Eclipse over Amarna: Beginning of the End for Akhenaten in his City of Light?
The ancient Egyptian civilization was wedded to the Sun, and yet, extant records only ever mention the solar aspect as the giver and sustainer of life that shines brightly for all eternity. Sterling astronomers, the Egyptians, unlike the Mayans, never left us details of the times when the sun-god Ra briefly vanished from the sky at daytime. The lack of chronicles of eclipses by the inveterate and meticulous “sky watchers” is utterly baffling. But why would a rare occurrence such as a solar eclipse fail to find mention in their religious and cosmological texts? One of the probable reasons could be the innate fear that ancient peoples across the world had of celestial phenomenon which they could not explain; and hence, considered it an ill-omen or harbinger of evil.
The beautifully sculpted face of one of Akhenaten’s colossal statues that was purposefully wrecked, when the shrines and sanctuaries he had dedicated to the Aten were dismantled during the Amarna backlash. Karnak Temple. Luxor Museum. Credit: Chris Naunton
Early records of eclipses and of eclipse predictions survive from the late Babylonian period (c. 750 BC) and, later, from the Greek and Roman period, continuing into the Islamic Near East and India; the earliest Chinese records are older, dating from the middle of the Second millennium BC. However, it would be entirely premature to draw conclusions that (what appear to be) descriptions of eclipses were not registered by the Egyptians—only, we have not been able to conclusively identify it as such.
The Ipuwer Papyrus from the late Twelfth Dynasty contains the ‘Admonitions of Ipuwer’ an incomplete literary work. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. (public domain)
Beholding Darkness by Day
The ‘Admonitions of Ipuwer’, an incomplete literary work, is originally dated to the late Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1991-1803 BC). Known popularly today as the Ipuwer Papyrus – officially Papyrus Leiden I 344 recto, translated from Hieratic by Sir Alan Gardiner in 1909 – the extant copy was produced during the Nineteenth Dynasty; and it contains a passage which has for long been hotly debated. Some scholars believe that a striking parallel of the Biblical account of the Ninth Plague of Egypt, darkness, can be found in this verse: 'The land is without light' (IP 9:11). Sure enough, Exodus 10:22–23 reads: '... and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt'. Was this perhaps a reference to a total solar eclipse?
Another noteworthy example is the text inscribed on the votive stela of the scribe Amennakht (Twentieth Dynasty), now at the British Museum. A resident of Set Ma’at ("Place of Truth" – modern-day Deir el-Medina), he makes the following plea to the goddess Meretseger to rid him of - what is widely considered - a physical affliction: ‘Praises for your spirit, Meretseger, Mistress of the West, by the scribe of the Place of Truth (Set-Ma'at), Amennakht true-of-voice: 'Be praised in peace, O Lady of the West, Mistress who turns herself to grace! You made me see darkness in the day.’
In this ostracon from Deir el-Medina, goddess Meretseger - meaning "she who loves silence" - is depicted in the form of a coiled serpent. She was the guardian of the pyramid-shaped mountain over the Valley of the Kings. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy. Credit: Leena Pekkalainen
A workman called Neferabu, again from Deir el-Medina, apparently lost his sight because of his sins; he erected two stelae, one to goddess Meretseger and another to Ptah, begging for forgiveness. ‘I am a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of Truth, and he caused (me) to behold darkness by day.’ Further, the Stele of Huy, Viceroy of Kush (Amenhotep called Huy) states: 'Be propitious, my Lord Tutankhamun: Day after day, I see a darkness that you provoke.' It appears to readers that these examples constitute prayers and supplications in figurative terms that were addressed to both deities and kings; without actual references to events in the sky.
Unraveling Celestial Secrets
However, recent studies have led Egyptological experts to believe that all along it was our modern interpretation of the words which made us assume that whenever "blindness" or "darkness" was mentioned, it was literal or of a spiritual nature; and that these were euphemistic terms at best. In fact, it is likely that the many votive objects dealt with actual observations; in other words, a solar eclipse, in the instances cited above. David G. Smith writes: "There may even have been strong reasons why such events were not always recorded, since the act of recording it may have been considered to endow the event with a degree of permanence. If it were recorded, therefore, it may have been referred to obliquely or in some cryptic way. Such a rare event would probably not even have had a name and thus be referred to in terms of the way the event was experienced “seeing it get dark during daytime”, which is precisely the kind of expression found in these texts."
