Cartouche of Akhenaton

The Arabic name is “Biban el Moluk”—the Gates of the Kings. A narrow cleft deep in the western cliffs across the Nile from modern Luxor, it is one of the most desolate spots on earth. Nothing grows there—no tree, nor shrub, nor blade of grass. The sun beats down from an eternally cloudless sky whose brilliant blue is the only color contrast to the monotonous, unrelieved dark gold of rock and sand, hills and valley floor. Yet this wilderness merits its name, so redolent of magnificence. It is literally honeycombed with tombs which, over the millennia, contained some of the richest treasures ever deposited by men to the honor of their dead. From its barren stones Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon drew the fabulous funerary equipment of Tutankhamon.

Tutankhamon is sometimes on tour, but the most valuable objects don’t leave the Cairo Museum—for obvious reasons. Among the hundreds of objects from the tomb, my personal favorite is the canopic shrine with its four protective goddesses, which held the dead king’s en-trails. The four goddesses are distinguished only by the insignia on their heads; they stand with arms outstretched, embracing and guarding the precious contents of the shrine. They are fragile guardians; the small figures are childishly slender, and the delicate faces lack the awesome stamp of divinity. It has been suggested that the model for the figures was Tutankhamon’s young queen. The theory is plausible; the four statues are so much alike that each of the faces might be a copy of the others, and a portrait of the same individual. The faces are charming, and so are the little bodies, which are those of young girls.

Tutankhamon’s innermost coffin is three hundred pounds of solid gold. The portrait mask which covered the head of the mummy is also solid gold. There are bracelets and pectorals and rings, earrings, amulets, and collars, all of gold and precious stones. The Egyptians did not work with true gem stones. They did know and use what we call the semiprecious gems—turquoise, amethyst, carnelian, lapis lazuli, onyx, jasper, as well as glass, a comparatively recent invention—and they used them with consummate skill.

Any one of the objects from this single tomb would be the prize of an average museum collection, and there are thousands of such objects. Intrinsically, the contents of the tomb are worth millions of dollars; as examples of the cultural and artistic life of a bygone era, they are literally beyond price. Yet the tomb of Tutankhamon was a disappointment in one sense.

Tutankhamon himself was a minor king who died at eighteen after an uneventful reign of only nine years. Nevertheless, when the discovery of the tomb was first announced, there were hopes that it would contain historical material that would shed light on one of the most intriguing figures the ancient world has ever produced—Tutankhamon’s predecessor and father-in-law, the “heretic king,” Akhenaton.

If one were to collect the statues of Egyptian kings from earliest to latest times, and arrange them in chronological sequence, one might, at first glance, take them for portraits of the same individual. The artistic canon permitted few deviations, and its rules applied most rigorously to the depiction of the divine king. There are, to be sure, certain stylistic variations from period to period, and it is even possible to distinguish family types. Still, the long row of male figures would be superficially alike: stern, handsome faces and stalwart, muscular bodies, broad of shoulder and slim of hip, with seldom a hint of sagging paunch or double chin. All, that is, except one; and it would stand out from the rest with almost shocking singularity. The long, haggard face, with deep-set eyes and hollow cheeks, the strangely deformed, almost feminine body—this is Akhenaton, whom James Henry Breasted called “the first individual in history” and credited with being the founder of the world’s first monotheistic religion. Breasted has been accused of overenthusiasm; some scholars loathe Akhenaton as much as Breasted admired him. What ever one’s bias, it cannot be denied that Akhenaton was a personality, unique and fantastic.

I am planning to spend what may seem to some an inordinate amount of time on this period, for several reasons. First and most important, it interests me. Second, it interests a lot of other people, and volumes have been written on the subject. Third, it shows to what lengths scholars will go to prove a pet theory. One might claim about this period that never has so much been said by so many about so little. In fact we do have more evidence than is often the case, but much of it is fragmented and susceptible, as you will see, to dozens of different interpretations. Here’s a brief summary of some of the “facts.” Those of you who are familiar with Akhenaton and his lot may regard it as a preliminary test—but remember, there are no right answers.

1.     Akhenaton was the son of Amenhotep III and his chief wife, Tiye

2.     He ruled for a minimum of seventeen years, either

o    a. Alone, or

o    b. As coregent with his father for one to three years, or

o    c. As coregent with his father for about twelve years.

3.     His chief wife was Nefertiti, who was:

o    a. The daughter of a high official named Ay, or

o    b. Somebody else’s daughter.

4.     They had six daughters.

5.     At the end of his reign Akhenaton was associated with a king named Ankhkheperure, who was:

o    a. A young man of unknown antecedents also named Smenkhkare, or

o    b. Nefertiti

6.     He was also associated with a king named Neferneferuaton who was:

o    a. The same person as 5a, or

o    b. Nefertiti

7.     They were succeeded by a boy named Tutankhaton, who was:

o    a. The son of Akhenaton by:

§  (l) A secondary wife named Kiya, or

§  (2) some other as yet unidentified wife, or

§  (3) Nefertiti, or

o    b. The son of Amenhotep III by

§  (l) Queen Tiye, or

§  (2) His daughter Satamon, or

§  (3) Caught you! Not Nefertiti. Somebody else.

There are a few actual facts in all that mishmash. Akhenaton was the son of Amenhotep III and the latter’s chief wife, Tiye. When he became king he took the same nomen as his father—“Amon is satisfied.” The early years of his reign appear to have been fairly conventional. Then, at some time before his fifth year, something happened.

The crux of the change was a new god. To honor him, the king changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaton, which means “it is well with the Aton.” To further particularize the change of allegiance, Akhenaton moved his capital. Thebes was the home of Amon; the Aton should have a city upon soil that had never been dedicated to another god. The court moved, bag and baggage, to a site three hundred miles north of Thebes. Its modern name is Tell el Amarna, and the term “Amarna” is used to characterize Akhenaton’s revolutionary ideas in religion, art, and thought. On this site, where the cliffs along the Nile curve back to form a wide bay of land, Akhenaton built a new city called Akhetaton, “The Horizon of Aton.” He set up formal boundary markers dedicating the spot to Aton forever, vowing never to change its borders, and declaring that he and his family would be buried in the cliffs behind the city.

This was radical enough, but Akhenaton went still further. He abandoned the worship of the old gods of Egypt—that proliferous pantheon whose complexities must have baffled the ancient Egyptians themselves. In particular, he abominated the greatest of gods, Amon-Re. His agents were sent throughout the land, to temples and tombs and monuments, to cut the hated name from the rock walls even when it appeared in the name of his own father, Amenhotep. The other gods were not spared, and in some cases even the plural word gods was scratched out.

Who was this Aton, for whom a king of Egypt committed such monumental offenses against tradition? It is not precisely accurate to call him a “new” god; he had been around for a while. In the previous chapter we gave a brief account of his origins and increasing prominence, but his sudden leap to divine stardom under Akhenaton was without precedent.

The earliest representations of Aton show him as a hawk-headed human figure. This was in keeping with a conventional Egyptian treatment of the gods in art—the animal or bird head on the human body. The hawk was one of the symbols of the sun god, and Aton was originally the sun itself. Akhenaton soon abandoned this tradition too. He showed Aton as a solar disk with rays that end in tiny human hands holding an ankh, the hieroglyphic sign for “life”—the looped cross, or crux ansata—to the nostrils of the members of the royal family. Not all the god’s human characteristics were abandoned. He had the titles and cartouches of a king and wore, even as a simple sun disc, the royal uraeus serpent; his jubilee or Heb-Sed was celebrated with that of Akhenaton himself.

