Amarna — The Complete City?

The ancient city now known as Amarna, or Tell el-Amarna, is a curious paradox. It is a place where a huge amount is known about the layout of the city and its individual buildings, and it is possible to reconstruct in some detail how the city operated for its residents, from the king down to the humblest worker. It is the only ancient Egyptian city whose ground plan is known to any real degree of completeness, and it provides a varied range of sources of evidence to tell us about the city, its purpose and its contents. Yet it is also a site that can disappoint the visitor. Apart from the modest reconstructions of parts of the city by modern archaeologists, there is virtually nothing to be seen of the city of Amarna, especially its monumental centre. Indeed the best preserved parts of Amarna are very much on its periphery – the tombs and boundary stelae – yet these are the very structures that are some of the most useful in understanding what Amarna once looked like.

The Founding of the City

Behold, it is Pharaoh, who found it – not being the property of a god, not being the property of a goddess, not being the property of a male ruler, not being the property of a female ruler, and not being the property of any people.

from the boundary stelae at Amarna

The creation of the city of Amarna was the result of an individual royal initiative. This is not in itself unusual – many of the towns described in this book were created as part of a royal project, especially those built to service royal mortuary projects, such as the workers’ town at Giza or the pyramid town at Kahun. Nor is the foundation of an entirely new city unknown in the context of ancient Egypt, although Amarna is the earliest known example of an entire city effectively being founded and built during the reign of a single king – it may be that the example of Amarna influenced the creation of Pr-Ramesses just a few decades later. The single most important reason for the foundation of Amarna, and the resultant deployment of royal resources, seems to have been the desire of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten to create a suitable arena for the worship of ‘his’ god, the solar deity Aten.

Presumably, attempts early in his reign to remodel parts of the pre-eminent royal ‘religious’ city – Thebes – were recognized as something of a failure within a monumental landscape that had, for the previous two centuries, been the subject of continual and intensive royal investment in buildings whose focus was the cult of the god Amun. It seems that a clean break was required and a virgin spot was sought for a new city whose main inhabitants would be the Aten, the royal family, the court and a population that serviced the elite residents. The site chosen, Akhetaten, ‘The Horizon of the Aten’, was in Middle Egypt, roughly halfway between the two major urban centres of 18th-Dynasty Egypt, Memphis and Thebes, a naturally dramatic setting where the riverside cliffs swing away from the river to create a ‘bay’ 10 km (6 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) at its widest point.

Plan of the city of Amarna. The workmen’s village is to the east of this plan, on the way to the royal tomb. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

Boundary Stelae

Akhenaten was determined to prescribe the limits of Akhetaten. The physical integrity of the natural desert ‘bay’ at Amarna was emphasized by a series of monumental stelae, which marked the city limits. Sixteen of these stelae – carved into the face of the surrounding cliffs themselves – are known today. They were carved in the king’s regnal years 5, 6 and 8 in two versions known as the ‘Earlier Proclamation’ and the ‘Later Proclamation’, right at the beginning of Akhenaten’s activities at Amarna. Although the boundary stela itself was not a new concept – stelae are known marking the extent of Egypt’s empire in the early 18th Dynasty, and the boundaries between different nomes during the Middle Kingdom – the idea of a ring of stelae marking the boundaries of an individual city is unique to Amarna. The stelae are useful in a number of ways.

First, they show us what Akhenaten intended to be the boundaries of the domain of the Aten at Akhetaten: the eastern stelae are carved into the desert cliffs only a few kilometres east of the central city, and use the same rock face as the elite tombs of Akhenaten’s courtiers, but the western stelae are much more distant.

Now, as for Akhetaten, starting from the southern stela of Akhetaten as far as the northern stela, measured between stela to stela on the eastern mountain of Akhetaten, it makes 6 iteru, 1¾ rods, 4 cubits.

Similarly, starting from the southwestern stela of Akhetaten to the northwestern stela upon the western mountain of Akhetaten, it makes exactly 6 iteru, 1¾ rods, 4 cubits six iteru one and three-quarter rods and four cubits.

The best known of the stelae is that at the site of Tihna el-Gebel, one of the desert cemeteries of the city of el-Ashmunein, indicating that this important ancient city of Middle Egypt and its agricultural hinterland were seen as part of a ‘Greater Akhetaten’, totalling 200 square km (77 sq. miles) in area.

As to the interior of the four stelae, starting with eastern mountain of Akhetaten as far as the western mountain of Akhetaten, it is Akhetaten in its entirety. It belongs to my Father, the Aten … consisting of hills, flatlands, marshes, new lands, basin lands, fresh lands, fields, waters, towns, banks, people, herds, orchards and everything that the Aten, my father, has made and caused them to come into existence forever and ever.

