opportunities afforded to his people by the construction of his god’s new city.

(**25) The site of Akhenaten’s new city was to be a virgin plain in Middle Egypt: el-Amarna. In antiquity it bore a version of a familiar name—Akhetaten, a second ‘Horizon of the Aten’; what the king had failed to achieve in Thebes, here at Amarna he determined to carry through. The city would be a veritable oasis of culture—and control.

(**26) Abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death, and never seriously reoccupied, much of the foundation still remains—the ruins of its houses and temples, the empty shells of its exquisitely decorated tombs; and, of course, the series of great, battered stelae which demarcate the limits of the foundation.

(**27) As I previously mentioned, each of these stelae is inscribed with the king’s foundation decree from which most of our knowledge of events at this time comes. But as revealing as their texts, it now seems, is the physical disposition of the monuments. (**28) For, connected up, the stelae astonishingly reproduce, on a massive scale, the ground-plan of el-Amarna’s principal religious structure—the Great Temple of the Aten. Akhenaten’s new city, evidently, had been conceived and designed with immense care as one vast religious edifice. And, like all temples, this one had its focus. This, revealingly, was the royal tomb itself, located beyond the break in the eastern cliffs through which the Aten was reborn every day.

(**29) The significance of this discovery cannot be emphasized strongly enough. For, with the royal tomb as focus of Akhenaten’s architectural scheme, the nature of the king’s enterprise stands clearly revealed. For, in the new theology, the royal tomb was the sepulchre not only of Akhenaten himself: as the place of the Aten’s rebirth, it represented the point of daily resurrection of his father and every king of Egypt, past, present and future, who had or would ultimately become one with the solar essence.

(**30) The cult of the Aten, in short, is revealed not simply as the worship of the father by his son, but as the cult of kingship itself. Akhenaten’s religion was ancestor-worship writ large. And it was the final act, in that reassertion of kingly power sparked by Hatshepsut’s abasement a century earlier, to Amun’s greedy and opportunistic priests.

(**31) New religion, new art, new city, new dreams—these were clearly heady days. Interesting times, as the Chinese would say. But as the initial excitement passed, the busy populace of el-Amarna will have found itself in an emotional daze, adrift in a sea of spiritual uncertainty. For the Egyptian people, the old religion had permeated and directed every aspect of life, and death; now, with the king’s proscription of the old religion, it was gone.

The Aten was a distant god, vague in its promises. Worse still, though it was visible to everyone in the sky above, the divinity was accessible only through the king as its prophet; (**32) pharaoh worshipped the god, and the populace worshipped pharaoh. It was another element of the king’s sinister determination to reassert kingly control—and ordinary Egyptians can have harboured little hope of change.

At some point between Years 8 and 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, things were to get very much worse. Secure in his new city, the king unleashed a ruthless, vindictive persecution of Amun and his consort, the goddess Mut: (**33) orders were issued to hack out the deities’ images and names wherever they occurred, throughout the length and breadth of the country. It was intended as an insult and final humiliation to Amun’s ambitious priests. But it also generated real and tangible fear among the ordinary people—for not only were the offending hieroglyphs of Amun’s name removed from Egypt’s public monuments. (**34) As archaeology shows, small, personal objects were dealt with in the same ruthless fashion. Fearful of being found in possession of such seditious items, the owners themselves had gouged- or ground-out the offending signs of Amun’s name—even within the tiniest cartouche-ovals on the scarab amulet we see here 

Such displays of frightened self-censorship and toadying loyalty are ominous indicators of the paranoia which was now beginning to grip the country. (**35) Not only were the streets filled with pharaoh’s bully-boys—Nubians and Asiatics armed with clubs, seen everywhere in the reliefs of the period; it seems the population now had to contend with the danger of malicious informers.

And then—anticlimax: from the records, virtual silence. Of the king’s last years we know virtually nothing; the period draws to a close with less of a bang than a whimper. By Year 17 of the reign, it was all over: Akhenaten was dead and soon to be buried; (**36) power was in the hands of his wife, the beautiful Nefertiti, recently elevated to the status of junior pharaoh under the successive throne-names Nefernefruaten and Smenkhkare. And Nefertiti, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, we find in negotiation with a neighbouring great power, the Hittites, for a prince to share the Egyptian throne. (**37) ‘My husband has died. A son I have not, but your sons are many’. The queen’s letter ended ominously: ‘I am afraid’. Nefertiti-Smenkhkare was obviously holding on to power by her fingertips, and indeed would soon fall. But perhaps it had hardly been worth the effort. As inscriptions of Tutankhamun—Akhenaten’s son and legitimate successor—record, the heretic king had bequeathed a country in economic and spiritual ruin. Even before Akhenaten’s death, as a power for change the Aten was effectively finished; (**38) and soon, as Tutankhamun’s monuments reveal, Amun and the gods of old were again in the ascendant—able to re-establish their hold on the monarchy, and to write, or ignore, history as they chose.