Just what was it then that Akhenaton worshiped? The theories vary. By now my own prejudices should be apparent to the intelligent reader. Breasted’s History was my first introduction to ancient Egypt. It left a permanent impression. Try as I may to become dispassionate and cynical about Akhenaton, I don’t always succeed. My own, admittedly subjective, feeling is that it was the spirit of animation and creation implicit in the heat-and light-producing sun that was the object of Akhenaton’s adoration. That this spirit implied more than physical well-being is suggested by the king’s insistence upon maat.

The god Aton in original form

We can translate maat as “truth.” Abstractions are hard to translate, and the English word truth means many things to many people. In Egyptian, maat certainly could mean something like our concept of “justice”; the word was personified by a goddess who stood at the side of Osiris at the time of the judging of the soul. The hieroglyph for maat is the feather, which was weighed against the heart of the dead man. But maat went beyond justice; it has been defined as the universal order, the divine system of correctness—the right way to do things, established at the creation and constantly renewed by religious ritual. Akhenaton’s insistence upon his love of maat is too striking to be accidental, but there has been much discussion as to just what he meant by it. Some scholars interpreted maat as “candor,” particularly when it applied to the new art forms of the period, which Akhenaton encouraged.

Aton as a sun disk, with rays ending in hands

We have already mentioned the features of this art form in royal portraiture, where its innovations are most noticeable. Akhenaton swept away the old canon of artistic taste; it was, perhaps, inevitable that the original freedom of expression which he may have meant to promote developed into a new canon, with its own set of rules. The strange bodily malformations of the king were copied in the portraits of his wife and children and, to a lesser degree, in those of the courtiers—the elongated skull and slender throat, the narrow, sloping shoulders and heavy hips. There are stages of development in Amarna art, signs of a growing maturity and skill even in the brief years of its efflorescence. The most exaggerated art forms have been described as caricatures, and so they are, if we understand that the deliberate exaggeration of a caricature is not always intended to be insulting or comic. These exaggerated features appear at the beginning of Akhenaton’s reign, even before he left Thebes. But when German archaeologists excavated at Tell el Amarna before the First World War, they found the ruins of the studio of a sculptor named Thutmose which contained some portrait heads of fantastic beauty—Amarna art at its latest, and highest, point of achievement. The most famous of these heads, the lovely painted bust of Nefertiti, is world-famous—an idealization of exotic feminine beauty and queenly pride.

It is hard to describe Amarna art objectively. Scholars speak of the increased sense of motion, and of the greater use of curved lines, but none of these criteria explains why the Amarna portraits catch at the imagination as they do. There is certainly a heightened sense of the individual; Khafre is a divinity, and Senusert III is a man of heavy responsibility, but Nefertiti is Nefertiti, and we feel that we would recognize her anywhere and anytime.

The subject matter of sculpture and relief becomes more candid and more natural. Intimate family relations are shown with freedom and charm. The king’s devotion to his beautiful wife is a favorite theme. He is shown with his arm around her, kissing her, holding her on his lap. To appreciate how daring this choice of subject really was, one must study the long series of stiff, formal representations of earlier kings and queens.

Akhenaton’s six little daughters were, one suspects, badly spoiled by their doting parents. They accompanied the king and queen on drives and excursions, sat on their laps and ate from their tables at banquets. In one scene a small princess is shown slyly tickling the flanks of the horses her father is driving. The picture is one of family affection and peace which strikes the viewer with plea sure in spite of the exaggerated artistic techniques.

Innovations in art, religion, and language—for it is at this time that the dialect known as Late Egyptian is first used in official texts—all these and other changes add up to a genuinely revolutionary spirit. But was the worship of Aton true mono the ism, as Breasted believed?

Some scholars prefer to call Atonism “henotheism”—the worship of one god without denying the existence of others. They point out that Akhenaton never relinquished the traditional claim of the Egyptian king to divinity; that his followers worshiped not Aton, but Akhenaton. They say also that Aton’s titulary included the names of other gods—all sun-gods, to be sure, but separate gods nonetheless. And to crown their argument, they maintain that Akhenaton’s savage attack upon the name of Aton’s archenemy, Amon-Re, was in itself a tacit admission of Amon’s reality. One does not fight an enemy who does not exist.

Religious dogma is a labyrinth of subtleties, even to the initiate, and it is certainly dangerous to try to impose modern concepts upon an ancient people. But some modern parallels may be illuminating. Akhenaton called himself the son of Aton, and claimed to be the only one who really knew his god; he may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last prophet to make these claims. The Aton titulary does equate the god with Shu and Re and Atum, all solar gods; but this, to Akhenaton, may have had no more effect upon Aton’s uniqueness than the concept of the Trinity has upon the mono the ism of Christianity. As for the last argument, Akhenaton’s attack on the old gods, this too has historic parallels. When Cortez flung the Aztec idols down from before their bloody altars, he was trying to destroy their supremacy in the hearts of their followers, not admitting their reality to him. Proscription of the old gods is a standard practice for prophets of a new faith, monotheistic or not; monotheism is by its very nature intolerant. Polytheistic religions are usually able and willing to identify gods of other regions with their own, or to add a few new ones. The Romans did not throw the Christians to the lions because they were heretics, but because they refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Hence Akhenaton’s persecution of the gods of Egypt can, I believe, be taken as an argument for the monotheistic character of his faith, rather than the reverse.

The terms don’t really matter all that much. What matters is that Akhenaton worshipped one god and one god only, in all his manifestations. The particular bitterness of his attack upon Amon may have been influenced by fear of the threat posed by the wealth and power of the Amon priesthood, but the great Aton hymn, which expresses Akhenaton’s devotion, does not sound like the work of a politician who cloaks pragmatic deeds in eloquent but empty words. Breasted believed it was composed by the king himself. Whether Akhenaton actually sat down with pen and papyrus in hand (though I love the image of him chewing on the end of his reed pen while he tries to find the right word) is irrelevant. The so-called hymn wouldn’t have been inscribed in various courtiers’ tombs if it had not been official dogma.

Its striking parallels with the 104th Psalm were first pointed out by Breasted:


When thou settest in the western horizon of heaven The world is in darkness like the dead…. Every lion cometh forth from his den, The serpents they sting. Darkness reigns…. Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon…. The two lands are in daily festival, Awake and standing upon their feet…. Then in all the world they do their work. How manifold are all thy works! They are hidden from before us. Oh thou sole god, whose powers no other possesseth. Thou didst create the earth according to thy desire, being alone: Men, all cattle, large and small; All that are upon the earth.


Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God…. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening…. Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches.

These similarities do not mean that there is a direct connection between Atonism and Hebrew mono the ism, or that Moses learned about God at the court of Amarna. Rather, the Aton hymn and the psalm represent two examples of a literary tradition that flourished throughout the Near East over a vast span of time. Certain of the concepts, and even certain of the phrases, of the Amarna hymn occur in earlier Eighteenth-Dynasty Egyptian hymns and persist after the heresy of Akhenaton had disappeared from Egypt. Still, it is interesting to see, in so familiar a volume as the Bible, echoes of the beliefs of an Egyptian pharaoh of the second millennium before Christ.

