Akhenaten, the Savior of Karnak: Breaking Ties with “tainted” Amun - Part II
Trouble brewed on the horizon when Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten in Regnal Year 5 in honor of his “father” the Aten, and abandoned Thebes (Waset) to occupy a desolate region in Middle Egypt - the site of modern El-Amarna. The writing was on the wall for the Amun clergy whose power, prestige and coffers were at the mercy of Pharaoh. For reasons that continue to be debated, Akhenaten embarked on an enterprise of brutal censorship against Amun-Ra. However, he spared the god’s massive Karnak Temple. Was the king truly benevolent, as some believe; or did he have other, more pressing, reasons to overlook its destruction?
Found in the dumps south of the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple or in the Sanctuary itself, this fragment is attributed to King Akhenaten. Petrie/Carter excavations, 1891–92. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Old Wine in a New Jar
It is generally believed that construction at Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) began only in Regnal Year 5, but unbelievably – owing to the use of talatat blocks – by the end of that year the royal family had made the city their home, living in temporary quarters. It was not until Year 9 though that the new capital was completed.
One of the first tasks that Akhenaten undertook when he arrived at Akhetaten, was to erect a series of Boundary Stele. On these, he recorded his reasons for choosing the site and proclaimed his unswerving devotion to the Aten: “The Great Royal Wife (Nefertiti) will not say to me, ‘Look, there is a good place for Akhetaten in another place’ and I will not listen to her.” The king also expressed an aversion to the “evil words” spoken by unnamed persons that his forbears had heard.
One of the sixteen Boundary Stelae that Akhenaten erected to demarcate the limits of the sacred territory of Akhetaten. (Left) Foundation decree “Stela U” and (Right) the large statues of the Pharaoh and Queen Nefertiti that flank it. Tell el-Amarna.
Around Regnal Year 8 the persecution of Amun-Ra began, slowly at first, before spreading with extraordinary viciousness. A nationwide proscription was decreed; and Akhenaten’s agents effaced the name of Amun wherever it was to be found—on monuments, atop obelisks, inside tombs and even on small scarabs. The iconoclast excised reference to Amun even in the name of his deceased father, Amenhotep III. Charlotte Booth reveals that the king “even extended the erasure to every occurrence of the plural of ‘god’ and to place names that revered the gods, especially Amun, as far south as the fourth cataract in Nubia. This desecration may have been completely inspired by religious fervor, or an economic tool to ensure that all the revenue from the temples of Egypt was directed to the new city of the Aten, or it perhaps a combination of the two.”
Supporting this view, John Darnell and Colleen Manassa state that in the scheme of things, regardless of the power wielded by the clergy, the writ of the sovereign was sacrosanct, all-pervasive and beyond doubt or reproach, “While the temple estate of the god Amun possessed land and personnel far beyond Thebes, the New Kingdom clergy of Amun was dependent on the beneficence of the pharaoh—the priesthood of Amun was powerful because of, not in spite of, the authority of the pharaoh.”
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.
And, as if to rub salt into the wound, Akhenaten ordered that the revenue from the temples of Egypt should be directed to his Sun City. Dr Donald Redford gives an account of the uneasy turn of events during this phase: “Already large quantities of offerings were being diverted to the Disc at the expense of other temples, and… those officials that did not adjust to the new conditions would be cutting their own throats.” Redford also argues that many of the priests from Karnak and other cities were re-employed and resided at Akhetaten. “Some may have done so willingly, grasping the opportunity to continue their career, while others may have been kept there under “supervision” at Akhenaten’s instruction to maintain order, lest they revolted,” he postulates.
A view of the restored columns in front of the Small Aten Temple Sanctuary that overlook the “Akhet” or horizon from where the Aten rises each morning. Tell el-Amarna. (Photo: Olaf Tausch ). Inset: This well-preserved stela was discovered among the ruins of the Great Aten Temple. It bears the cartouche of Akhenaten on its left side; and the name of the Aten is enclosed in a royal cartouche. (Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera )
Did Nebmaatre visit Akhetaten?
The premature death of his elder brother, Crown Prince Thutmose (Djehutymose), brought Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) to the throne after his father, Amenhotep III, passed away. But, was this the way in which matters actually played out? A section of scholars wonder if Akhenaten had a period of rule alongside his father. Sadly, there is no clear proof of this, as say, for coregencies during the Twelfth Dynasty or the only fully attested New Kingdom coregency of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.
Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye are depicted together in these charming ebony statuettes discovered in the ruins of the pharaoh’s harem-palace at Gurob, Faiyum region. Some scholars though are not convinced this is an authentic artifact. (Photo: Yvonne Buskens-Frenken)
We can only hypothesize if work was already underway at Akhetaten during Amenhotep III’s twilight years – as against conventional belief that Akhenaten decreed its establishment only after his ascension. A painted limestone shrine stela of a rather sickly-looking and obese Amenhotep seated beside Queen Tiye, from the house of Panehesy (the ‘Chief servitor of the Aten in the temple of Aten in Akhetaten’ – ‘Second Prophet of the Lord of the Two Lands’) in Amarna is intriguing. Was this plaque – that shows Akhenaten's father beneath the sun disc, identified only by his throne name Nebmaatre – record of an early visit?
Unforgiving Amarna Backlash
The backlash against all that Akhenaten had advocated in life did not truly begin until after Tutankhamun’s death and Horemheb’s ascent to the throne of Egypt. On assuming power, this last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty ordered the systematic and wholesale dismantling of the Great Aten Temple in Akhetaten and more importantly, the Gem-pa-Aten and other Aten sanctuaries in Karnak, in pursuance of his policy of damnatio memoriae against the Heretic and his family. The erstwhile generalissimo used the dismantled talatat blocks and masonry by their thousands as rubble to fill the insides of his new building projects ― Pylons II, IX, and X; plus pillars, foundations and the Hypostyle Hall at Luxor.
Thousands of Talatat lie in the precincts of Karnak Temple today. It will take a Herculean effort to piece together this massive Amarna-era jigsaw puzzle. However, we have learned much from many assembled blocks. (Right) The Ninth Pylon built by King Horemheb using Talatat blocks from Akhenaten’s structures as fill. (Photo: Francesco Gasparetti )
However, this move turned out to be Horemheb’s wholly unwitting contribution to Egyptology; for, his efforts to expunge every mention of Akhenaten’s reign and cataclysmic religious changes ended in an ironic twist—the talatat blocks that depicted scenes from the hitherto mentioned temples are far more well-preserved today in comparison to representations of Horemheb himself. When Horemheb died around 40 or so years after Akhenaten, the latter’s religious experiment was vastly forgotten and relegated to the backburner.
So why did Akhenaten not inflict the same savage damage on Karnak Temple or dismantle it altogether; was this proof of his early attempt to co-exist with the Amun cult or his supposed tolerance born out of the Atenist philosophy that embraced one and all? The present writer believes that the Pharaoh made no such move because he had firmly made up his mind to leave Thebes for good and spend the rest of his life in Akhetaten.
Add to this the massive workforce that would be required to complete his dream city – which meant that Akhenaten’s urgency probably did not necessitate the huge workforce including laborers, builders, artists and artisans, required to simultaneously demolish the enormous Karnak Temple complex, quarry stone from Gebel el-Silsila for Akhetaten and also construct the city in middle Egypt. Over and above all of this, Karnak escaped Akhenaten’s wrath probably due to the fact that the virgin site the king had chosen could not be ‘tainted’ with blocks of stone that had hitherto graced sanctuaries of the now-proscribed Amun-Ra and traditional pantheon. Everything made in honor of the Aten had to be new, untouched and enduring.
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten .
[The author thanks Margaret Patterson , Heidi Kontkanen , Yvonne Buskens-Frenken, and Richard Dick Sellicks for granting permission to use their photographs.]
Top image: Thousands of talatat blocks from Akhenaten's dismantled Aten temples lie in the precincts of Karnak complex; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Heidi Kontkanen); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet , 2005
Aidan Dodson, Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation , 2009
Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt , 2010
John Coleman Darnell, Colleen Manassa,. Tutankhamun's Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt's Late Eighteenth Dynasty , 2007
Lise Manniche, The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak , 2010
Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt , 2003
Charlotte Booth, The Boy Behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun , 2007
Barry Kemp, The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People , 2012
Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light , 1995
James K. Hoffmeier, Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism , 2015
Donald B. Redford, Akhenaten: The Heretic King , 1987