Talatat Blocks and Akhenaten’s Failed Architectural Revolution
Egypt has a rich history of architectural monuments that dot its landscape. Each monument is a testament to the pharaoh who created it. These buildings have forever cemented the names of the pharaohs in the annals of Egyptian history, granting them the everlasting immortality that they craved. And yet, there is one pharaoh who was robbed of this honor. In the New Kingdom era, mysterious, alien-like pharaoh Akhenaten would lead a revolution that would shake the very foundations of Egyptian culture. His Aten cult religious revolution was a total departure from the past. And with his “revolutionary” smaller talatat blocks, Akhenaten was able to build many new grand structures in his lifetime. And then his name and his ideas were erased from history, or almost . . .
In the middle of the 19th century, a Prussian archaeologist named Richard Lepsius found the first evidence of the forgotten Egyptian city of Amarna. What was especially remarkable was that Lepsius found traces of a pharaoh, whose name had been completely erased from the established list of Egyptian pharaohs. And the city of Amarna that Lepsius had stumbled upon was built by the very pharaoh whose name was erased. None other than pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned from 1353 to 1336 BC.
Eccentric Pharaoh Akhenaten changed Egyptian religion with his Aten sun cult and also how buildings were made by introducing the smaller, easier to use talatat blocks. A bust of Akhenaten at the Egyptian Museum. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Akhenaten’s New Innovations: The Aten Cult and Talalat Blocks
Born Amenhotep IV, in the year 1350 BC, Akhenaten was the son of one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs Amenhotep III, and his chief wife, Queen Tiye. The prince was the youngest child of Amenhotep III; however, he did not receive the same treatment as his siblings. Often on building and structures, the young prince was absent, while his siblings were receiving honors and titles that benefited their status. There is rarely any mention of Amenhotep IV until destiny intervened and placed him on the pharaonic throne.
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As Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs elaborate on the tragedy that led Amenhotep III to make his younger son heir apparent:
“Despite a sybaritic life, personal tragedy struck near the end of his thirty-eight years as pharaoh. His eldest and favorite son died, leaving only a malformed younger son to carry on. After his father’s death, this new pharaoh Amenhotep IV made a bid to change his world.”
Despite his reservations, Queen Tiye was able to convince her husband that the throne must be passed to Amenhotep IV. Unfortunately, the mighty Amenhotep III had no idea how much his son would undo and change.
Once Amenhotep IV was crowned pharaoh, he immediately set about making several changes that brought him into direct conflict with the clerics. Unlike his father, Amenhotep IV was not a diplomat, and he did not like the power and influence held by the Karnak priests. On top of that, the pharaoh worshipped a completely different god than his people, the Aten. To show his devotion to the new cult, the pharaoh even changed his name to Akhenaten, which means “of great use to the Aten.” Once upon a time, the Aten was an important Egyptian deity, but during the New Kingdom era, without a doubt the chief god was Amun. And challenging Amun’s priests would be seen as directly challenging Amun, himself. So, the revival of the Aten cult caused much conflict across the kingdom of Egypt.
Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Meritaten (obscured) worshipping the Aten sun deity in Amarna, which caused much conflict with the priests of the leading Amum deity. (Egyptian Museum / Public domain)
What Sparked Akhenaten’s Revolution?
Throughout its history, Egypt had gone through several highs and lows, during these times, there was one constant, their religion. The rise of the Egyptian civilization was propelled by its remarkable and intricate belief system. Over the centuries, the priests gained immense wealth and power and began to rival the pharaoh himself. Akhenaten had been born into a world where the pharaoh was in a constant tug of war with the priests, both vying for power.
However, Amenhotep III realized that ensuring the loyalty of the priests needed to be done subtly, so as not to antagonize the people. After all, the temples were responsible for the income of thousands of workers and played a major part in the economic success of Egypt. Therefore, he employed his relatives in the temple of Karnak, not only to keep an eye on the priests but to ensure their loyalty. This method allowed both parties to maintain their show of power without coming into conflict with one another. Ever the diplomate, Amenhotep III kept his kingdom prosperous and peaceful, but all that changed when his son ascended the throne.
