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Collection of Egyptian Art, design by Anand Balaji (Photo credits: Heidi Kontkanen, Oliviero Piccinali, and Julian Tuffs); Deriv.

Akhenaten: Imperishable Art of an Iconoclast: Age of Extravagance in Amarna—Part II

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The monuments Akhenaten constructed were no less impressive than those of his father, Amenhotep III. But all his buildings were dismantled and destroyed during the Amarna backlash—including the city of Akhetaten, which vanished beneath the desert sands for millennia. But art ultimately resurrected the pharaoh’s memory in our time.

A 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.

A 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)/ CC BY-SA 4.0 ).

ZENITH OF ATEN ADORATION

During the first five years of his reign, Akhenaten decorated the southern entrance to the precincts of the temple of Amun-Re with scenes of himself worshipping Ra-Horakhty the falcon-headed aspect of the sun. From an examination of the Gem-pa-aten reliefs in Karnak, Egyptologists discovered the remnants of four distinct structures. Beginning 1925, Maurice Pillet, French architect and director of works for the Egyptian Antiquities Service at Karnak discovered huge colossi in the drainage ditch east of the eastern gate of the enclosure wall of the Karnak Temple. Later, Egyptologist and Inspector of Antiquities at Karnak from 1925 to 1952, Henri Chevrier, unearthed even more destroyed statues of Akhenaten.

This image from 2004 shows the ancient site of Akhenaten’s Gem-pa-Aten Temple at Karnak. It was situated east of the Amun Temple so that the rays of the sun would reach it first each morning.

This image from 2004 shows the ancient site of Akhenaten’s Gem-pa-Aten Temple at Karnak. It was situated east of the Amun Temple so that the rays of the sun would reach it first each morning.

The Gm–p3–itn (Gem-pa-Aten / “The Sun Disc is Found in the Estate of the God Aten”) in Ipet-sut (Karnak: “most select/sacred of places”); that was strategically located east of the temple of Amun, to bathe in the first rays of the sun each morning, was an enormous temple dedicated to the Aten. It was fronted by an open court with a colonnade of square sandstone pillars some 23-feet (seven meters) high, against which rested alternating colossal statues of the King and Queen Nefertiti. Rita Freed postulates “... some of the king’s ideas must have evolved as the colossi were carved, since many show corrections in the area of the eyes, the headgear, and the navel.” Elsewhere, the eyes have been enlarged and/or elongated. The other structures here were named Hwt–bnbn (Hwt benben / “The Mansion of the Benben stone”), 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”).

A selection of the remnants of Akhenaten’s colossal statues that were deliberately smashed and knocked to the ground at Karnak, when the temples he had dedicated to the Aten were destroyed during the Amarna backlash. Luxor and Cairo Museums.

A selection of the remnants of Akhenaten’s colossal statues that were deliberately smashed and knocked to the ground at Karnak, when the temples he had dedicated to the Aten were destroyed during the Amarna backlash. Luxor and Cairo Museums.

One of the major reasons for this extraordinary haste in construction was due to Akhenaten’s wish to celebrate the Heb Sed festival; depictions of which he had carved in the colonnaded court of the Temple of Aten at Karnak. Several innovative concepts in construction here relate to building and structural design, including a change from the mausoleum style to open courtyards that enabled the rays of the Aten to illuminate the temple and the faithful. In fact, it is believed that the courtyard beyond the Colonnade of Amenhotep III in Luxor—the so-called “Great Sun Court”—was a precursor to Akhenaten’s open-air Aten temples.

A limestone talatat block depicts Akhenaten celebrating the Heb Sed festival dressed in a jubilee outfit. The Aten’s rays terminate in Ankh and Was signs—traditional symbols connoting life and dominion. The King holds the crook and flail in his hands; and is accompanied by bowing priests. Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge.

A limestone talatat block depicts Akhenaten celebrating the Heb Sed festival dressed in a jubilee outfit. The Aten’s rays terminate in Ankh and Was signs—traditional symbols connoting life and dominion. The King holds the crook and flail in his hands; and is accompanied by bowing priests. Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge.

Depictions of Akhenaten’s Heb Sed festival—perhaps, not so surprisingly—feature Nefertiti and their daughters. Remarkably, the Aten is also seen taking part in a Sed-festival of its own. Gods were usually seen to give Sed-festivals to the king and were never, outside of these depictions, shown taking part in the ritual themselves.

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Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.

Top Image: Collection of Egyptian Art, design by Anand Balaji (Photo credits:  Heidi Kontkanen , Oliviero Piccinali , and Julian Tuffs); Deriv.

By Anand Balaji

Comments

There is an aspect to the Aten temples and the religion itself that, as far as I can see, remains unremarked upon, at least to any great extent. We know the word "temple" as it is used by all religions today, is a misnomer when applied to AE temples, which were simply the home of the god. They were not places for the population to go to to worship, and the priests were essentially babysitters to the image of the god in the temple. Washing them each morning, re-wrapping them and taking them up to the roof of the temple to greet the rising sun, well, Ra or Ra-Horakhty, then taking them down again. I wonder about the thought processes that lead to the image of Horus at Edfu being taken to the roof of the temple to greet himself, or was it a re-charging of the image's energy?.

During Akhenaten's life before becoming king, the population would only see, though veiled, the images of the gods once a year at the Opet Festival. For day to day worship the population had to worship in their own homes, and likely not one of the major gods, but what could be seen as similar to the household gods of ancient Rome. So they would have worshiped Bes or Bastet and similar gods seen as helpful and freindly, not Ra or Horus or Amun. This is similar to Norse religion where only kings worshiped Odin, while the people worshiped, mostly, Thor, a god more like a man in character than a god.

Yet here at Akhetaten we see the emergence of a temple for people to actually go to and worship the god. And while they do it via Akhenaten as an intermediary, I'm not sure this is radically different to a modern priest of all the major religions being an intermediary between the god and the people. Of course you can worship the god directly, but it needs the help of a priest, or a person fulfilling that role, a lay-preacher, minister, something like that, and all, despite terminology, essentially priests or priestesses, a term unfortunately no longer used, why not?

So while the jury is still out on if Akhenaten was the first monotheist and a "saint", or was an authoritarian religious maniac, in the temples he built can be seen a move to more directly involve the population in the worship of the god, even if it seems more in the way of putting offerings on the vast number of alters. If the experiment had not failed, I wonder how it would have progressed, for to involve people for the first time even a small amount, could have led to, in the years after Akhentaten, a move to something like the religious worship we are familiar with today, and an evolution of the first, and only Aten temples.

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