Akhenaten, relief of the pylons of the house of Panehsy, Chief Servitor of the Aten. It depicts Akhenaten making offerings to the Aten.

Pharaoh Akhenaten: A Different View of the Heretic King

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Amenhotep IV, also known as the Pharaoh Akhenaten, was destined to be remembered for his attempt at a religious conversion of ancient Egypt; one that saw the old gods put aside and replaced by a single god, the Aten.

Akhenaten took on the might of the priesthood of Amun-Ra; and, enforced by the military, temples were closed and the names of the gods were removed from statues and inscriptions the length and breadth of the land. Akhenaten and his family were more concerned with their new religion, and left the empire unprotected and weakened – led by an ineffectual king more interested in poetry and nature rather than ruling. Statues and inscriptions depict Akhenaten and his family with long thin necks, sloping foreheads and elongated skulls, and this has led to claims that the king suffered from various disorders, or even that he was female. He was an ugly, misshapen man struggling with his own mental and physical abnormalities. This is the story that most people know—but it is true?

Pharaoh Akhenaten (center) and his family worshiping the Aten, with characteristic rays seen emanating from the solar disk.

Pharaoh Akhenaten (center) and his family worshiping the Aten, with characteristic rays seen emanating from the solar disk. ( Public Domain )

History Behind the Heresy

We have to go back four generations to find the beginnings of the religious upheaval that was to culminate in the so-called “heresy” of Akhenaten. Amenhotep II built a temple to the Sphinx at Giza and was named ruler of Heliopolis, rather than Thebes. His son, Tuthmose IV, owed his throne to the Sphinx, as the combination deity Ra-Horakhti, and by association to the Heliopolitan priesthood. His marriage to the daughter of the king of Mitanni added a foreign element to the court, which appears to have promoted a degree of free thinking.

Tuthmose IV began increasingly to identify himself with the solar deity of Heliopolis as opposed to the Theban Amun-Ra. The reign of Amenhotep III saw a widening of the gap between the Theban priests of Amun and the northern priests of the sun. The full Aten name, ‘Ra Horakhti, Rejoicing on the Horizon, in His Name as Shu Who Is in the Aten-disc’, stems from the schools of Heliopolis and has its fundamentals in the older beliefs of the early dynasties.

The king, as the son of Ra, assumed the power of the throne, as the aging Ra handed down his power to Horus. Ra as ‘Horus of the Two Horizons’ became the god of the rising and the setting sun and the patron of the king. Although Aten was the long established name for the disc of the Sun, it is during the reign of Amenhotep III that it took on a new role and became synonymous with ‘Ra-Horakhti-Khepra-Atum of Heliopolis’, not as a new god, but as a means of differentiating between Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakthi.

The priesthood of Amun had reinforced the strength of their god by declaring him an aspect of Ra, and it was that association that made Amun acceptable to the rest of Egypt. This gave an unprecedented amount of power to the Amun priesthood, allowing them, through the god, to control not only the country, but also the king. The divinity of kingship now included a claim to being a son of Amun.

Amenhotep III’s political power-play showed itself when the High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis was “given” the honorary position of Second Priest of Amun at Thebes. When the vizier Ptahmose, High Priest of Amun died, Amenhotep III, instead of promoting the next High Priest, as was expected, conferred the viziership on the nobleman Ramose, neatly sidestepping the priesthood and effectively moving towards a separation of state and religion. Given these prevailing moods within the royal family, it should not really be any surprise that the young Amenhotep IV began his reign with certain goals and ideals already set in his mind.

The early name Aten.

The early name Aten. Courtesy Ted Loukes

On his ascension, he began building at Karnak, the long established home of Amun-Ra, decorating the southern entrance with scenes of himself worshipping Ra-Horakhti, as well as building his open-air temple to the east of the main precinct, suggesting that he understood and appreciated the legitimacy of Amun-Ra and that he needed that very legitimacy to underwrite his new religious stance; to give it both credibility and acceptability to the Egyptian people. Although all of these buildings were torn down after Akhenaten’s death, a great deal of the building blocks have been recovered, allowing the opportunity of reconstructing parts of them. It is in these remains that we see the new artistic tendencies known as the Amarna style. These early murals and inscriptions show a side-by-side existence of Akhenaten’s god with the traditional deities.

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