Akhenaten, on the other hand, was not content with this subtle way of control, he wanted to completely shift the religious foundations of the society he was now head of. To do so, he needed to build grand monuments which would help him show, his people, his power. His Aten cult came into direct conflict with the cult of Amun. And in a direct challenge, Akhenaten began to build a new temple dedicated to the Aten, directly outside the temple of Amun in Karnak.
Joann fletcher writes in her book, “The story of Egypt”:
“Beyond Karnak’s boundary wall on the easternmost edge, closest to where the sun appeared at dawn, their main temple, Gem-pa-Aten – ‘the Aten is found’ – was swiftly given its 610 * 200-meter dimensions by using small stone blocks [talatat blocks], which were far easier to handle.”
E.H. Gombrich shows the impact of Akhenaten’s new way of life, in his book “A Little History of the World”, he writes:
“The ancient temples were shut down, and King Akhenaton and his wife moved into a new palace. Since he was utterly opposed to tradition, and in favor of fine new ideas, he also had the walls of his palace painted in an entirely new style. One that was no longer severe, rigid and solemn, but freer and more natural. However, this didn’t please the people at all. They wanted everything to look as it had always done for thousands of years.”
With all these changes, how was the pharaoh able to construct his building with such speed, to make his vision a reality. Akhenaten had his architects create a new type of block design, that would allow fast construction: talatat blocks.
Reconstructed talatat blocks (27 by 27 by 54 centimeters; 10.6 by 10.6 by 21.2 inches) from the Temple of Amenhotep IV at Karnak, Luxor. The Temple of Amenhotep IV was used during the New Kingdom, in the first four years of the 18th Dynasty reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, when he still used the name Amenhotep IV. (Olaf Tausch / CC BY 3.0)
The Smaller Talatat Blocks Made Buildings Easier to Construct
Within Pylon 10, the furthest pylon south on the Temple of Amenhotep IV’s southern processional route, evidence of the architectural method employed by Akhenaten was found. The pylon is filled with small blocks with images on them, these stones are known as talatat blocks. Akhenaten’s talatat blocks were 27 by 27 by 54 centimeters (10.6 by 10.6 by 21.2 inches) and only weighed about 100 pounds (45 kilograms). A talatat block was easy for one man to carry, which made the building process easier and faster.
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Laure Cailloce writes in her article, “The lost city of Akhenaten”:
“Because the walls no longer had to support heavy, ten-to-twenty-ton roof slabs, a new architectural standard was established: the huge edifices were replaced by standard-sized stone bricks—Talatats—which had the advantage of being quicker to build with.”
In one decision, Akhenaten deviated from centuries of tradition. Previous pharaohs used a much larger block in their constructions, each block weighing 2-2.5 imperial tons (2,032-2,540 kilograms). These massive standard stones required many men to move and that made construction much slower. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed in twenty years. Akhenaten was clearly in a hurry to ensure that he held supreme power, because the new head of the Aten cult, was Akhenaten himself.
Unfortunately, the reforms that the pharaoh was making proved to be unpopular among the elites and thus the Egyptian people. Akhenaten was attempting to end a centuries-old way of life in a single stroke. People rose in opposition and the walls of tomb no. 188, bear witness to the fervent opposition to Akhenaten’s religious revolution. Some archeologists also believe that there may have been assassination attempts on Akhenaten’s life, that led the pharaoh to move his capital to distant Amarna.
