Akhenaten, the Savior of Karnak: Breaking Ties with “tainted” Amun - Part II
Trouble brewed on the horizon when Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten in Regnal Year 5 in honor of his “father” the Aten, and abandoned Thebes (Waset) to occupy a desolate region in Middle Egypt - the site of modern El-Amarna. The writing was on the wall for the Amun clergy whose power, prestige and coffers were at the mercy of Pharaoh. For reasons that continue to be debated, Akhenaten embarked on an enterprise of brutal censorship against Amun-Ra. However, he spared the god’s massive Karnak Temple. Was the king truly benevolent, as some believe; or did he have other, more pressing, reasons to overlook its destruction?
Found in the dumps south of the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple or in the Sanctuary itself, this fragment is attributed to King Akhenaten. Petrie/Carter excavations, 1891–92. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Old Wine in a New Jar
It is generally believed that construction at Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) began only in Regnal Year 5, but unbelievably – owing to the use of talatat blocks – by the end of that year the royal family had made the city their home, living in temporary quarters. It was not until Year 9 though that the new capital was completed.
One of the first tasks that Akhenaten undertook when he arrived at Akhetaten, was to erect a series of Boundary Stele. On these, he recorded his reasons for choosing the site and proclaimed his unswerving devotion to the Aten: “The Great Royal Wife (Nefertiti) will not say to me, ‘Look, there is a good place for Akhetaten in another place’ and I will not listen to her.” The king also expressed an aversion to the “evil words” spoken by unnamed persons that his forbears had heard.
One of the sixteen Boundary Stelae that Akhenaten erected to demarcate the limits of the sacred territory of Akhetaten. (Left) Foundation decree “Stela U” and (Right) the large statues of the Pharaoh and Queen Nefertiti that flank it. Tell el-Amarna.
Around Regnal Year 8 the persecution of Amun-Ra began, slowly at first, before spreading with extraordinary viciousness. A nationwide proscription was decreed; and Akhenaten’s agents effaced the name of Amun wherever it was to be found—on monuments, atop obelisks, inside tombs and even on small scarabs. The iconoclast excised reference to Amun even in the name of his deceased father, Amenhotep III. Charlotte Booth reveals that the king “even extended the erasure to every occurrence of the plural of ‘god’ and to place names that revered the gods, especially Amun, as far south as the fourth cataract in Nubia. This desecration may have been completely inspired by religious fervor, or an economic tool to ensure that all the revenue from the temples of Egypt was directed to the new city of the Aten, or it perhaps a combination of the two.”
Supporting this view, John Darnell and Colleen Manassa state that in the scheme of things, regardless of the power wielded by the clergy, the writ of the sovereign was sacrosanct, all-pervasive and beyond doubt or reproach, “While the temple estate of the god Amun possessed land and personnel far beyond Thebes, the New Kingdom clergy of Amun was dependent on the beneficence of the pharaoh—the priesthood of Amun was powerful because of, not in spite of, the authority of the pharaoh.”
This image from 2004 shows the ancient site of Akhenaten’s Gem-pa-Aten Temple at Karnak. It was situated east of the Amun Temple, so that the rays of the sun would reach it first each morning.
And, as if to rub salt into the wound, Akhenaten ordered that the revenue from the temples of Egypt should be directed to his Sun City. Dr Donald Redford gives an account of the uneasy turn of events during this phase: “Already large quantities of offerings were being diverted to the Disc at the expense of other temples, and… those officials that did not adjust to the new conditions would be cutting their own throats.” Redford also argues that many of the priests from Karnak and other cities were re-employed and resided at Akhetaten. “Some may have done so willingly, grasping the opportunity to continue their career, while others may have been kept there under “supervision” at Akhenaten’s instruction to maintain order, lest they revolted,” he postulates.
A view of the restored columns in front of the Small Aten Temple Sanctuary that overlook the “Akhet” or horizon from where the Aten rises each morning. Tell el-Amarna. (Photo: Olaf Tausch ). Inset: This well-preserved stela was discovered among the ruins of the Great Aten Temple. It bears the cartouche of Akhenaten on its left side; and the name of the Aten is enclosed in a royal cartouche. (Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera )