Pharaoh Akhenaten: An Alternative View of the Heretic King
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. ( Public Domain )
History Behind the Heresy of Akhenaten
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.
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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. 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.
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. 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 24 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. 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:
“…if you plot evil... then you shall die by the axe of the king... Perform your service for the king …and you will live.”
Akhenaten’s Worship Misinterpreted
Year 12 was a significant year in Akhenaten’s reign. It was a year of festival as depicted in the tombs at Amarna, where foreign dignitaries brought gifts of precious metals, weapons, wild animals and even slaves. These scenes give lie to the idea that the king had lost all those lands previously won by his illustrious ancestors. However, it cannot be denied that the special relationship with the Mitanni came to an end as the Egyptian inaction allowed them to be completely overrun by the Hittites.
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It was also in year 12 that the proscription of the other gods came into force and this is shown in the change in the name of the Aten, where the references to Horus and Shu were removed: ‘The Living One, Sun, Ruler of the Horizon, who rejoices in the horizon in his name, which is Sunlight, which comes from Aten.’
Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx at Amarna. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Much has been written about Akhenaten and sun worship, but Akhenaten's religion was not that—it was an understanding of a creator deity, best represented by the rays of the sun; the intangible essence of sunlight giving and maintaining life in the world, with Akhenaten and his queen its high priests . In a way, Akhenaten was right in that it is the light and energy from the Sun that maintains life on Earth. In his work Tell el-Amarna , Egyptologist Flinders Petrie notes:
“In no sun worship have the rays been so clearly appreciated as the source of life and action; and the distinction thus made shews a keener realizing of the scientific distinction between source and rays, and of the real importance of the rays to men, than has ever been touched until perhaps the present century.”
Akhenaten was much more of a king than he has been portrayed over the last hundred years or so. His foreign policy was the same as his father’s approach to the dominions, as opposed to the picture of an idle dreamer who cared nothing for his empire. The Aten religion was the culmination of four generations of thought and was not sun worship , but rather an understanding of a divine universal energy, force, god – call it what you will – that was best depicted through rays of sunlight; an understanding that would not be out of place in today’s world.
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children. ( Public Domain )
By Ted Loukes
The Amarna Letters , Moran, W. L., Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1992
Tell el Amarna , Petrie, W. M. F., London, Methuen & Co. 1894