Egyptian Eclipse Enigmas: Wild Solar Influences in the Amarna Age
The Amarna age of ancient Egypt lasted only twenty years, a relatively tiny slice of time, yet it irrevocably altered the course of the country’s art, religion, and language. From ~1350-1334 BC a revolutionary and exceedingly wealthy king named Akhenaten dramatically changed every element of life in his country in the pursuit of his self-proclaimed monotheistic deity, the Aten sun disk. He ordered the construction, from scratch, of a complete city in the empty desert sands of Middle Egypt. He called it Akhet-Aten, the “Horizon of the Sun Disk”. Today, it is called Amarna.
His nephew Tutankhamun ruled for ten years after him, but the young boy king and his court abandoned the city after only three years. The Amarna age also witnessed the rise of the powerful Hittite Empire, which warred with Egypt for six decades, as well as a devastating epidemic of bubonic plague that swept through both empires, claiming Hittite kings and Amarna princesses.
Recently, scholars have pointed out the association of certain events of the Amarna age with solar eclipses. William McMurray, David G. Smith, Emil Khalisi, Göran Henrikkson, and Giulio Magli have all written papers suggesting possible correlations between solar eclipses and historic events, like the founding of Amarna. Considering how important the illumined sun disk was to Akhenaten and the Amarna period, it would be fascinating if we could detect any possible connection, correlation and perhaps even causation between its pivotal moments and solar eclipses.
While the sun is so critical to Egyptian religion and mythology, especially during the Amarna age, solar eclipses are never mentioned explicitly. The image depicts Ra, the ancient Egyptian deity of the sun, with a sun-disk resting on his head. (Vladimir Zadvinskii / Adobe Stock)
Egyptian Solar Eclipses: The Bleared Eye of Ra Is Covered
Solar eclipses, amazingly, were never mentioned by the ancient Egyptians in explicit terms. The earliest unambiguous Egyptian records of eclipses date to the Greco-Roman period, so it is odd that earlier references are lacking, considering the sun was so critical to Egyptian religion and mythology, especially during the Amarna age. There is abundant evidence that the Egyptians aligned their buildings to solstices and equinoxes, even at Amarna, but what about solar eclipses? Were they ignored in formal writing (which was magically powerful) because of their ominous nature?
There do exist several oblique references to the land being “without light”, for example in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a didactic-themed papyrus that has been dated to 2000 BC. Many are convinced these are symbolic descriptions of solar eclipses. David G. Smith has summarized dozens of hieroglyphic inscriptions that speak of a “darkness by day” and has concluded that at least some may be referring to solar eclipses (while others may be referring to physical or spiritual blindness). For example, Stela BM 374, attributed to Amennakht and dedicated to the goddess of the Theban Peak Meretseger, reads: “You have caused me to see darkness by day!” In addition to the provocative text, both figures are depicted eerily without eyes.
Spell 135 from the Book of the Dead is another interesting eclipse-related quote:
“Another formula spoken when the Moon is seen on the First Day of the Month and Rejuvenates Itself: Open, O Cloudiness! The bleared eye of Ra is covered, and Horus proceeds happily every day, even he the great of shape and weighty of striking-power, who dispels the bleariness of eye with his fiery breath!” (Translation by Raymond Faulkner, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day; 2000, 1878).
The Akhet symbol, so important to the Amarna Age; in outline. Could this symbolize a solar eclipse, as suggested by Aymen Ibrahem? (Luna92 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Smith contends this could be a reference to flashes of the solar corona during an eclipse, or perhaps to Baily’s Beads: flashes, or “beads” of light that peak through during an eclipse. Artists in several Theban tombs graphically depicted this spell, giving us even more insight. In these striking scenes, particularly in the tomb of Sennedjem (TT1), we see a red sun against a dark background alongside several stars, suggesting the sun had darkened enough for the stars to become temporarily visible.