When Pharaoh Akhenaten moved from Karnak to build his new city and Aten cult at Amarna, the first thing he built was the Great Temple of the Aten, where the new cult god could be worshiped in the open air, as the temple had no roof. (amarna3D)
Akhenaten Moves the Capital of Egypt to Amarna
Instead of moving to an already established city, Akhenaten chose to move a great distance away from Karnak. In the desert, he decided to build a new city dedicated to the Aten called Amarna. This pre-planned metropolis was completely removed from other major Egyptian cities. Egypt’s ancient capitals at Luxor and Memphis are a product of thousands of years of work, while Akhenaten’s city emerged in just a few years. Amarna would be completely under his control, there would be no other priests or gods to challenge his authority.
A boundary marker, one of fifteen, was used to mark the city limits. They are a crucial piece of evidence to understand what buildings resided within Amarna. Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs describe the palace, created by Akhenaten in their book, “Ancient Egypt”:
“Akhenaten’s palace may well have been the grandest ever constructed in Egypt. A hundred-foot-wide thoroughfare, the Royal Road, divided the palace proper from the royal residences, joined by a bridge over the road. This bridging of structures was an innovation in Egypt, perhaps modified from Assyrian buildings that also spanned thoroughfares. On the east side of the road lay the formal palace, called the house of Rejoicing of the Aten, including the state reception rooms, some government offices, and servants’ quarters; on the west stood the residence area for the pharaoh, his immediate family and personal retainers.
The private residence of the king on the west side ran for 100 yards beside the royal road and stretched back for at least 150 yards more.”
Tel-el-Amarna emerged within a few years, thanks to the talatat blocks used in the construction process. Most of Amarna was made from local material, readily available to the workers. They used mudbricks in the construction of houses, this made work quick and easy. The grand stone structures were built with the same speed, because in both cases they were using talatat blocks, whether made of stone or mud.
A testament to the use of talatat blocks would have been the grand temple that dominated Akhenaten’s city: The Great Temple of Aten. Its outer wall enclosed over 40 acres (16 hectares), and, in the interior, there are six colossal gateways and other extraordinary monuments. Therefore, just because the size of the blocks had been reduced in size did not mean that the building constructed using them would be any less grand than the ancient temples.
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However, even small blocks like these had a profound impact on the people building them. The cemetery of the construction workers reveals that they suffered from injuries such as compression fractures in the knees, and even arthritic pain in their hands. Talatat blocks were very easy to mine, it took the miners about an hour to make one stone. The quarries were able to quickly produce many blocks in a day. The Talatat stones made construction swift and easy but put immense pressure on the workers who had to carry them. In a rush to make this new city, he worked his men to death.
Years of toil led to the creation of a grand city that none had seen before, colossal buildings filled the empty desert plateau. He may have been despised by his people and be seen as a heretic, but he was able to construct an entire city in just a few years. Consumed by his obsession with the Aten cult, he let Egypt’s empire decline.
Excavated in the Great Temple of Amarna, probably in the area of the sanctuary or the dump to the south of the sanctuary, this talatat depicts offerings in the temple. (TheMet)
Akhenaten may have been a man ahead of his time, trying to force change upon his people, when they were not ready for it. It is for that reason that Akhenaten’s great city vanished just as quickly as it had risen. The talatat blocks that had helped Akhenaten achieve his vision, would also make it easier for his enemies to dismantle his city. Even the temple he had constructed for the Aten was dismantled. Horemheb, took over as pharaoh, after the death of Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamun. He finished the construction of the tenth pylon, which had been started by Amenhotep III, he filled the upper section of the pylon with the talatat blocks he gained by systematically destroying Akhenaten’s temples.
Despite their best efforts, they ended up preserving the blocks and in turn preserving the story of the now-famous heretic pharaoh, ‘alien’ Akhenaten. His legacy lives on in his work, which archaeologists are trying to reconstruct using the latest discoveries and modern technology.
Top image: The lost city of Amarna found in the 19th century was built by the almost alien-like heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, who introduced the smaller, more efficient talatat blocks for building construction and changed Egyptian religion for a while. Source: Brown University
By Khadija Tauseef
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