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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Temples and Taxation

Despite this religious coexistence, a text from Karnak refers to new taxes that were imposed on temples and municipalities by the king in order to fund the Aten buildings. This was unusual, as generally temples were exempt from taxation. Temples were not merely places of worship, but also centers for the storage of grain and other necessities, as well as being substantial landowners in their own right.

The king parceled out land either as favors or as remuneration to courtiers and the nobility, who were then heavily taxed. The common classes worked the land in return for a percentage of the crop produced. They were usually free from military service, but had to pay taxes. The artisanal classes and merchants were obliged to do military service and pay taxes. The only ones who escaped these obligations were the priesthood, who naturally grew rich faster than anyone else.

Talatat blocks from Akhenaten's Aten temple in Karnak.

Talatat blocks from Akhenaten's Aten temple in Karnak. Courtesy Ted Loukes.

It was the king’s fifth year that saw the first big change. A letter from his Memphis steward, dated year 5, 3rd Peret, day 19, greets the king as Amenhotep with all his titles, informing him that his establishments are flourishing. Only twenty-four days later, the first proclamation of the Amarna boundary markers was made in the name of Akhenaten. Although it is impossible to say exactly why Akhenaten felt the need to leave Thebes, he made the point in the Amarna proclamations, that the new site was fresh ground, owing allegiance to neither god, nor person. A fresh start in the center of Egypt, rather than to the north or the south, may have seemed the ideal solution for the young king. Maybe he saw a place in between the two as a balance, as a restoration of Maat.

Much has been made of the “conflict” between the Amun priests and Akhenaten, however, there is really very little evidence of any form of protest against the Aten heresy. It is a notable point that Akhenaten didn’t destroy the temples of his predecessors, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that some temples were unaffected by the king's religion. Archaeology has shown that even people living in Amarna continued worshipping their own household gods. The extent of the Atenist damage appears to have been the removal of the name of Amun and sometimes the deletion of the plural word gods, whereas the opposite seems to be the case after the Amarna period. 

A Balance Between Chaos and Order

For the ancient Egyptians there was no “religion”; the gods and their actions were as much a part of existence as was the annual inundation of the Nile. The fundamental structure of religious thought was the balance between chaos and order. Ancient Egyptian religion appears to have been an ever-changing school of thought that grew and shrank as was necessary; structured around certain traditions, it adapted itself to its own needs, while always maintaining the balance between order and disorder.

Perhaps the difficulty in understanding the ancient Egyptian religion is frustrated by there never having been a need for it to explain itself; it was accepted by everybody that the world, and everything in it, was created by the gods, and there was only one priest and that was the king.

Bust of Akhenaten.

Bust of Akhenaten. Courtesy Ted Loukes.

The notion that Akhenaten’s lack of interest in the foreign dominions led to the collapse of the empire is a popular one, however, Akhenaten’s approach was exactly the same as his father’s policy of allowing the dominions to sort out their own problems with minimal interference from the crown. Further reading of the Amarna letters shows that the Egyptians had officials stationed in garrisons throughout the vassal states who dealt with the regional kings when necessary.

A large number of letters are reports back to the crown: pledges of loyalty, assurances that orders have been carried out, and statements that cities were safe and guarded. It also has to be made clear that, for the most part, what remains of the letters is only one half of a dialogue. The incoming messages are plentiful, but the outgoing dispatches from the palace are, to say the least, thin on the ground.

The change of kingship from Amenhotep III to his son was an open invitation to insurrection for some of the outlying vassals; this is when we see the start of the letters begging for aid, and it is highly likely that if similar correspondence had survived from earlier reigns the same sort of pleading requests would have been found. Letters from the king to various subjects show his complete grasp of what was going on and his demands for answers from unruly vassals were strongly worded:

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