Akhenaten, the Savior of Karnak: Sun God Vs the Hidden One - Part I
The fifth year of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reign was to prove a watershed moment in ancient Egyptian history. In a bid to break free from the shackles of the influential Amun-Ra priesthood, the ruler shifted the seat of administration to the new capital, Akhetaten, which he had built in honor of the solar deity, the Aten. Even though his agents fanned out across the country from there to obliterate every vestige of Amun’s name and imagery; they stopped short of destroying the state god’s foremost sanctuary at Karnak. Why did Akhenaten not decree the demolition of edifices at this location – as was done to Aten temples within a few years after his demise? A satisfactory answer has evaded this question for more than a century.
This painted slab from the Royal Tomb at El-Amarna shows Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti and their daughters Meritaten and Meketaten adoring the Aten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Supreme Gods and Peaceful Co-existence
Contrary to popular belief, during the initial years of his rule, Neferkheperure-waenre Amenhotep (IV)-netjerheqawaset (later Akhenaten) did not always have a bone to pick with the Amun clergy, and by virtue of that, the god himself. Egyptologists cite the evidence of temples that continued to function normally even after the young king ascended the throne upon the demise of his celebrated father, Amenhotep III. Extant inscriptions reveal that during Regnal Year 4, Amenhotep IV sanctioned a quarrying expedition under the stewardship of the High Priest of Amun to gather stone for construction purposes within the temple of Amun-Ra in Ipet-sut (“most select/sacred of places”).
The 134 gigantic columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple complex stand testament to a glorious bygone age when it was a pilgrimage spot for over two millennia. A clump of 12 open papyrus capitals here may have been intended to symbolize the primordial ‘mound of creation’. This was the abode of the state god, Amun-Ra. Modern-day Luxor.
A graffito found in Wadi Hammamat states: ‘… under the Person of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkheperure Waenre, the Son of Re, Amenhotep [IV], when a charge was given to the first prophet of Amun, May, to bring bekhen-stone [for] the statue of the Lord, l. p. h.’ Charlotte Booth explains, “The High Priest of Ptah at Memphis also reported to Akhenaten that all was well at his temple, showing that the worship of Ptah and Amun was still tolerated at this early stage. Akhenaten did not halt the worship of other deities until after year five (1345 BC).”
At this time, the Pharaoh decorated the southern entrance to the precincts of the temple of Amun-Ra with scenes of him honoring the god; and he also had himself depicted worshipping Ra-Horakhty the falcon headed aspect of the sun. A sketch of a stele made by the Prussian Egyptologist Carl Richard Lepsius in 1845 at the famous Gebel el-Silsila quarry-site shows Amenhotep IV adoring Amun-Ra. Therefore, the king clearly made every attempt to acknowledge Amun worship - and the old polytheistic religious system - whilst attempting to introduce Atenism. However, it is evident that little went according to plan; and whatever Amenhotep IV pronounced in terms of his religious ideology was probably met with great unease and utter disbelief, if not outright opposition. But it is by no means implausible to postulate that murmurings of discontent reigned in the dark halls of Karnak Temple.
(Left) A sandstone 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).
Age of Theocratic Coregency
Representations of Amenhotep IV’s Heb Sed-festival, probably from Regnal Year 4, feature his family - Nefertiti and their daughters - prominently. In an unprecedented depiction, the Aten is also shown participating in the jubilee. The Hwt-Bnbn (“The Mansion of the Benben stone"), another noteworthy temple, depicts Nefertiti sans Akhenaten, in the role of priest. The 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”) comprise the other monuments in honor of the solar cult at Karnak.
This object was assembled from pieces found in the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple. The double cartouches of the Aten’s early name are presented by the two hands of a figure that is now missing. These hands and cartouches in a very fine indurated limestone appear to have belonged to a very special statue at Amarna. Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York.
But without a shadow of doubt, the Gem-pa-Aten ranks as one of the most ambitious projects of Amenhotep IV. He constructed this large temple dedicated to the solar disc, the Aten, and made certain that it was located east of the temple of Amun, so that it would be blessed by the first rays at dawn. The grand monument was fronted by an open court with a colonnade of square sandstone pillars some 23 ft high, against which rested alternating colossal statues of the King and Queen Nefertiti. These innovations and the message they were intended to convey was obviously not lost on the Amun priests. “The succinct credo of Akhenaten’s religion appears as the so-called didactic name of his sole deity, the Aten, which is enclosed within two cartouches, like the names of the king,” state John Darnell and Colleen Manassa.
The Heb Sed, therefore, was intended to be a launching pad for Akhenaten and the Aten – a “theocratic co-regency” as Dr James Allen states. “Why was Aten’s long explanatory name now written as signifying kingship? He obviously was king, the ultimate sovereign of the world. And like the pharaoh, there could only be one! The orthographic development of writing the didactic name in a cartouche signaled not only the elevation of the Aten, but also the diminution of Amun who had been known as “the king of the gods”. Now Aten was the king, and Akhenaten his son ruled on earth,” James Hoffmeier posits.
A limestone talatat block from Karnak Temple depicts Akhenaten celebrating the Heb Sed festival dressed in a jubilee outfit beneath the Aten’s rays. Gayer-Anderson block. Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge.
Worshipping in the new religion dedicated to the solar deity was a far cry from all that had gone on before – especially in the temple of Amun at Karnak. Aten temples were roofless structures because Akhenaten wanted to soak in the majesty of his god as he spread his life-giving rays over one and all. The so-called Great Sun Court of Amenhotep III is believed by Egyptologists to have served as a precursor to Aten temples. There was no specific holy text or book associated with this solar cult; except the stirring ‘Great Hymn to the Aten’ said to have been composed by the sovereign himself.
These inscriptions from the tomb of Aye (TA25) represent the most complete version of the “Great Hymn to the Aten” which occurs anywhere in Amarna. This poem is believed to have been composed by Akhenaten himself. (Photo: Meretseger Books)
“That Akhenaten was a ruler of rare intellect goes without saying, originating the intimate art-style which has come to characterize the reign and authoring one of the most sensitive literary compositions of antiquity—the Great Hymn to the Aten, inspiration for the 104th Psalm,” observes Dr Nicholas Reeves . So, while the prophet-pharaoh and his queen, Nefertiti, worshipped the Aten, their subjects worshipped them. This abstract god must have been deeply unsettling for the ordinary Egyptians, because it meant that the familiar deities who played a role in ensuring their well-being on earth and assured safe passage into the Afterlife were blotted out, especially Osiris – and there would be no festivals in their honor.
More upcoming in Part II, an Ancient Origins Premium series by independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji , author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten
[The author thanks Heidi Kontkanen , Hossam Abbas , and Leslie D. Black for granting permission to use their photographs. The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]
Top Image: Enormous columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple complex, modern-day Luxor; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Leslie D. Black); 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