This photograph shows the solar eclipse during the totality phase on March 29, 2006 over Sallum, Egypt. (public domain)
A solar eclipse frightened the living daylights (pun unintended!) out of the soldiers of Alexander when they battled the mighty Persian emperor, Darius. So, the advice of an Egyptian priest was sought to quell the fog of fear. Writing in the Third century B.C., Manetho an Egyptian priest who lived during the Ptolemaic era stated: “… a solar eclipse exerts a baneful influence upon men in their head and stomach” — not to mention, in their fortunes too.
An oddity of sorts can be seen in the wall decorations in New Kingdom tombs from Deir el-Medina - particularly in the sepulcher of the artisan Sennedjem (TT1) from the Nineteenth Dynasty - where a vignette and Spell 135 from the Book of the Dead is shown. This Spell is vaguely reminiscent of Coffin Text Spell 112. But it remains unclear whether a solar eclipse is depicted in TT1, even though what appears to be the sun is painted amidst a starry sky. There ought to be a co-relation between the images and texts regardless of the painting depicting either the sun or moon, along with deities and stars. "Spell 135 (has been described) as dispelling ‘bleariness of the eye (of Ra) with his fiery breath’ – possibly a reference to the flash of the corona and the phenomenon of “Bailey’s Beads”, flashes of light occurring at the precise moment of a total eclipse," Smith postulates.
Astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I (KV17) showing the personified representations of stars and constellations. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (CC by SA 2.0)
Detail of the astronomical ceiling of the funeral chamber of Pharaoh Seti I. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (CC by SA 2.0)
Elsewhere, Jane B. Sellers proposes that two solar eclipses occurred in New Kingdom Egypt. She places both these events during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties: the first one between 1304–1192 BC and the next, at roughly 1192–1069 BC. The difficulty with ascertaining the exact date and time for eclipses witnessed over ancient Egypt is not just the lack of written records, but the issue of chronology: one being intrinsically tied to the other.
Imbalance in the Cosmos
The bounden duty of every Pharaoh was to eliminate the crippling and fearsome forces of chaos (Isfet) and maintain justice and order (Ma’at). But things turned topsy-turvy when the ‘Heretic’ Akhenaten (earlier Amenhotep IV) came to the throne and unleashed his iconoclastic policies. He promoted the belief in a supreme god, the Aten, the radiant sun disc; and condemned the pantheon of deities to virtual obscurity. However, the king was particularly ruthless to and intolerant of the state god, Amun, whose worship he expressly denounced. To top it all, Akhenaten built a new capital city, Akhetaten (‘Horizon of the Aten’ modern Tell el-Amarna) in Middle Egypt and shifted the royal court there around Regnal Year 5. The monarch’s proscription of Amun and the radical theology he preached rocked Egypt to the very clay of its ancient foundations. The massive changes that were introduced in religion, art, literature, philosophy, and even the very way of life in that epoch sent shockwaves that reverberated for generations thereafter. Nothing like it had ever been witnessed before, and it left the entire nation pulverized.
Although Akhenaten’s religious reforms purged Egyptian art of many deities, the King remained fond of the sphinx, and often had himself depicted as that fantastic creature. In the Eighteenth Dynasty, the monument was reinterpreted as the sun god Horemakhet, or ‘Horus in the Horizon’. Museum August Kestner, Hanover, Germany. Photo: Hans Ollermann (CC by SA 2.0)
William McMurray reveals that in 1970, an inscribed clay tablet discovered earlier in 1948 in the ruins of Ugarit, an ancient city on the coast of Syria, was interpreted as the earliest record of a total solar eclipse—dated to May 3, 1375 BC (Julian calendar). “Since Ugarit was near the border of the Egyptian empire or ‘sphere of influence’ at that time, and the date was close to Akhenaten’s accession, according to some authorities, it seemed possible that this was the eclipse that might have influenced him. In 1989 other analysts redated the Ugarit eclipse to March 5 1223 BC, well after the Amarna period, and they claimed that this date yielded a better fit to the conditions described on the tablet, according to their re-interpretation.
This head of indurated limestone is a fragment from a group statue that represented Amun seated on a throne, and Tutankhamun standing or kneeling in front of him. For better or for worse, Tutankhamun presided over the demise of the Amarna dream. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Credit: Margaret Patterson.