(**39) Two decades after Akhenaten’s passing, in 1319 BC, Horemheb ushered in the Nineteenth Dynasty and the start of the Ramessid royal line. Soon, under Amun’s guidance, the reaction to Amarna began in earnest, and all trace of the Atenist king and his reign was obliterated.

With this obliteration, the fears which had driven Akhenaten’s revolution were forgotten; too late, they would be remembered. (**40) Under Ramesses XI, around 1100 BC, the militaristic high-priest of Amun’s again-pampered cult, Herihor, declared himself pharaoh. Akhenaten’s nightmare was soon to become a reality: within a matter of years, the only real king of Egypt was Amun himself.

(**41) The Amarna era is a subject of never-ending fascination, upon the varied aspects of which there has, this evening, been time barely to touch upon. Pharaoh’s extraordinary art style, seen here in its most appealing aspect; Akhenaten’s possible illness; the sophistication of the king’s new city at el-Amarna; the eternal mystery of Tomb 55; and the current star of the period, Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s beautiful wife—a woman who, elevated to the status of junior pharaoh by her husband, clearly harboured Hatshepsut-like ambitions of her own. Each is a lecture in its own right.

  (**42) Of Akhenaten himself, I believe we now have the basics. More of a reactionary than a revolutionary, he was the last in a line of kings for whom the humiliation of Hatshepsut’s betrayal to the ambitious Amun priesthood was very real. This humiliation, and the king’s own upbringing, it appears, under the rival priesthood of Re at Heliopolis, had instilled in him a determination to set things right by reaching back in time. His aim was to reimpose the structures of the Old Kingdom—(**43) a period of strength and purity when rulers ruled with untrammelled power, as the gods intended, and miracles like the pyramids could be achieved. It was an appealing vision, but Akhenaten’s determination to realise it would inflict untold suffering on his people. It was, I believe, a dark and terrible experience—as far from James Henry Breasted’s vision of Amarna and its passive king as can possibly be imagined.

(**44) Yet, it would be wrong to fool ourselves into believing that the last word on Akhenaten and his time has now been said. Even if we are beginning to advance in our understanding of Amarna history, there remains a long way still to go. We must bear in mind always the scant materials from which, as Egyptologists, we are obliged to work—remembering that hard facts relating to this extraordinary time are depressingly few, and that our documentation remains terribly piecemeal. In attempting to reconstruct the history of this time we are, in effect, dealing with a jigsaw puzzle to which we not only lack a pictorial key but for which most of the pieces are still missing. Before an Egyptologist can claim absolute validity for any of the scenarios he or she puts forward, there will have to be more evidence from which to work.

 (**45) Which is why the search for fresh data is still ongoing—under Barry Kemp and the Egypt Exploration Society, at el-Amarna; (**46) but also, for the later Amarna period, by myself, Geoffrey Martin and the Amarna Royal Tombs Project in the Valley of the Kings—the site where Akhenaten and his family were finally reburied during Tutankhamun’s reign. (**47) In the Valley of the Kings, only one of the Amarna reburials is identified—the much-discussed KV55, which I believe to have been the tomb of Akhenaten and his mother Tiye. Both of these individuals had originally been buried in the great royal tomb at el-Amarna itself, where with them were interred Akhenaten’s secondary wife, Kiya, and the king’s second daughter, Meketaten. The Valley reburials of Kiya and Meketaten, intriguingly, are still unknown. (**48) And, of course, there is Nefertiti herself—the powerful queen around whom so much of the Amarna period is now seen to revolve. Where was she buried? Also, I believe, in the Valley of the Kings.

  (**49) My own excavations in the Valley have run for four seasons now. Work will recommence in November this year, and the prospects are exciting. There is a strong possibility, I believe, that the site still contains a lower layer of tombs, of which Tutankhamun’s was the first to be discovered in 1922. Between 1922 and 1998 very little excavation was carried out, but the Amarna Royal Tombs Project has now begun to investigate this lower layer. And—very encouragingly—materials of Amarna date (which are extremely rare at this site) are beginning to come to light: blue painted funerary pottery, an important canopic jar fragment, (**50) and, most exciting of all, this large limestone ostracon bearing a sketch of a priest in characteristic Amarna style.

  New pieces, therefore, are being added daily to the jigsaw-history of the period—and it is clear that, with further work at el-Amarna, in the Valley of the Kings, and elsewhere, much we currently accept as historical truth may have to be rethought. The history of Akhenaten and his time is very much an evolving story—and all the more exciting for it.


Thank you.