Because the spell was related to the new moon, many scholars, such as Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes, believe the red disk was meant to represent said new moon. However, as far back as 1979, Erik Hornung suggests that the spell was meant to fend off the menace of a solar eclipse associated with a new moon, and that the red disk was in fact the sun during a darkened eclipse.
Some scholars have noted the Egyptians would have likely held Apep responsible for a solar eclipse. He was a giant mythological serpent who chased the sun each night through the underworld. An eclipse may have been seen as a temporary victory over Ra by Apep (who would have been challenged by priests who ritually mutilated wax figures of him). Conversely, Aymen Ibrahem has recently suggested that the concept of akhet could itself refer to a solar eclipse. The akhet has traditionally been viewed as the horizon where the sun rises and sets, and was key to the king and his new city. If it did refer to an eclipse, it would force us to see Akhenaten in an entirely new light.
Apep, also known as Apophis, is the ancient Egyption deity embodying chaos. He was depicted in Egyptian art as a serpent. (Public domain)
Dawn of a Solar Revolution
It has been suggested by Akhenaten-expert Donald Redford that the biggest change in Akhenaten’s artistic style occurred in his third year. Assuming he took the throne in 1354 BC, this would place the period of major change sometime in 1351 BC. Oddly, there was a total solar eclipse that passed over southern Egypt between Aswan and Soleb on August 15, 1351 BC. It would have therefore occurred during his third year, very close in time to the appearance of his radical new art style.
This momentous eclipse could have either terrified or encouraged the king to “go for broke” and forge ahead with his ambitious and innovative art plans, which changed dramatically after this period. Before this shift, we see the king in the traditional art style in classic proportions, worshipping the polytheistic gods, including Amun, and even smiting foreign prisoners (examples include the Tombs of Ramose, TT55, and Kheruef, TT192, plus the Third Pylon at Karnak).
Drawing of a stela from the Gebel el-Silsila quarry showing Akhenaten as Amenhotep IV worshipping Amen-Ra, dated to the very first year of his reign. (Public domain)
After this shift, the king is depicted with a radically different body type, and his deity, the Aten, is shown only as a sun disk with rays. Previously, his favored god Ra-Horakhty was shown as a falcon-headed man with a sun-disc. Afterwards, he morphs into the abstract new deity appearing as Ankh-Ra-Horakhty, the living sun disk, by year four. From that point on, as noted by Hornung, the king worships the radiant light of the sun disk, suggesting that whatever may have initiated his shift may have had to do with the relative degree of solar light. The king himself describes the Aten in his Great Hymn: “Egypt grows bright when you are risen from the horizon… Egypt is in a festival of light!”
Egyptologists had in fact long ago discovered the Aten was not the sun disk itself, but the “radiant light” of the sun. Amarna maven Flinders Petrie suggested, as long ago as 1894, that the focus of the new religion was the “energy of the sun”. It is a radical theory, but could Akhenaten’s entire religious agenda of worshipping light have been a product of an eclipse of that very light?
Scene from the Tomb of Ramose (TT55) in Thebes, showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti at the Window of Appearances in the bold new Amarna style. Probably dated from year four, the style contrasts with older conventional scenes in the same tomb. (Left: David Schmid / CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Public domain)
The total solar eclipse that passed over southern Egypt on August 15th 1351 BC would have been visible from many southern Egyptian sites, many of which were directly related to Akhenaten and his family. The Temple of Soleb was built by his father Amenhotep III for the express purpose of worshipping himself as a god. Depicted alongside him was his son, shown in the traditional manner of his early years, and still called Amenhotep IV. Meanwhile, an inscription found at Gebel el-Silsila north of Aswan shows Akhenaten worshipping Amun. These inscriptions were eventually re-carved in the new art style in the years directly after the eclipse, and the images of hated Amun were erased.
