Akhenaten, the Savior of Karnak: Sun God Vs the Hidden One - Part I
The fifth year of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign was to prove a watershed moment in ancient Egyptian history. In a bid to break free from the shackles of the influential Amun-Ra priesthood, the ruler shifted the seat of administration to the new capital, Akhetaten, which he had built in honor of the solar deity, the Aten. Even though his agents fanned out across the country from there to obliterate every vestige of Amun’s name and imagery; they stopped short of destroying the state god’s foremost sanctuary at Karnak. Why did Akhenaten not decree the demolition of edifices at this location – as was done to Aten temples within a few years after his demise? A satisfactory answer has evaded this question for more than a century.
This painted slab from the Royal Tomb at El-Amarna shows Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti and their daughters Meritaten and Meketaten adoring the Aten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Supreme Gods and Peaceful Co-existence
Contrary to popular belief, during the initial years of his rule, Neferkheperure-waenre Amenhotep (IV)-netjerheqawaset (later Akhenaten) did not always have a bone to pick with the Amun clergy, and by virtue of that, the god himself. Egyptologists cite the evidence of temples that continued to function normally even after the young king ascended the throne upon the demise of his celebrated father, Amenhotep III. Extant inscriptions reveal that during Regnal Year 4, Amenhotep IV sanctioned a quarrying expedition under the stewardship of the High Priest of Amun to gather stone for construction purposes within the temple of Amun-Ra in Ipet-sut (“most select/sacred of places”).
The 134 gigantic columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple complex stand testament to a glorious bygone age when it was a pilgrimage spot for over two millennia. A clump of 12 open papyrus capitals here may have been intended to symbolize the primordial ‘mound of creation’. This was the abode of the state god, Amun-Ra. Modern-day Luxor.
A graffito found in Wadi Hammamat states: ‘… under the Person of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkheperure Waenre, the Son of Re, Amenhotep [IV], when a charge was given to the first prophet of Amun, May, to bring bekhen-stone [for] the statue of the Lord, l. p. h.’ Charlotte Booth explains, “The High Priest of Ptah at Memphis also reported to Akhenaten that all was well at his temple, showing that the worship of Ptah and Amun was still tolerated at this early stage. Akhenaten did not halt the worship of other deities until after year five (1345 BC).”
At this time, the Pharaoh decorated the southern entrance to the precincts of the temple of Amun-Ra with scenes of him honoring the god; and he also had himself depicted worshipping Ra-Horakhty the falcon headed aspect of the sun. A sketch of a stele made by the Prussian Egyptologist Carl Richard Lepsius in 1845 at the famous Gebel el-Silsila quarry-site shows Amenhotep IV adoring Amun-Ra. Therefore, the king clearly made every attempt to acknowledge Amun worship - and the old polytheistic religious system - whilst attempting to introduce Atenism. However, it is evident that little went according to plan; and whatever Amenhotep IV pronounced in terms of his religious ideology was probably met with great unease and utter disbelief, if not outright opposition. But it is by no means implausible to postulate that murmurings of discontent reigned in the dark halls of Karnak Temple.
(Left) A sandstone Karnak Temple relief from early in Akhenaten’s reign shows him with Ra-Horakhty, traditionally depicted with a hawk’s head. Neues Museum, Berlin. (Right) An inscribed limestone fragment from Amarna shows an early Aten cartouche, “the Living Ra-Horakhty”. Petrie Museum, London. (Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg).
Age of Theocratic Coregency
Representations of Amenhotep IV’s Heb Sed-festival, probably from Regnal Year 4, feature his family - Nefertiti and their daughters - prominently. In an unprecedented depiction, the Aten is also shown participating in the jubilee. The Hwt-Bnbn (“The Mansion of the Benben stone"), another noteworthy temple, depicts Nefertiti sans Akhenaten, in the role of priest. The Rwd–mnw–n–itn–r–nḥḥ (Rud-menu / “Sturdy are the Monuments of the Sun Disc Forever”), and Tni–mnw–n–itn–r–nḥḥ (Teni–menu / “Exalted are the Monuments of the Sun Disc Forever”) comprise the other monuments in honor of the solar cult at Karnak.
This object was assembled from pieces found in the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple. The double cartouches of the Aten’s early name are presented by the two hands of a figure that is now missing. These hands and cartouches in a very fine indurated limestone appear to have belonged to a very special statue at Amarna. Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York.