Secondly, the stelae provide a commentary on the founding of the city itself. Their extensive texts, composed by Akhenaten, describe his desire to find a new site for his god, and his unwavering intention (he specifically states that he will not let anyone – even his wife Nefertiti – dissuade him from this purpose) to build a city there:

Now, it is the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it, namely Akhetaten. No official ever advised me concerning it, nor any of the people who are in the entire land ever advised me concerning it, to tell me a plan for making Akhetaten in this distant place. It was the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it, so that it might be made for Him as Akhetaten.

It is a remarkable insight into Akhenaten’s mindset – the relationship between king and god as the main driver in the deployment of the resources of the world’s richest empire. It is ironic that Akhenaten had inherited that empire from his father Amenhotep III, a king who had done as much as any to embellish the Amun-focused landscape of Thebes.

Thirdly, and most usefully here, the Amarna boundary stelae provide an exceptional amount of detail in describing the buildings of Akhetaten itself. They can be seen as a statement of intent by Akhenaten for the creation of a new city, down to the detail of individual structures. Looking over the city itself, they are also an invitation to compare what Akhenaten says he will build with what he actually built. It has to be said that his record in bringing this building schedule to completion is an impressive one. Selected extracts from the boundary stelae provide a sense of what were considered to be the core buildings of the new city:

I shall make the ‘House of the Aten’ for the Aten….

I shall make the ‘Mansion of the Aten’ for the Aten….

I shall make the ‘Sunshade of the Great King’s Wife [Nefertiti]’ for the Aten….

I shall make the ‘House of Rejoicing’ for the Aten, my father, in the island of ‘The Aten, Distinguished of Jubilees’….

I shall make the ‘House of Rejoicing in Akhetaten’ for the Aten, my father, in the island of ‘The Aten, Distinguished of Jubilees’….

I shall make for myself the apartments of Pharaoh … and I shall make the apartments of the Great King’s Wife in Akhetaten.

Let there be made for me a tomb in the eastern mountain….

Let the burial of the Great King’s Wife Nefertiti be made in it….

Let the burial of the King’s Daughter, Meritaten, be made in it….

Let a cemetery be made for the Mnevis Bull in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten….

Let the tombs of the Greatest of Seers, of the God’s Fathers of the Aten and the … of the Aten be made in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten….

Let the tombs of the priests(?) of the Aten be made in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten….

It is obvious that the ‘prospectus’ for the new city carved on the boundary stelae is deeply concerned with describing the provision that will be made for the king, his immediate family, the god Aten and those religious officials who were to be involved with the cult of the Aten. It is equally obvious that it utterly ignores the needs of the vast majority of the population of Amarna, people who would have been moved (possibly unwillingly) from their homes to inhabit the new city.

Reconstruction drawing of Boundary Stela ‘N’, from the cliffs to the south of the city of Akhetaten (Amarna). Flanking the stela, and also cut from the desert cliffs, are statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their eldest daughters, Meritaten and Meketaten. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

The City of the Aten

It is possible to identify most of the places mentioned in the boundary stelae with actual buildings at Amarna, with a good deal of accuracy.

The ‘House of the Aten’ (Per-Iten) is the Great Temple of the Aten, which dominated the north part of the central city. The ‘Mansion of the Aten’ (Hwt-Iten) is the smaller Aten temple (which has been identified as Akhenaten’s mortuary temple) to the south of the King’s House. The ‘Sunshade’ (Shwt-Ra) of Nefertiti is not known, although other sunshade temples for royal women are, including the Maru-Aten (for Akhenaten’s secondary wife Kiya then his daughter Meritaten) in the southern part of the city. The two structures called ‘House of Rejoicing’ (Per-Hay) are more difficult to identify, with possibilities being parts of larger buildings such as the ‘House of the Aten’ or perhaps the Great Palace itself.

The location of the ‘apartments’ (Perytu) of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are also uncertain. They might be the King’s House and the harem area in the Central City, but they might also refer to the more generally accepted residences of the King and Queen in the North Riverside Palace and the North Palace. More likely, the reference is deliberately vague, as Akhenaten’s plans for his own domestic arrangements in Year 5 were less well formulated than those for the main religious structures (including tombs) at the site.

The tomb of Akhenaten himself was completed in a wadi to the east of the city, just as he says in the boundary stelae, but no separate tomb were completed (or at least none has yet been discovered) for Nefertiti, Meritaten and the Mnevis bull, although other tombs were planned and begun in the area of the king’s tomb. More substantial are the tombs of the elite priesthood at Amarna who, along with other high-ranking members of Akhenaten’s court, were given rock-cut tombs high in the cliffs overlooking the city. These tombs also have an important contribution to make in our understanding of Akhetaten.