These beliefs, as we know them, were beautiful and kindly—the love of the creator of all things for his creatures, and their jubilant adoration of him. All creatures, even the humblest, hail the god’s rising:

All cattle rest upon their herbage, all trees and plants flourish; The birds flutter in their marshes, their wings uplifted in adoration to thee. All the sheep prance upon their feet, all winged things fly; they live when thou hast shone upon them.

Aton is the god of Syria and of Nubia also:

Their tongues are diverse in speech, and their forms and their skins likewise; for thou, Divider, hast divided the peoples.

A spirit of joyousness and of sunlit, open space and an appreciation of the manifold beauties of nature breathe in the liturgy of the Aton faith and are found in other elements of the worship. No longer was the god adored, as was Amon, within a windowless, darkened shrine. The temples of the Aton were illumined by the rays of the god himself, their great altars being set in open courts. According to the tomb reliefs, which often show this scene, the offerings Aton loves to receive are those of fruit and flowers rather than bloody sacrifices.

In its prime, the city of Akhetaton must have been a fitting capital for a pristine new god. The handsome villas of the nobles were surrounded by gardens filled with pools and with flowers, surrounded by high walls for privacy. The workmen’s houses were small and monotonously alike, but they compare favorably with some of the twentieth-century fellahins’ dwellings. The king himself built several palaces. Like most Egyptian domestic dwellings they have almost disappeared—the tombs were the Houses of Eternity, but a house was only designed for one lifetime. But the palaces were handsome structures, filled with luxurious furniture and ornaments. From the objects found in Tutankhamon’s tomb, some of which were doubtless made in Akhetaton, we know that domestic furnishings were designed with an eye to beauty as well as utility.

Akhenaton’s palaces had lovely painted floors and walls with scenes of animals, flowering plants, and gracefully flying birds. Here he lived in peace with his exquisite wife and his six little daughters. In the great temple enclosure he worshiped Aton at the appointed hours; and in the cliffs behind the city he prepared his tomb. This tomb, together with those of his chief courtiers, has been excavated. All had been robbed and defaced in antiquity. But from the scenes carved and painted upon the chamber walls, archaeologists have learned much about Akhenaton and his times; perhaps the most valuable inscription is the copy of the great Aton hymn. And from the walls of the royal tomb we learn that the king’s life had its tragedies. The first person to occupy the rock-cut sepulcher was not Akhenaton, but his small daughter, the princess Meketaton. The scenes of her funeral covered the walls of one chamber, and the grief of the royal parents is poignantly portrayed.

The loss of his daughter was a shattering blow, but it was only the first of Akhenaton’s troubles. It is safe to assume that the displaced priests of the old gods had not taken their demotion lightly. And outside Egypt other clouds were gathering. We know of these foreign problems in some detail, thanks to an archaeological discovery that far surpassed the tomb of Tutankhamon in historical value, though it was composed of no more precious material than common clay.

In 1887, peasants tilling their fields near Tell el Amarna turned up some curious objects—broken squares of dried clay that could hardly be distinguished from the brown earth that hid them. An ordinary cultivator would have thrown them away, but the Egyptian fellah had become sophisticated. He knew that the black soil of Egypt yielded riches other than crops, and that even the most unlikely-looking object might have value. The peasants scraped off the disfiguring earth and found that the bricks were covered with strange scratches, too regular to be accidental.

Eventually the objects found their way to Cairo. They created little stir at first; unprepossessing in appearance and humble in material, they did not attract tourist or scholar. Many of the bricks were broken to begin with, and others were deliberately smashed in order to increase the find in numbers if in nothing else. But finally they came to the attention of specialists, and the queer scratches were recognized as cuneiform writing. Cuneiform, pressed into damp clay tablets by wedge-shaped styluses, was the script of ancient Babylonia; during the fourteenth centuryB.C. Babylonian was the language of international diplomatic communication, much as French was in the nineteenth century. The ruins of Akhetaton and the antique shops were combed, and some three hundred of the baked clay tablets were found. (Others turned up later.) They are the ancient equivalent of the Foreign Office or State Department archives of our day, covering the reigns of Akhenaton and his father, and including letters from foreign monarchs as well as reports and dispatches from Egyptian emissaries abroad. They give a vivid picture of the international situation in 1350 B.C.; and the picture is not a bright one for Egypt.

Two of the great powers of this age that are mentioned in the diplomatic correspondence with Egypt were Hatti—the kingdom of the Hittites—and Mitanni, or Naharin. Both kingdoms lay north of the narrow coastal plain of Syria-Palestine, Mitanni on the Upper Euphrates and Hatti in Anatolia. Egyptian-Mitannian relations had changed since Thutmose III crossed the Euphrates with his army. Mitanni was now on friendly terms with the Two Lands, and several Egyptian kings, including Akhenaton, had married daughters of the royal house of that nation. But the Hittites were a horse of a different color.

Like Sumer, Mitanni, and the ancient Indian civilization represented by Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, the Hittite kingdom had vanished from human memory until it was resurrected by archaeologists. The fate of such cultures, once brilliant and flourishing and powerful, may be regarded as an object lesson in the brevity of human vanity. Archaeologists also view them as banners, bearing the word Excelsior! If the last one hundred years have brought such discoveries into the light of day, what buried civilizations may yet lie hidden beneath the soil of the several continents?

The existence of the Hittites did not come as a complete surprise to scholars, for there were hints in the Bible and in other sources that such a people had once lived in the Near East; but it was not until after 1906, when the excavation of the Hittite capital at Boghazkoi in Anatolia began, that the full splendor of Hittite culture was really appreciated. The most astounding result of the excavations arose out of the study of the Hittite language; to the surprise of practically everybody, it turned out to be an Indo-European tongue related to Latin and the Germanic languages. To speak of the speech of Boghazkoi as one language is an oversimplification, for there were half a dozen different languages and two scripts—cuneiform and the strange Hittite hieroglyphs. It seems, to put it in simple terms, that Anatolia was, before the second millennium B.C., invaded by a group of warriors who spoke an Indo-European tongue, and who conquered the indigenous, non-Indo-European speakers who lived in the area. The grammatical awkwardness in the preceding sentence is intentional; “Indo-European” does not apply to peoples, only to the language they spoke, and I want to avoid even the faintest hint of Aryans or other racial wonders. The origins and early history of Hittite civilization are outside the subject of this book; what concerns us is its relationship with Egypt.

By the period we are considering, the Hittites were in good shape. The credit for their flourishing condition, internal and external, seems to belong to one man—Shubilulliuma, the king. The possessor of this mellifluous name must have been a dynamic personality, but we know him only from his deeds, which were admittedly considerable.