Interestingly, Göran Henrikkson has speculated that the reign of Akhenaten may have been sparked, at least in part, by the appearance of an “extremely bright supernova that appeared in the sky on September 11, 1355 BC.” Chinese scientists J.J. Xu and his colleagues have even identified this supernova with the gamma-ray source 2CG 353 + 16. Could Akhenaten have been influenced to begin ruling as a co-regent with his father after seeing this very rare celestial event?
The total solar eclipse that passed over southern Egypt on August 15th 1351 BC would have been visible from many southern Egyptian sites, such as the Temple of Soleb built by his father Amenhotep III. The Temple of Soleb is located in modern-day Sudan. (Clemens Schmillen / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Fall of the Sun King and the Role a Total Solar Eclipse Had to Play
The most noticeable eclipse of the entire 14 th century BC over Egypt occurred on May 14, 1337 BC (1338 in some sources), and its path took it directly over Akhenaten’s new city of Amarna. Jane Sellers suggested in her 2007 book The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt that this eclipse may have been the reason why Akhenaten chose Amarna as the site for his city, since there seems no other logical reason. In 2003, William McMurray also claimed this was the inspiration behind the location. However, Giulio Magli has rejected this idea, claiming that “placing the foundation of the town in 1338 (1337) BC seems to be too late for all chronologies.” If anything, this major eclipse, the darkest of all the 14 th century BC eclipses, may have been the cause of the collapse of Akhenaten’s utopian dream, not its beginning. In fact, this idea has been previously suggested.
In his 2017 Ancient Origins article “Eclipse over Amarna”, Anand Balaji discusses the notion that Akhenaten’s empire collapsed very close in time to the most powerful solar eclipse that occurred in Egypt during the entire 14 th century BC. He suggests this cannot be coincidence, and that at the very least the eclipse, coupled with the bubonic plague epidemic then sweeping the known world, “signaled the beginning of the end for Pharaoh Akhenaten and the Amarna Period.”
The sun was central to the religious beliefs of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who dramatically changed every element of life in his country in the pursuit of his self-proclaimed monotheistic deity, the Aten sun disk. Could Akhenaten’s entire religious agenda of worshipping light have been a product of a solar eclipse? (Public domain)
Concerning the fall of Amarna, most Egyptologists believe Akhenaten died after ruling 17 years, with the throne passing to his nephew Tutankhamun. However, no mummy of his has been found, and his royal tomb displays no sign of being used by him. As Ahmed Osman suggests in his ground-breaking Moses and Akhenaten (2002), it is very likely he was exiled from Egypt. We also know that a plague was affecting the city of Amarna during these years, as evidenced by fossilized fleas found in many residences, plus epidemic-type mortality profiles from the various cemeteries.
It is easy to image the immense pressure that Akhenaten was under as his regime surged forward with its nascent monotheism, completely at odds with millennia of Egyptian tradition, only to be threatened by an invisible enemy: the plague. We can image the king growing frustrated, watching helplessly while several of his children succumbed to the disease, and perhaps demanding even more radical actions. When a total solar eclipse occurred directly over the city, not to the north or the south but directly over his new city of the Aten, the darkness would have lasted almost seven full minutes, revealing stars and planets. The impact would have been huge, and was probably the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Things had to change.
As the country veered into perilous uncertainty under the ambitious yet unstable king, a total solar eclipse would have been seen by the rival priesthood of Amun as an evil omen, forcing the people under the king to take action, and possibly driving the king into exile. The fact that the darkest solar eclipse of the entire 14 th BC century occurred during the last year of Akhenaten’s reign cannot be a coincidence, particularly since the solar disk was the primary focus of his new cult.
After the death, or exile, of Akhenaten, his young son Tutankhamun took to the throne. Could it be that his abandoning of Amarna was caused by yet another solar eclipse? (Public domain)
The Boy King Abandons the Aten and Amarna
Only three years later, Egypt witnessed yet another solar eclipse on March 13, 1334 BC. The path of this eclipse would have crossed over near to Memphis, in the north of Egypt. Interestingly, this coincides approximately when the boy king Tutankhamun finally abandoned Amarna and moved his royal court down the Nile to Memphis, incidentally close to where the ecliptic path passed over. This relative time of three years is mentioned by Akhenaten-expert Barry Kemp. Excavating at Amarna for over forty years, he claims in his The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (2012) that “the interval between Akhenaten’s death and the abandonment was brief, perhaps only three or four years.”
