Egyptian History Part 4 - The Amarna Period Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Egyptian History Part 4 - The Amarna Period

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An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods

One of the most remarkable, yet least known and longest forgotten of the pharaohs was Akhenaten (aka Amenhotep1 IV, tenth king of the 18th Dynasty). He ruled for 16 years, roughly 1352 - 1336 BC, before being succeeded by Smenkhkare. For reasons that are unlikely ever to become clear again, Akhenaten undertook the most radical restructuring of Egyptian society until the collapse of Pharaonic Egypt. Art, religion, politics and the capital were all radically overhauled. Yet within a generation, the old order had re-established itself, and the entire period was lost to history.


Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III made his Nubian2 wife Tiy his 'great wife', and took the Aten as his personal deity. Upon his death, his son took the throne as Amenhotep IV. He was young, probably no more than nine to 13 years old. It should be noted that, since his mother was a Nubian, Amenhotep must have been mixed-race.


In any event, Amenhotep IV not only took his father's personal deity as his own, he renamed himself in its honour, becoming Akhenaten.

During a ceremony in the 12th year of his reign, he went further and declared that the Aten should be the only god to be worshipped. Akhenaten promoted the worship of the sun god, Aten, to the exclusion of all other gods, but it is unclear whether he believed that the Aten was the only true god, or whether he believed in the other Egyptian gods but did not think they should be worshipped.

This is believed to have been the world's first monotheistic religion. It was not popular in Egypt, especially when Akhenaten ordered the closing and desecration of all temples to other gods. Mahu, his chief of police, was forced to put down several riots resulting from this religious oppression.


Akhenaten eschewed the grandiose monuments of his ancestors, and instead embarked upon building a new capital city at Amarna, on virgin land in honour of the sun god, which was to be named Akhetaten ('Horizon of the Aten').

The reforms went further than building a new capital. All the statuary found at Amarna is of a highly distinctive style, utterly different from the formal style that had dominated for a millennium. The pharaoh is shown with an elongated head that tapers to a point, much like some late 20th-Century images of aliens. He is frequently shown surrounded by stylised sunbeams, and in the presence of a consort who appears much more his equal than in traditional Egyptian art (where pharaohs are far larger than any other figures, including their wives). Family life is depicted for the only time, along with everyday activities such as eating and even vomiting.


As if religious riots were not enough for Akhenaten, his exclusive focus on art, religion and internal politics caused lapses in his foreign policy, and much of the empire built up by his ancestors was lost. A cache of cuneiform tablets from the Amarna site shows that much of Palestine remained under loose Egyptian control immediately prior to this period. It is disputed whether one of these letters is addressed to Pharaoh Ay; if so, that would indicate that this part of the Egyptian empire was retained throughout the Amarna period.


Many of the characters in Amenhotep's story are enigmatic, not least his wife, Nefertiti. She may have been Amenhotep III's daughter, and thus her husband's half-sister (it would not have been remarkable or unusual for a pharaoh to marry his half-sister at 13). She may have been vizier (and future pharaoh) Ay's daughter. She may even have been a Mesopotamian princess who was originally engaged to Amenhotep III. This last theory is supported by the name Nefertiti, which translates as 'A Beautiful Woman Has Come'.

The famous bust of Nefertiti was found by a team of German archaeologists in Egypt in 1912. It is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany.


Akhenaten is often depicted with his consort, who became known as Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, the prefix translating as 'Beautiful are the Beauties of the Aten'. Later, Nefertiti disappears from the official records, to be replaced by Smenkhkare3, Akhenaten's successor. As with so much about Akhenaten's life, a lack of certain data here has led to many speculations. Some have suggested that Akhenaten was homosexual4, and that Smenkhkare was his lover, based on the casually erotic poses they seem to be striking in some of the art of the period. Others have suggested that Smenkhkare was in fact Nefertiti under a different name, and this is bolstered by the discovery that Smenkhkare also took the title Neferneferuaten.

Other Theories

As if controversy over his wife, his sexuality and/or his successor were not enough, Akhenaten has also had to suffer modern debates over his health and faith. Depictions of him have led some to conclude that he was hydrocephalic5 or hermaphroditic, and they point to illustrations of the pharaoh vomiting as further evidence of a medical condition. Others hold that the representations of him are merely stylised. Today the favoured theory is that he suffered from Marfan Syndrome.

Finally, as the world's first monotheist, Akhenaten has been hypothesised to have some form of link to the Jewish monotheists. Some have identified his grandfather Yuya as the biblical Joseph and say he may have developed his monotheism under a Jewish influence. Others trace the influence in the opposite direction and note some striking similarities between the Hymn to Aten and the biblical Song of Solomon, written centuries later.

Again, neither of these ideas is widely accepted, not least because of problems with tracing Hebrew history during this period.

Collapse and Counter-revolution

Akhenaten died in the 17th year of his reign, aged around his mid-thirties (accurate age unknown). He was replaced by his co-regent Smenkhkare, who attempted to continue with the Aten-only faith. However, within a year Smenkhkare too was dead, undoubtedly as the result of a power struggle of some sort. Tutankhamun the 'Boy King' ascended the throne, possibly being controlled by his vizier (and the future pharaoh) Ay.

Tutankhamun and Ay discouraged the Aten cult and reopened the old polytheistic temples; and their successor Horemheb (who some claim may have plotted the entire downfall of the Amarna court) launched a massive campaign of destruction of Aten sites. This was so successful that until the rediscovery and excavation of the Amarna site during the 19th Century, Akhenaten's reign was entirely forgotten.

Part of the reason for the sudden and massive collapse of the Amarna regime may have been a devastating plague that swept through Egypt at this time. It has been suggested that this may have been polio, influenza or bubonic plague. In any event it was unprecedented and, combined with the loss of territory, was taken as a sign that the gods were displeased with the new order of things. This may have contributed to the effectiveness with which the Amarna period was erased from Egyptian history.

1The Greek version of the name is Amenophis.2Nubia corresponds to modern Sudan.3Alternative spelling: Smenkhare.4This is not the view of most archaeologists.5This condition, derived from the Greek words hydro (water) and cephalus (head), is sometimes known as 'water on the brain'. Caused by abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain, it can lead to enlargement of the head, convulsions and mental disability.

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