Syria-Palestine has long been a focus of strife, no less so in Akhenaton’s day than in our own. During the first part of the Eighteenth Dynasty the area consisted of a number of city-states, each with its own local ruler—and all under the control of one of the great powers, Mitanni or Egypt. The Egyptian empire, so called, was always loosely held. Egyptian representatives in the larger centers watched over the pharaoh’s interests and kept him informed of events, but there were no large garrisons of Egyptian troops. In spite of the military exploits of Thutmose III and his successors, the small city-states in the area never completely abandoned their dreams of independence. There were frequent “rebellions,” as the scandalized Egyptians called them, particularly at the death of a pharaoh, when the internal confusion incumbent upon the accession of a young and inexperienced ruler might have kept Egyptian forces at home. But the great conquerors such as Thutmose I and III had been energetic men, conscious of empire. The rebellions were promptly subdued and were followed by frequent tours of inspection and saber rattling. By the time of Amenhotep III, the Egyptian provinces in Syria had settled down to enjoy the prosperity of the Pax Aegyptiaca. Or so it seemed.

From his perch high in the hills of Asia Minor, Shubilulliuma looked south, and plotted. There is little doubt that the Hittite king’s machinations began while Amenhotep III was still alive. Shubilulliuma did not risk direct military attack on Egypt. First he got rid of Mitanni, which left the Mittanian sphere of influence in Syria up for grabs. There was no objection from Egypt, no aid for their former ally. So Shubilulliuma wove his web, casting the strands into the city-states tributary to Egypt even while he was writing flattering letters, couched in the polished terms of diplomatic usage, to his unwitting “brother” of Egypt.

Shubilulliuma soon found the tools he wanted. The most valuable was Abdu-Ashirta, prince of the small state of Amurru on the upper Orontes. One need not be overly cynical to assume that Abdu-Ashirta had his own ideas about who was going to be top dog in Amurru; power politics hasn’t changed much. After his death his son Aziru took over the rule of Amurru as a vassal of Egypt; he also inherited the job of cat’s-paw for Shubilulliuma. Like his father, Aziru wrote fulsome letters to Akhenaton protesting his loyalty and describing his valiant battles against traitors in other cities.

Aziru’s first moves against these “traitors”—the loyal coastal cities of north Syria—were successful and unopposed. Yet even the cities which had not felt the weight of the Amorite prince’s hand were under no illusions as to his intentions. The elders of the wealthy city of Tunip sent to pharaoh a plea for help, written with the eloquence of fear and despair:

Who formerly could have plundered Tunip without being plundered by Thutmose III? When Aziru enters Simyra, Aziru will do to us as he pleases, in the territory of our lord the king; and on account of these things our lord will have to lament. And now Tunip, thy city, weeps, and her tears are flowing, and there is no help for us. For twenty years we have been sending to our lord the king, the king of Egypt; but there has not come to us a word—no, not one!

For twenty years. The trouble had begun under Amenhotep III, but at first Akhenaton took no steps to repair his father’s errors. Simyra fell, as the elders of Tunip had feared; the city of Sidon, seeing no help forthcoming from Egypt, made terms with Aziru and assisted him in attacking Tyre. Before long all the coastal cities loyal to Egypt had fallen except Byblos.

By this time the prince of Byblos, an elderly nobleman named Ribaddi, was badly worried. He had been writing to his lord, Akhenaton, for some time concerning the doings of Aziru, and he knew that Byblos would be next. After the fall of Simyra his letters become absolutely impassioned, and one cannot but marvel at the old gentleman’s tenacity, loyalty, and stubborn courage—and his epistolatory exploits. There are more letters from him than from any other correspondent.

However, Aziru seems to have had a friend at the Egyptian court, and this man, in the useful position of chief steward, may have managed to conceal the truth of what was going on in Syria. Aziru himself was no mean persuader; he even convinced the Egyptian army officer stationed in Galilee that Ribaddi was a traitor, and talked him into sending Egyptian mercenaries to attack Byblos. After this unprovoked stab in the back, the city quite understandably rose in revolt against Egypt and ousted Ribaddi, delivering his scepter and his family into the hands of his bitter foe, Aziru. The valiant Ribaddi actually succeeded in regaining Byblos, but his situation was hopeless. Aziru still flourished, as the wicked proverbially do, in spite of being summoned to Egypt to explain himself to a belatedly suspicious king; the ships of Ribaddi’s enemies blockaded Byblos and cut off his supplies; even the old man’s wife urged him to forsake the broken reed of Egypt and submit to Aziru. Still he held out, asking for only three hundred men to help him hold the city. To this letter, as to the others, there was no reply. Byblos fell, and Ribaddi became a fugitive.

In the south the situation was equally desperate, although the attackers were different—fierce desert raiders called the Habiru.

These people have interested historians because of the etymological similarity between their name and that of the Hebrews. That’s probably all it is, an etymological similarity; the Habiru were not a civilized people, as Egypt and Hatti were civilized, but they were ferocious fighters, and the fortresses of Palestine, weakened by years of neglect under Amenhotep III, fell to them like wheat under the sickle. And again there was no help from Akhenaton!

“If no troops come in this year,” wrote Abdu-Heba, Egyptian deputy in Jerusalem, “the whole territory of my lord the king will perish. If there are no troops in this year, let the king send his officer to fetch me and my brothers, that we may die with my lord the king.”

We do not know whether Abdu-Heba gained the safety of Egypt or died in the ruins of his city; but Jerusalem fell, and Megiddo fell, and the southern half of Egypt’s Asiatic empire collapsed, as the northern half had done under the hammering of Aziru.

The historian cannot help but ask, at this point: What sort of man was Akhenaton, that he could see his empire crumbling into sand without lifting a finger to save it? If he was the idealist and pacifist that some Egyptologists believed him to have been, how could he watch unmoved the slaughter of his subjects and the betrayal of those faithful to him?

The once-accepted answer, that Akhenaton was a dreamy pacifist more concerned with his god than his country, was always too simplistic. The true facts about the warfare in Syria may never have reached him. The workings of a complex bureaucracy such as Akhenaton’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs are in themselves an excellent screen for truth, and there seem to have been traitors in the home office itself. I find it hard to accept the theory of a “let’s wait and see” attitude on the part of Akhenaton and his father; after a certain point one or the other ought to have seen enough. Perhaps Akhenaton did. Some of the letters speak of Egyptian troops being sent to certain cities, but there is no actual evidence that Akhenaton himself went to war. Since most of the letters can be dated only by internal evidence, there is still disagreement as to who was doing what to whom, and when.

Here’s where we get to the cursed coregency question, as I am sometimes inclined to call it. It’s one of the liveliest debates among scholars of this period. Some of them believe that Akhenaton was made coruler with his father somewhere around the latter’s year twenty-five. Thus all the revolutionary activities I have described took place while Amenhotep III was still on the throne, honoring the same Amon-Re whom his son was attacking, preparing his conventional tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and continuing the conventional activities of an Egyptian ruler. The evidence for and against this belief are too complicated to go into here, and definitive proof is still lacking. One of the points made by the long coregency school is that in his twelfth year Akhenaton’s mother, Queen Tiye, paid a visit of state to Tell el Amarna. Was the death of her husband the occasion for this visit? Did she live thereafter at Amarna? Did she drop a few words of wisdom into the ears of her son, warning him that trouble was brewing? They are reasonable questions, but we don’t know the answers.