The timeframe for the abandonment of Amarna is poorly understood. We know Tutankhamun’s father Smenkhkare ruled for a very brief time, as well as Nefertiti. I am curious if the final move away from Amarna occurred because of this solar eclipse, perhaps motivating Tutankhamun to finally leave the “cursed” city? While correlation does not imply causation, it is interesting that a solar eclipse passed over Memphis at the time Tutankhamun moved the royal court back to Memphis, the ancient capital.
Curiously, we have text evidence of a possible solar eclipse during the reign of Tutankhamun, although it is couched in metaphorical language. From the Theban tomb TT40 of Amenhotep called Huy, Stela JE 37463 was recovered, from which we learn that the Nubian Viceroy served under Tutankhamun. His words read: “I see the darkness of the day you created.” While this could refer to spiritual darkness due to the absence of the king, or even physical eye problems (such as those associated with bilharzia or giardiasis), it could also refer to the solar eclipse of 1334 BC.
It would only be another seven years before Tutankhamun died, suddenly and tragically, at the age of nineteen. His death and funeral likely occurred during the spring and summer respectively, based on floral collars recovered from his tomb, and it sparked one of Egypt’s most shocking episodes: the Dakhamunzu Affair. The boy king’s widow Ankhesenamun wrote to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma asking for a prince to become the Pharaoh of Egypt, something neither side had ever done or witnessed. A prince was sent, but was mysteriously murdered on his way to Egypt, eventually starting a war that continued on between the two empires for over half a century. The same year, 1327 BC, witnessed not only the funeral of Tutankhamun but also another solar eclipse on October 17th. The eclipse that passed just northeast of Egypt through Canaan, directly over Jerusalem.
Could there be a correlation between solar eclipses and historic events, such as the founding of Amarna in the empty desert sands of Egypt? (James Thew / Adobe Stock)
Connecting the Dots: Eclipses Providing Chronological Context
Probably the most important of the Amarna period eclipses, in terms of chronological context, actually comes from just after the period in question and its evidence comes from the Hittite Empire in modern-day Turkey. In an inscription from the tenth year of his reign, the Hittite king Mursili II records:
“[When] I marched [to the land of A]zzi, the Sungod gave a sign.”
Since the total eclipse on June 24, 1311 BC passed directly over Hatti in modern-day Turkey during the early afternoon, it is the most likely candidate, locking in the ascension of Mursili II to 1321 BC (ten years earlier). Many scholars believe this is also the same eclipse that Homer mentions in his Iliad as occurring during the Trojan War, and which would have passed over Troy.
- The Art of Amarna: Akhenaten and his life under the Sun
- Pharaoh Akhenaten: An Alternative View of the Heretic King
- Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?
Backtracking from this key event enables us to fit into place each monarch’s reign and possibly correlate these dates with yet other solar eclipses. For instance, we find that Akhenaten’s grandfather, Thutmose IV, came to power in 1390 BC, after a vision of Ra-Horakhty. Could this correlate to the solar eclipse that occurred over Middle Egypt on February 9, 1389 BC, directly over where Amarna would eventually be founded decades later?
We must be cautious and remind ourselves that correlation does not equal causation. While it is not certain if solar eclipses influenced Akhenaten or his family, the fact that many different eclipses all happened close to critical moments of revolutionary change certainly challenges us to consider it a possibility.
Top image: Considering how important the illumined sun disk was to Akhenaten and the Amarna period, it would be fascinating if we could detect any possible connection, correlation and perhaps even causation between historical events and ancient Egyptian solar eclipses of the Amarna era. Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.
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