Tombs and the City

Superficially, the elite private tombs at Amarna were not unlike similar tombs at Thebes. However, their interior decoration was significantly different. Private tombs of the 18th Dynasty at Thebes and in other regional cemeteries had as their main decorative theme the life-experience of the tombowner, particularly emphasizing how his activities were so important that they attracted the notice and favour of the king. Similar tombs at Amarna demoted the tombowner from main actor to spectator, specifically a spectator of royal activity within the physical context of Amarna itself. Wall decoration in these tombs often consisted of huge undivided scenes covering an entire wall, and the major themes of this decoration were, first, the relationship between the royal family and the Aten, secondly the city of Akhetaten itself and, last but certainly not least, the tombowner himself.

Model of the Per-Iten, ‘House of the Aten’, the main temple at Akhetaten. The temple building is based on a series of pylon gateways and open courtyards, but the most striking feature are the vast rows of small offering tables outside the central building. Model and photo by Eastwood Cook; concept by Mallinson Architects.

Closeness to the king can be indicated here by showing the tombowner as an observer or a minor participant in royal activities such as chariot-processions by Akhenaten, the royal family being blessed by the life-giving rays of the Aten or scenes of the arrival of foreigners to bring tribute to Akhenaten. The very best that the tombowner could hope for was to appear as a tiny figure being rewarded by the king with some piece of jewelry thrown down from the ‘Window of Appearance’. Although this inability to show himself as the dominant figure in his tomb-paintings may have been unsatisfactory for the tombowner, the fact that we have instead many images of a wider urban context is very helpful for our understanding of the appearance of buildings at Amarna. If the boundary stelae identify the most important structures at Amarna, and archaeology has provided many of their groundplans, illustrations within the elite private tombs of Amarna give a good sense of how these now-destroyed buildings appeared in their heyday.

The ways in which the royal family related to these core elements of Akhetaten – its monumental heart – are central to these depictions. They also include a further major part of the city, the great royal road (the ‘Sikket es-Sultan’), which linked the main royal residence of the North Riverside Palace to the Central City and which served as the route of royal chariot processions depicted on the walls of the Amarna private tombs.

Depictions of the Great Temple of the Aten are standard in these tombs, often in great detail. In the tomb of Meryre the whole of one wall is covered with a composite set of images that show the temple and the nearby King’s House. Ancillary buildings include temple storerooms (and their contents), granaries, gardens, cattle in their stalls and boats on a quayside. A more detailed depiction of the harbour at Amarna is shown in the tomb of May. Perhaps the most informative rendition of the temple itself is that from the tomb of Panehesy where the individual pylon gateways, courtyards and offering-stands lead towards the central altar of the god Aten.

Although the formal agenda of these scenes is clear enough – they are a form of propaganda emphasizing the reliance that even the elite of Amarna had on the King and the Aten, manifest in the ‘Horizon of the Aten’ – some have an undeniable charm when the images of the city are populated by figures of its inhabitants. Perhaps the most appealing of these are the scenes of the royal harem in the tomb of Ay, where doorkeepers, servants and the women themselves are shown going about their daily business.

This depiction of a banquet comes from the Amarna tomb of Huy, steward of Queen Tiye. On the right is Tiye herself and on the left her son Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters. Huy himself is the tiny figure at Tiye’s feet. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

The Heart of the City

The buildings described in the boundary stelae and depicted in the private tombs comprise most of the elements of Akhetaten that were important to the king – the monumental heart of the Central City. This core area was organized for the convenience of the king and his god, down to such details as the bridge that crossed the royal road to allow the royal family to pass from the ceremonial venue of the Great Palace to the city apartments of the so-called King’s House. Other, non-ceremonial buildings in the Central City included administrative departments, most famously the ‘Office for the Correspondence of Pharaoh’, which produced the ‘Amarna Letters’ – the filed correspondence from foreign rulers that allows us to reconstruct foreign affairs during the Amarna Period in some detail.

The Noble Villa

Houses at Amarna came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some bear comparison with similar structures at other sites – the parallels between the workmen’s villages at Deir el-Medina and at Amarna have already been discussed. Royal palaces are also found at other sites, although not in such quantity and variety at a single location as at Amarna. But the most important single contribution Amarna has made to our understanding of houses and how they were used in ancient Egypt is in its villas – the residences of the elite – which are not known from any other site. This is not to say that such residences did not exist elsewhere, because it is easy to imagine the outskirts of Memphis, Thebes or a whole range of other towns and cities having such magnificent dwellings, particularly as they are often shown on the walls of the tombs of their New Kingdom owners. Indeed we have already come across a description of such a luxurious elite villa as described in the Ramesside Papyrus Lansing.