At about this time or shortly thereafter Nefertiti disappears from the scene. Her name means, appropriately, “the beautiful woman has come.” In the early days of their marriage Akhenaton spared no pains to show his love for her. Although she was probably a commoner like her mother-in-law, Tiye, her husband composed a royal titulary for her and gave her the additional name Neferneferuaton, “beautiful are the beauties of Aton.” Her titles are phrases of endearment and tenderness: “fair of hands, lady of grace, she at whose voice the king rejoices.”

As my little chart indicated, her exact antecendents are uncertain. She was not a king’s daughter. One popular theory makes her the daughter of Ay, one of Akhenaton’s councilors. Like Yuya before him, he was called “Father of the God”; but this title was held by officials who were not the king’s father-in-law, and it has always seemed to me that this is a rather indirect way of describing such a relationship. His wife, another Tiye, has the title of wet nurse to the queen, which makes it unlikely that Nefertiti was Tiye’s child. The child of a first wife, raised by the second? Maybe so, though in that case “wet nurse” is surely not to be taken literally. (Figure it out; wives one and two giving birth at approximately the same time, and wife number two passing her own infant on to some other female?) In fact, the position of royal wet nurse was probably honorific, and a high honor it was. Tutankhamon’s nurse had a very nice tomb of her own, and so did Hatshepsut’s.

Nefertiti shared her husband’s beliefs and worshiped Aton at his side. The reliefs of the Aton temple at Thebes show her prominence in the cult. These reliefs come from very early in the reign, and Nefertiti appears without her husband in many of them, worshipping on her own account. What happened, then, to explain Nefertiti’s disappearance from the records? Did she die, or did she fall from grace? The so-called evidence is found at Amarna, where, in certain places, Nefertiti’s name and titles were cut out and replaced by those of a king named Smenkhkare and his wife Meritaton, who was the eldest of Akhenaton’s daughter. Akhenaton showered attentions on his young coregent, giving him the name which had been Nefertiti’s—Neferneferuaton.

Or did he? Sometimes I really become irritated with Egyptologists. The narrative I have repeated was a perfectly reasonable, interesting interpretation, accepted by the majority of scholars. In recent years it’s been challenged, not by one alternative theory but by several. The most provocative is that there never was a male king named Smenkhkare. Neferneferuaton was always Nefertiti, who became coregent with her husband and, in an infuriating fashion, kept changing her names: Ankhkheperure, Smenkhkare. Her disappearance from the scene was not caused by death or a fall from favor, but by her transformation from queen to king and coruler.

That there was a female king named Ankhkheperure seems indicated by a few examples of the name with a female ending—Ankhetkheperure. An alternative theory (you might have known there would be an alternative theory) agrees that Nefertiti did rule alongside her husband for a while, but that she was succeeded by the male king Smenkhkare. Another one (you might have known there would be another one) claims that Ankhetkheperure was Meritaton, who reigned briefly after the death of her husband.

I may as well give you my opinion, since, at the rate of sounding conceited, it is as good as that of most other people. I am willing to concede the possible existence of a female pharaoh, but I won’t give up Mr. Smenkhkare.

In 1907 Theodore Davis, a wealthy American archaeological amateur, came upon a burial in the Valley of the Kings. Within a small unadorned chamber in the rock was a mummiform coffin and a scanty, hastily assembled collection of funerary objects. The coffin was in sad condition; moisture within the chamber had rotted the wooden bier which had supported it, and its fall, as well as the damp, had greatly damaged the mummy, which seems to have been wrapped in grave clothes rather than bandaged in the conventional fashion. Thieves had ripped the gold mask from the face of the coffin, and the name of the dead person had been cut away from the coffin and from the golden bands that wrapped the body.

The battered coffin wasn’t the only object in the chamber. A set of canopic jars with beautiful portrait heads, and the pieces of a gilded shrine inscribed with the name and image of Queen Tiye, convinced Davis that he had found the body of the great queen. In his haste to examine it he completed the destruction that had been begun by water and ancient vandalism; the mummy was reduced to bones, and by the time Davis got through there wasn’t much left of the shrine either.

Davis’s publication, defiantly entitled The Tomb of Queen Tiyi, maintains his belief, but from the first Egyptologists doubted the identification. Who but Akhenaton himself, they asked themselves, would be so persecuted even in death that his name would be obliterated and his body hastily hidden in a grave that even a courtier would have considered inadequate? So word spread, among interested Egyptologists, that the mummy of the heretic king had been found.

Sober consideration, and a good deal of careful scholarly work, cast doubt upon both identifications. Physical anthropologists performed their detective work on the bones and pronounced them to be those of a young man, younger than Akhenaton must have been at his death. Smenkhkare, the first of Akhenaton’s sons-in-law, fits the age requirements, and for many years this burial was believed to be his.

Recently the whole question of the mummy and the burial arose again, and it may be worthwhile to treat the arguments in some detail, since they illustrate the specialized knowledge and the close attention to minutiae that modern archaeology requires. (They also demonstrates how archaeologists, like other individuals, get stuck on their own theories.)

The inscriptions on the coffin, which are the obvious means of identifying the mummy, are unhappily defaced. They consist of two main sections: a prayer on the footboard, and a series of titles on bands that run down and around the coffin. They are the titles of a king, but in all cases the name has been completely cut away. Certain epithets remain, and they are epithets associated with Akhenaton: “living in truth, the beautiful child of the living Aton,” and so on. Originally the names in the missing cartouches must have been his, but they could have stood as genitives after another name, as for example: “The king’s daughter, Meritaton, daughter of Akhenaton, living in truth,” etc.

Most authorities agree that the coffin was first made for a woman. Later it was altered in order to serve for the burial of a man; the original, presumably female, names have been eliminated. But which man? One would suppose that definitive evidence could be found in the bones themselves. The detective talents of physical anthropologists, some of whom have worked with the police forces of various countries, are well known. It is now possible to tell sex, age, medical history, and other facts from a skeleton. Archaeology calls upon the talents of many specialists; why, then, does not a physician or anthropologist examine these bones and resolve the problem?

Such examinations have been carried out. But the first of them was performed fifty years ago, when techniques were less advanced, and the experts, as often happens, did not agree on all points. They did agree on two basic matters: the bones are those of a man; he was not more than twenty-eight years of age at the time of his death.

This would seem to eliminate Akhenaton, who had fathered at least one child before he mounted the throne, and who ruled for seventeen years. But here we have another example of how preconceptions (dare we call them prejudices?) corrupt scholarly conclusions. Judging from his statues, Akhenaton may have suffered from some sort of disease. The archaeologists who wanted these bones to be his asked: Could the king have been the victim of an ailment that would alter the parts of the bone structure that determine age?

One of the major criteria used in aging bones (determining the age of their owner, that is) is the evidence of epiphy-seal union. The chief center of bone formation in the shaft of a bone is called the diaphysis. The epiphyses are secondary bone masses at the head of the shaft, connected with the diaphysis by intermediate links of cartilage. Bone is a dynamic and active tissue throughout life. It slows down once the individual reaches adulthood, but it’s always adapting to demands made on it by the body. However, as a person develops from fetus to adult, changes in his/ her stature take place principally by means of growth in the connecting cartilage, which eventually ossifies, thus binding together diaphysis and epiphyses.