“However, the eclipse of 1375 BC is still listed on the NASA web page as the ‘Ugarit Eclipse’, even though it appears that the eclipse was not total in Ugarit itself. Also, some recent authors have redated Akhenaten’s accession to about 1353 BC. Nevertheless, it is possible that some other eclipse may have been visible in Egypt sometime during his lifetime and instigated his religious revolution,” explains McMurray. In fact, several inscribed dates of ceremonies from the reigns of Amenhotep III through to Tutankhamun can be “matched to the occurrence of a full moon or a new moon on the same day, or the day after”.
Shortly after he was crowned King, Akhenaten proclaimed the Aten as the supreme god; closed the doors of the Karnak Temple, banished priests of the Amun cult and moved the royal court to Akhetaten. The darkest period the state god was to endure, had only just begun. Credit: Margaret Patterson.
The famous Pawah graffito (TT139) written in Hieratic and dated to Regnal Year 3 of Neferneferuaten was penned by a “lay-priest and scribe of god’s offerings of Amun in the temple of Ankhkheperure in Thebes.” Alan Gardiner translated a vital line in the inscription to read: 'Thou causest me to behold darkness by day.' This could mean that having witnessed a total solar eclipse first-hand at Akhetaten, Pawah, an adherent of Amun, had these words recorded on his behalf by his brother in distant Thebes, to avoid detection by agents of Akhenaten which explains the five month gap in its appearance after the eclipse. Based on the co-regency theory, David Smith opines: "It seems likely that the first year of her (Nefertiti's) reign could also have corresponded with Year 13 of Akhenaten’s. If so, the dating of Grafitto Pawah, III Akhet 10 of the 3rd year of her reign would be October 1, 1338 BC. Such a graffito would be most likely to have been written in response to and possibly shortly after an eclipse."
A painted wall relief shows Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters, Meritaten and Meketaten making offerings to the Aten. Some scholars view this unusual representation of the solar disc as proof of a total eclipse. South Wall, East Side of the Tomb of Meryre I (TA4), Tell el-Amarna. Credit: Olaf Tausch (CC by SA 3.0)
Darkened Orb, Darker Fate
William McMurray provides another confounding example, "In the tomb of Meryre I, ‘The Greatest of Seers of the Aten’ (high-priest), in the northern cliffs of Akhet-Aten, there is a unique depiction of the sun-disk, which I believe is intended to portray a total eclipse. Between the Aten disk and its rays there are several groups of multicolored arcs, somewhat like the broad collars worn by royalty and courtiers, but with none of the typical internal details." But there is no conclusive hieroglyphic inscription to prove this. N. de G. Davies described the strange representation of the sun in this sepulcher thus: "The hues and forms of the clouds are in fact the same as those employed in the hieroglyph to represent the rising sun, but in reverse position." This is precisely the manner in which rays emanating from the sun appear before and after totality. “Others have thought that this scene shows a rainbow, although upside down and below the disk instead of opposite the sun,” notes McMurray.
Barely four years after he died, the sun set on Akhetaten, the city which Pharaoh Akhenaten had founded in the belief that he and his offspring would enjoy “millions of jubilees” there. Credit: Chris Naunton
One of the many current calculations hypothesizes that on May 14, 1338 BC a total solar eclipse lasting around six minutes did indeed occur over Akhetaten; and was partially visible over Thebes too, where it lasted under one minute. For a city built to glorify the radiant solar disc; whose prophet and his family bathed daily in the sun’s life-giving rays, the make-believe world began to come apart. The vastly illiterate populace would surely have been in the grip of massive fear when they were plunged into darkness for what would have seemed an eternity. The ruler whose actions were considered an affront to the observance of Ma’at would have been blamed; they might have believed that even the Aten had no faith left in their strange sovereign. These laments would have been made in hushed tones – first for the Plague a year earlier, and then the inexplicable blotting out of the sun. These twin natural occurrences may have well signaled the beginning of the end for Pharaoh Akhenaten and the Amarna Period.
Top image: Main: Temple of Aton in Amarna (CC by SA 3.0). Inset eclipse (public domain)
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
David G. Smith, Total solar eclipses in Ancient Egypt – a new interpretation of some New Kingdom texts, March 2007
Jane B. Sellers, The Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt, 1992
Donald B. Redford and Ray Winfield Smith, The Akhenaten Temple Project, Vol.1: Initial Discoveries, 1976
Davies, N. de G. , The rock tombs of El-Amarna, Parts III and IV, 1905 (Reprinted 2004), The Egypt Exploration Society
Arielle P. Kozloff and Betsy M. Bryan, Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992
William McMurray, Dating the Amarna Period in Egypt: Did a Solar Eclipse Inspire Akhenaten?
Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet, 2001
Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt, 1968