Short-Lived City of the Sun God


I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my father, in this place. … I shall make the ‘House of the Aten’ for the Aten, my father, in Akhetaten in this place. … I shall make for myself the apartments of Pharaoh, I shall make the apartments of the Great King’s Wife in Akhetaten in this place.


Most cities grow over time, starting life as places of no special prominence. But some are deliberately created; Amarna is one of them. Its creator, Pharaoh Akhenaten, ruled Egypt for 17 years (1355–1338 BC) near the end of the 18th dynasty, part of the New Kingdom subdivision of Egyptian history. He tells us something of what was in his mind in a series of long hieroglyphic texts carved in the limestone hills that surround the site (the Boundary Stelae). Akhenaten had already, in a great act of simplification and cleansing, removed the old, familiar gods from the cults that the king patronized, in particular Amun-Ra, god of Thebes and of the Egyptian nation as a whole. In their place, Akhenaten recognized only the light and creative energy that came from the disc of the sun, a manifestation named the Aten. Now, in the fifth year of his reign, he established a new place that he felt was properly suited to the Aten and named it Akhetaten (‘The Horizon of the Aten’). Amarna (or Tell el-Amarna) is its modern name.

The Small Aten temple at Amarna just before sunrise. The temple enclosure was divided into three unequal parts by cross walls. The first two courts contained relatively little, while the third was largely filled by a monumental sanctuary.

Photo Gwil Owen. Courtesy The Amarna Trust.

His choice was a stretch of desert, unclaimed by men or gods, on the east bank of the Nile, halfway between Memphis and Thebes (and 312 km/194 miles south of Cairo). He planned to construct temples for the Aten, residences for himself and his queen, Nefertiti, and tombs for himself, for Nefertiti, for their eldest daughter Meretaten and for his ‘priests’, by which he meant the actual priests as well as the military officers and officials upon whom he depended.

The promised temples and palaces, accompanied by storerooms and offices, were laid out at intervals along a 6-km (4-mile) axis that ran parallel to the river and only a little way back from it. The tombs were cut into the cliffs that lay behind; in the case of the royal tombs, in narrow valleys a surprisingly long way further into the desert.

Akhetaten was primarily a sacred place. The foundation texts make no mention of it being a city, even though several tens of thousands of people were to move there to set up their homes. These were the same leading figures who were to have the rock tombs, together with their large households and the myriad lesser bureaucrats, craftsmen, guards and labourers who made up a population whose main task was to maintain Akhenaten’s large and lavish court. No predetermined plan provided a pattern of streets or, as far as we can tell, an allocation of building plots. The conversion of a set of royal constructions into a living city was left to a free-for-all colonization of the desert surface. The process seems to have worked because it was done within the constraints of a hierarchical society in which everyone knew their place.

Part of a model of the housing area of Amarna. Of the two larger, white-painted houses in the left-hand block, that on the corner is ascribed to the sculptor Thutmose and is where the painted bust of Nefertiti was found.

Photo Barry Kemp. Courtesy The Amarna Trust.

Relief depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti offering libations to the Aten, with a diminutive daughter shaking a sistrum behind them. The limestone block was originally part of a balustrade from an entrance ramp at the Great Palace.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The overall result, known from ground plans derived from more than a century of excavation, and enriched by material of many kinds, offers a clear picture of Egyptian society at this time. Akhenaten and members of his family had their own more private residences, provided with shrines, but at the heart of the city and of his rule was a concentration of buildings in the centre, in modern times called the Central City. Two of the structures were temples to the Aten. As befitted the worship of the sun, they comprised series of open courtyards separated by pylon-flanked doorways. In the Great Aten Temple (‘the House of the Aten’) the courts were filled with plain rectangular offering tables laid out in rows, amounting to many hundreds. Tomb pictures show them piled with food offerings and incense. The area beside the temples was given over to the large-scale production and storage of the food that was needed to supply them.

Between the temples and beside this food centre lay the largest of the palaces, much of its space occupied by decorated stone halls and courtyards. It is here that the more public aspects of Akhenaten’s rule must have been carried out: the parades, the rewarding of courtiers and the banquets. In ways that we still do not understand properly, the rituals of temple and palace, which involved the large-scale flow of food, were integrated.

From the Central City, broad but irregularly aligned streets ran south and north through the residential areas and gave access to dense housing neighbourhoods. Senior figures (whether soldiers, priests or scribes) lived surrounded by their dependants, as if they were the headmen of villages, the villages merging one into another. Most of the extensive production of goods of many kinds, often by people of great artistic ability, took place here (the studio of the artist of the painted bust of Queen Nefertiti is an example). The larger houses stood within a walled courtyard that accommodated small granaries, perhaps a cattle pen and a well dug down to the water table, hinting at a degree of self-sufficiency sustained by income from distant agricultural estates.

The same men were also the owners of the tombs cut into the limestone cliffs and decorated with scenes of life in the city. For the rest of the population, a far more modest style of burial sufficed. Several cemeteries are known on the flat desert plain, one of them the subject of extensive modern excavation. Burial was in narrow pits dug into the sand and gravel, over which were heaped cairns of rough stones and occasional modest markers, often in the shape of a pyramid or a flat slab with a triangular top. Few grave goods were included. Detailed studies of the human bones reveal a sombre picture of hard work and frequent early death.

Lying beside the river, the city was also an inland port. It received not only the products of Egypt but also goods imported from abroad, as well as emissaries from foreign states heading for Pharaoh’s court. They carried letters and other documents written in the cuneiform script of the Near East impressed into clay tablets. Over 300 were discovered in the Central City in the late 19th century, now known as the Amarna Letters. They reveal a complex world of alliances and political scheming.

The desert location suited Akhenaten’s pursuit of an austere vision of god. It did not suit the continuation of city life after his death. His young and short-lived successors failed to maintain his vision, cultic traditions were restored and the court was recalled to Memphis in the reign of Tutankhamun, only a few years after Akhenaten’s death. Except for a southern suburb that probably served alabaster quarries in the desert, the city’s life came to an end. The stones of its royal buildings were removed for reuse elsewhere, and the mud-brick houses and palaces were left to crumble and sand up, eventually re-emerging as ancient Egypt’s only visible city.

A facsimile of a wall painting from the ‘Green Room’ in the North Palace, showing a watery scene with flowers and lush vegetation and numerous birds. It was situated in one of the rooms that surrounded a garden court at the rear of the palace. Inscriptions show that the palace belonged to Meretaten, Akhenaten’s eldest daughter.

Image Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

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