The pieces of cartilage connecting diaphysis and epiphyses are clearly visible in a young bone. They fuse completely at various ages until the last, the medial clavicle, completes its union at approximately the age of twenty-eight. Thus an expert can tell, from the degree of fusion, approximately how old the individual was at the time of his death. Epiphy-seal union is only one of the criteria used in determining age, but it is an important criterion.

Now for the rub. There is a form of pituitary malfunction known as Froelich’s syndrome which can delay the union of the epiphyses. It would be possible for a man suffering from this disease to have, at the age of forty, bones which are in the state normally found in a twenty-three-year-old. What fascinated Egyptologists is the fact that a sufferer from Froelich’s syndrome might also have certain of the physical deformities which are seen in the statues of Akhenaton—heavy thighs and thin calves, over-developed breasts and abdomen. The pituitary lesion affects the secretion of the sexual glands, producing feminine characteristics in a male.

A neat case, surely. There is only one difficulty. The victim of Froelich’s syndrome is necessarily, totally, and unequivocally sterile.

What then do we do with Akhenaton’s six daughters?

Some Egyptologists were quite willing to sweep the girls away rather than revise their theory that the miserably buried skeleton was Akhenaton’s. We can take it for granted that the children were born of Nefertiti, as the inscriptions specifically state; even the Egyptians could hardly have been mistaken about that. We might deliver ourselves from the manufactured dilemma by blackening Nefertiti’s reputation; this would not be chivalrous, but then chivalry cannot stand in the way of scholarship. However, the aspersion is not only unkind, it is ridiculous. Who was Akhenaton trying to fool? Or was Nefertiti trying to fool him? If the king had to hire a substitute to father his daughters, the gentleman overdid it, rather. If I had not been trained to be polite to those who are my elders (admittedly, there aren’t many of those left) and betters in the field of Egyptology, I would say that this is one of the sillier theories to come out of a field which, unfortunately, is not devoid of silly theories.

I hope I may be excused for crowing just a little—since I seldom get that opportunity—because the most reliable medical investigations of the remains substantiate the belief I have always held: that they are indeed those of Smenkhkare. In 1963 a thorough anatomical investigation was carried out by R. G. Harrison, of the University of Liverpool. He concluded that the bones were those of a man who was less than twenty-five years old at the time of his death, with twenty years being the probable age. There was no sign of gross abnormality or of a pathological condition remotely related to Froelich’s syndrome. Harrison stated that the individual might have had an “ectomorphic constitution”—in other words, that he was slightly built—but that he was definitely a normal male. An even more recent examination, by Joyce Filer of the British Museum, supports Harrison’s conclusions.

This should have settled the matter, but the “those bones gotta be Akhenaton’s” crowd hasn’t given up. Every now and then they find a physical anthropologist who asserts that the skeleton is that of an older man. Then another expert comes along and says no, it isn’t. The fact is that the great majority of the best qualified authorities have agreed on the younger age, and their arguments are incontrovertible. I’ve seen the skull (I get these little treats because I am very, very nice to my Egyptological friends), and although I am the last person in the world to talk authoritatively about bones, even a casual look at the teeth confirms Harrison’s conclusions. They are good, healthy teeth, with few signs of wear, and one of the third molars (wisdom teeth) has not yet erupted.

The skeleton can’t be Akhenaton. I stick to that. We can’t prove yet that the remains are those of Smenkhkare, but the circumstantial evidence certainly points to him. No other royal prince of the Amarna house is known. Blood groupings and the unusual shapes of this skull and that of Tutankhamon suggest a close relationship between the two men—full brothers, or father and son. Smenkhkare seems to have died after a reign so short that there may not have been time to prepare his full funerary regalia, hence the necessity of remaking a coffin and a set of canopic jars intended for someone else. The funerary equipment in Tomb 55 is a motley enough collection; it implies a hasty, perhaps secret, burial. And yet there is a contradiction here; some of Smenkhkare’s burial furniture was taken over by Tutankhamon, including the latter’s second coffin. If Smenkhkare had all that good stuff (the second coffin isn’t solid gold, but it is absolutely beautiful), why wasn’t he allowed to use it? It wasn’t very nice of Tutankhamon to steal his presumed brother’s grave goods. Of course he may not have had anything to say about it, being dead when the final arrangements were made.

This brings us to the interesting question: Who precisely was this boy, the most widely known king of ancient Egypt, whose treasures still draw overflowing crowds to the museums where his traveling exhibits are displayed?

Despite the thousands of words that have been written about him, all we really know for sure was that he was Akhenaton’s son-in-law, married to Akhenaton’s third daughter, Ankhesenpaaton. Unlike the girls, he is not described as the offspring of Nefertiti. A recently discovered inscription makes it fairly certain that he was a king’s son; but which king was his father?

The obvious answer would seem to be Akhenaton. However, Tutankhamon was related in some fashion to Amenhotep III, and a vociferous party of Egyptologists want to make that gentleman Tutankhamon’s sire. In order to do this, it is necessary to accept the long coregency theory. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will explain.

Tutankhamon was nine years old when he became king, which means he was born before, but not too long before, Akhenaton’s year twelve. If Amenhotep had been dead for twelve years by then, he could hardly have fathered a child.

I have, of course, no objection to stating my own opinion; I think Tutankhamon was Akhenaton’s son by a lesser wife. It was always a safe assumption that he had some; we know that he took over certain members of his father’s harem, including the younger Mitannian princess Tadukhepa. But not until the 1950s did we discover the lady named Kiya. She has now become one of the most popular characters in the Amarna drama, and Egyptologists keep finding her all over the place—in certain reliefs that had been formerly identified as those of princesses, and on the canopic jars and coffin found in KV55. It is hard to know precisely what her position was, for her titles are unique. She was never chief wife; Nefertiti held on to that title throughout, and Kiya’s name is not written in a cartouche. Her titulary, if it can be called that, contains no flattering epithets or formal titles. It starts out “greatly beloved wife of” and ends with her name, Kiya; in between is a long string of Akhenaton’s names and titles. I leave it to the reader to deduce what, if anything, this implies about the relationship.

Kiya’s titles make her the leading candidate for the original owner of the coffin in KV55. Was she the mother of Tutankhamon? If so, Akhenaton must have been his father. Was he also the father of Smenkhkare? Was Kiya the latter’s mother? She was for a time high in favor with Akhenaton; the birth of a prince and heir, after all those daughters, might have raised her to prominence over other members of the harem. Some people want to identify her with the Mitannian princess Tadukhepa, pointing out the similarity between the last two syllables of that princess’s name and the name Kiya. Something happened to undermine her position, though. In almost every case, her name and image at Akhetaton were replaced by those of one of Akhenaton’s daughters. Ah, well; someday an inscription may turn up that will solve the problem. In the meantime, life would be very dull without these arguments about Akhenaton’s sex life.

What ever his parentage, Smenkhkare must have been older than Tutankhamon, since he was the first successor to Akhenaton. He married Princess Meritaton, and either joined his father-in-law on the throne, or succeeded him. His highest known year date is year three. The young man is one of the most ephemeral kings of Egypt, but we do know that he established a temple to Amon in Thebes. It is a small fact, but a significant one, for it meant compromise. Akhenaton had attacked the age old gods of Egypt for the love of Aton; did he send his son and daughter to the stronghold of Amon to arrange a reconciliation? I think this is a strong indication that Akhenaton had died before that event took place. Fanaticism, or idealism, of the degree that inspired the profound uprooting of the ageless pantheon of Egypt does not often soften with age. Rather the reverse, in fact.

Akhenaton died in his seventeenth year of rule, under circumstances that are unknown. There is no record of his death or burial or mummification. Smenkhkare and his young wife Meritaton disappeared from the stage of history soon thereafter, in the same infuriating silence; and the little king, Tutankhaton, ascended the throne. He was about nine years old. His wife, Ankhesenpaaton, was only a few years older.

For a year or two Tutankhaton remained at the city of Akhetaton. Then he moved the court back to Thebes and Memphis, changed his name to Tutankhamon, and began restoring the temples Akhenaton had desecrated.

The temples and cities of the gods and goddesses had fallen to pieces. The land was in ruin, and the gods turned their backs upon this land. Their hearts were hurt, so that they destroyed what had been made. But His Majesty deliberated plans with his heart, seeking out acts of ser vice to his father Amon. All the property of the temples has been doubled—tripled—quadrupled; their ser vice is charged against the palace and against the treasury of the Lord of the Two Lands.

So reads Tutankhamon’s restoration inscription. In other words, pharaoh makes good, fourfold, what pharaoh tried to destroy. The triumph of Amon was complete.

One wonders at the emotions of the two small rulers at this capitulation, particularly at those of Ankhesenpaaton—for she too had taken the name of the god her father had anathematized. Were they in agreement with the surrender to Amon or, being mere children, were they helpless pawns in the hands of older players? There were several of the latter, the two most important being the God’s Father Ay and the general Harmhab, both of whom succeeded to the throne after the young king’s death.

Tutankhamon had little time to assert his own personality, even if he had wished to do so. He died at eighteen, not, as it turns out, as the result of a blow to the head. The latest examination suggests an accident that caused a serious leg injury resulting in infection. (I’ve always had doubts concerning the murder theory. If I had wanted to do him in, I wouldn’t have hit him on the head; it’s a crude, chancy method of murder compared with alternatives like poison or a sword through the gizzard.)

It is safe to say that his death was premature and unexpected. He hadn’t had time to finish his own tomb, so he was laid to rest in a tomb that had been designed for a commoner, possibly his immediate successor, Ay. Robbers entered the tomb twice shortly after the burial, but in both cases they were thwarted before they reached the burial chamber, though they carried off a number of small items such as jewelry and left the outer chambers in a state of confusion. The mess was hastily tidied up by inspectors and the passageway was refilled. In the Twentieth Dynasty, Ramses VI excavated his tomb just above and to the left of Tutankhamon’s, and the debris and workmen’s huts hid the entrance to the boy-king’s tomb from sight and from memory until Carter’s moment of triumph in 1922. In the tomb were found two other mummies—those of infant girls, born prematurely. So ended the hopes of the Amarna family for a permanent dynasty; but Tutankhamon’s young widow made one last desperate bid for power.

This incredible story is known not from Egyptian archaeology, but from the excavation of the Hittite capital in Anatolia. In the royal archives was a cuneiform text of the Hittite king, Mursilis III, telling of a message sent by an Egyptian queen to his father, our old friend Shubilulliuma.

“My husband is dead,” she wrote, “and I have no son. People say that you have many sons. If you were to send me one of your sons he might become my husband. I am loath to take a servant of mine and make him my husband.”

If Shubilulliuma had acted promptly, he might have changed history. But he was too sly to recognize candor when he met it, and there was reason for his skepticism. “Since of old such a thing has never happened,” he exclaimed. So he sent his chamberlain to Egypt to investigate before making a decision. “Perhaps they have a prince; they may try to deceive me and do not really want one of my sons to take over the kingship.”

In the columned and painted rooms of the royal palace at Thebes, Queen Ankhesenamon watched her young husband’s tomb being made ready and waited for word. No one had consulted her on the succession. She had to act quickly and in secret, for she was no more than a pawn in the current game of politics, to be disposed of as the winner decreed. It is pitifully clear that she could expect no help from any of her father’s former friends; Hatti was a last resort.

But the slow days dragged on without an answer from the north, and Ankhesenamon must have found her mask of indifference harder and harder to maintain. Then, at last, came a message. We do not know how it was delivered, nor by whom, but its import is plain from the letter Ankhesenamon wrote in reply. I know of no more eloquent text from ancient times.

Why do you say, “They may try to deceive me”? If I had a son, would I write to a foreign country in a manner which is humiliating to me and to my country? He who was my husband died, and I have no sons. Shall I perhaps take a servant of mine, and make him my husband? I have not written to any other country, I have written only to you. People say that you have many sons. Give me one of your sons, and he shall be my husband and king in the land of Egypt.

Bearing this message the courier set out again on the long journey, beset with many dangers. And this time Shubilulliuma was convinced. It was, in modern parlance, too good a chance to pass up. He sent a son, but too late. According to the Hittite records, the prince and his escort were attacked and murdered on the way “by the men and horses of Egypt.” The conspiracy had been discovered.

And what of Queen Ankhesenamon? She was a true granddaughter of the shrewd little commoner Tiye, who had fought for a crown in her own way; but her husband was not “a mighty king whose borders reach from Karoy to the Euphrates.” Her husband was dead, and in his place stood the Father of the God Ay, who had just had himself painted on the wall of Tutankhamon’s tomb as the boy’s successor.

Just who was Ay anyhow? Some scholars believe he was the brother of Queen Tiye and the son of Yuya and Thuya, and thus a member of a provincial family that had, for some reason or other, considerable influence at court. Nothing contradicts this theory, but negative evidence isn’t proof; and I’ve always wondered why, if Ay was a son of Yuya and Thuya, his name does not appear anywhere in their tomb. Thuya is described as mother of the king’s great wife, which we knew from the marriage scarab of Amenhotep III, and as mother of a son named Anen, whose modest tomb has been found. This is also negative evidence in a sense, but it strikes me as odd.

Excavators have found a gold ring whose bezel bears the joined cartouches of Ay and Ankhesenamon, side by side, as the name of royal consorts are written. This may indicate a scheme of Ay’s to justify his occupation of the throne by marriage to Tutankhamon’s widow. If it actually took place, the marriage didn’t last long. The queen who stands beside Ay in his reliefs and statues is the same woman who was his wife in his humbler days at Amarna, and Ankhesenamon, like her parents, vanishes from history.

Some scholars deny the clue of the ring and believe that Ay never had any plans to marry his youthful queen. I personally cannot produce any other explanation for the joined cartouches. But for me the “clincher” is the queen’s poignant letter to Shubilulliuma: “Shall I marry a servant of mine and make him king?” she asks—not once, but twice. Feminine intuition is as aggravating in historical study as it is in family discussions; yet I venture to suggest that this is precisely the comment a woman would make if she had been offended, as a woman and as a queen, by advances from a man of Ay’s age and nonroyal status—especially if he really was her grandfather! It’s pure speculation, of course, but the ring, the letter, and the sudden disappearance of Akhesenamon do permit us to suspect that she died before a marriage could take place. She may have been murdered after the discovery of her attempt to deliver Egypt over to the Hittites, but another explanation is possible. Perhaps Ay was actually a “fate worse than death” to the proud daughter of the heretic king.

I really hate to qualify this romantic narrative, but candor compels me to admit that practically every statement I have made is open to debate. Many of the major actors in the drama of Amarna vanish from the scene as mysteriously and as inconclusively as does Ankhesenamon. Her mummy has never been found, nor have the remains of her grandmother Tiye, her mother Nefertiti, or any of her sisters. Every now and then someone claims to have identified one of the numerous anonymous female mummies as Tiye or Nefertiti; then somebody else comes along and proves it isn’t. Like other romantics, I believe that there is at least one more royal cache to be found—the burials of the missing royal ladies of the late Eighteenth Dynasty, including those of Nefertiti and her daughters.

Let’s suppose that they and Smenkhkare were originally buried at Amarna, like Akhenaton. When the city was abandoned, the mummies and the portable parts of their funerary equipment were moved to new tombs in the protected Valley of the Kings. While this process was under way, Tutankhamon died. He had presumably begun a tomb—every Egyptian king did—but it wasn’t ready for occupancy, and his funerary equipment was incomplete. His successor might have decided to swipe some of Smenkhkare’s belongings, and bundle the latter into a leftover coffin. Or maybe…

Well, that’s how it goes with the Amarna debates. We can invent half a dozen scenarios that would make perfectly logical plots for historical novels, but until there is absolute proof the end must be in doubt. At this writing there are rumors of evidence that would identify the occupant of the KV55 coffin beyond dispute. Wait and see. And wait for the latest news from the Valley of the Kings, where the recently discovered cache of funerary materials known as KV63 may indicate the existence of at least one other unknown tomb of Amarna date.

Despite the almost certain identification of the mysterious skeleton as that of Smenkhkare, the theorists have not abandoned their theories about Akhenaton’s physical peculiarities, basing them now solely on the abnormalities depicted in the sculptures, which are admittedly odd enough. The latest kick is something called Marfan’s syndrome. I still cling stubbornly to the belief that one cannot give a statue a physical examination, and the existence of Akhenaton’s daughters, and perhaps his sons, seems clear evidence to me that he was not exactly impotent, whatever his other problems may have been. However, people will undoubtedly go on arguing until, or if, his mummy is found.

Will it ever be found? The possibility seems unlikely. Akhenaton probably died at Amarna and was buried there. His tomb had been prepared for him, and fragments of a sarcophagus found therein belonged to him. It is possible that when Tutankhamon left the city of the Horizon of Aton, he moved the bodies of his royal relatives to Thebes for safekeeping. But if this is what happened, then what became of Akhenaton’s own coffin and golden ornaments, which must have surpassed those of Tutankhamon in splendor? He had seventeen or eighteen years in which to prepare them, in comparison with Tutankhamon’s nine years of rule, and he was not, as his critics have pointed out, a humble man. The god son of the sole universal god deserved the best that imperial grandeur could supply, and the empire was in better shape at Akhenaton’s accession than it was when Tutankhamon took over.

Active persecution of Akhenaton’s memory did not begin immediately after Tutankhamon went over to the enemy. The boy-king could still place in his tomb many of the cherished objects he had owned while he was still Tutankhaton, “Living Image of Aton,” including the throne, which still bears the name and shape of the solar orb. We are safe in assuming that Akhenaton was laid to rest with all the pomp and reverence due a divine king of a mighty empire. What befell his body afterward is a matter of pure speculation. Perhaps his enemies eventually broke into the tomb and destroyed it. Perhaps it was desecrated by tomb robbers of ancient times, as were the mummies and the treasures of other pharaohs. A third possibility—that when the city of Akhetaton was abandoned, Akhenaton was taken back to Thebes with the other royal dead—isn’t as romantically unlikely as it may sound. How it kindles the imagination, to fancy that the mummy of the first great heretic still lies undisturbed somewhere in the Valley of the Kings.

Lest the reader accuse me of going into inordinate detail over this confused era, let me assure him that I have not even touched upon many of the problems which are connected with this reign. More verbiage has been produced on Akhenaton and his times than on almost any other era of Egyptian history, and the work of scholars is remarkable for its heated tone. It is hard to be dispassionate about Akhenaton; you may loathe him or admire him, but you cannot ignore him. He has been described as a sexual degenerate and as a pure spiritual leader; as a destructive fanatic and as a great idealist. Psychiatrists have written about his psychoses and doctors have diagnosed his diseases. And Egyptologists—well, they have theories, and passionate ones, about every aspect of Akhenaton’s life except what he ate for breakfast. I know of no better illustration of the subjectivity of some types of historical research than the widely varying approaches to the character and exploits of Akhenaton, and the bias extends to the minor characters. Some people, for instance, persist in viewing that old scoundrel Ay as a dedicated servant of his country, and Ankhesenamon as a traitor to Egypt! I, of course, am completely dispassionate on this subject, as on everything that has to do with Akhenaton.

The city of the Horizon of Aton struggled on for a time after Tutankhamon deserted it, but eventually it died, as cities will when the spirit that animated them is gone. The houses were abandoned and the tombs in the cliffs were emptied or robbed. Some of the latter, designed for high officials, contain reliefs and inscriptions of interest, though many are in poor condition. The royal tomb, at the end of a long wadi, is in even worse condition. After the death of Ay his successor began the demolition of palaces and temples, a process that continued into the following dynasty. The site has been methodically excavated in modern times, most recently by the Egypt Exploration Society of En gland, whose publications are the definitive work on the city. It yielded its treasures; the painted head of Nefertiti is perhaps the greatest, but there were other pieces of sculpture, some so naturalistic that they were originally taken to be death masks. Fragments of the brightly painted floors of the palaces survived, to find their way into museums and collections. The plans of the villas and the workmen’s village have been reconstructed; certain of the massive boundary stelae still exist, sadly ravaged by time and human destructiveness; but there is little left at Tell el Amarna to interest the nonspecialist.

At Thebes, blocks and statues have been found that came from Akhenaton’s first temple to his god. They had been torn from their setting and used as filler for the work of later kings in the great Amon temple of Karnak. After a reign of only a few years, Ay passed away and was buried in a tomb in the West Valley, perhaps the one that had been begun for Tutankhamon. But for the miraculous survival of Tutankhamon’s burial equipment we would know very little about the wealth and richness of this imperial period. Multiply that minor king’s goods a hundred fold and you will get some idea of what the magnificent Amenhotep must have taken to his tomb.

In later times Akhenaton’s name and that of his god were cut from the inscriptions and the name of Amon was replaced. Amon-Re resumed his place as king of the gods and took back all the ground he had lost—and more. His devotees had good reason to write, after Akhenaton’s death:

Woe to him who assails thee!

Thy city endures, but he who assails thee is overthrown;

The sun of him who knew thee not has set, but he who knows thee shines;

The sanctuary of him who assailed thee is overwhelmed in darkness,

but the whole earth is in light.

The shout of triumph rings hollow, however, after three thousand years. The attempt to obliterate Akhenaton’s name failed, thanks to the patient skill of historians, philologists, and archaeologists; he still exists in memory, to stir the imaginations of all who know of him. Even the great god Amon-Re did not live forever. He is as dead today as his old enemy Akhenaton; the sand drifts over his altars, and his sanctuaries are laid open to the stares of the curious.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!