But how does this vision compare to the reality of the Amarna villa? The first thing to note is that, among the Amarna villas excavated to date, there is no single blueprint for how such a structure should appear – personal choice and the dictates of expense and space give each one its own individual character. However, there are a number of elements that are common to these houses and these are listed below. They can be identified on the groundplans of two examples of Amarna villas, that belonging to General Ramose (P47.19) in the North Suburb, and that of the ‘Overseer of Work’ Hatiay (T34.1) in the North Suburb.

1 A short entrance stairway leading to two entrance rooms (‘porter’s lodge’), whose position and doorways make the person entering the house double back on themselves into…

2 A long, columned room, which might have been open on its exterior wall, allowing cool breezes to enter this (north-facing) loggia, making a pleasant shaded area. The central inner wall of this loggia has a doorway leading to…

3 The central living room. A square room, usually the largest in the house, provided with pillars, supported a roof that was probably higher than that of surrounding rooms in order to let light and air enter via clerestory windows. These rooms were often provided with limestone stands for waterjars – possibly indicating washing associated with entertaining guests for dinner. The necessity of providing a water-resistant area for the splashing of water in a house primarily made of unfired mudbrick is obvious. Several rooms opened off this central room, including…

4 Relatively large living-room-like spaces whose purpose is much debated. They have been identified as an office for the householder or as a place that was specifically reserved for female members of the household. It is more likely that no single purpose was invariably assigned to such rooms, but that they were available space that could be used flexibly based on the individual demands of individual households.

5 At least one (master?) bedroom, identifiable by its private, inner location within the house, and also by its distinctive raised bed platform.

6 A bathroom, identifiable by its specific facilities, including a toilet stall and a limestone shower tray.

7 Smaller rooms, probably too small for human activity, but useful as storage areas within the main house.

8 Stairs leading to the roof. The use of roof space is difficult to assess, given the poor state of preservation of most of these Amarna houses.

Aerial view looking westwards over the central part of the city of Akhetaten. The distinctive rectangular building in the centre left is the Small Aten Temple. The road running north–south near the cultivation is the course of the ancient royal road, and the remains of the Great Palace can be seen on the far side of the road near the trees. Photo G. Owen.

The grounds of these villas were filled with a variety of facilities. The largest villas possessed a shrine, probably for the worship of the royal family, in its own grounds, and sometimes with a separate entrance from that of the main villa. Another unsurprising element within the grounds was a garden, but one capable of growing fruit and vegetables as well as flowers. Water supply was a crucial issue, and self-sufficiency via a well was a major asset. Further aspects of food production and storage were served by a series of domed granaries, averaging 2.5 metres (just over 8 ft) in diameter, sometimes replaced for more substantial quantities of grain by long, vaulted chambers similar to those found in the storage areas of temples of the same period. Animal sheds can be identified by their mangers and stone tethering posts, while a kitchen area was dominated by clay ovens for the baking of bread – the main staple.

The Villa in Pictures

Although we have been referring to this house type as the ‘Amarna Villa’, it is likely to have been a relatively common form of elite house throughout the New Kingdom. At Thebes especially there are illustrations of large houses within New Kingdom tombs and although the conventions of Egyptian art make these illustrations difficult to interpret, it is likely that they represent Amarna-style houses. The simplest of these illustrations include the house of the well-known early 18th-Dynasty architect Ineni. The image of his house from his tomb shows, in elevation, a house set within walled grounds, whose garden includes trees. Although the perimeter wall bars our view of the lower part of the house, the visible upper parts show either the high windows of a tall, single-storey residence or, perhaps more likely, the upper floor of a two-storey house.

Plan of the villa belonging to the Overseer of Works Hatiay. The plan is that of the original excavators, as is the identification of the function of individual rooms. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

Illustrations of large houses also appear on Amarna Period talatat-blocks recovered at Karnak. These blocks have been used by French Egyptologist Claude Traunecker to reconstruct the houses they depict, presumably built at Thebes early in the Amarna Period. Traunecker’s reconstructions are remarkably similar to the groundplans of the Villas at Amarna, further suggesting that this was a well-known and well-used house type in New Kingdom Egypt.

More complicated is the depiction of the house of Djehutynefer from his tomb at Thebes. Although this illustration appears to be a cut-away elevation of a tall, multi-storey house, it is more likely to be the result of the creation of a composite drawing where the interior of each room is faithfully rendered, but with no attempt to give a realistic overview of the whole house. Most attempts to reconstruct the house based on a (to us) more faithful depiction of the proper relationship of individual parts of the house have produced something very Amarna Villa-like, except that the activities of each room (from the weaving sheds to the living room, via servants moving around the house) are populated with images of people going about their daily tasks.

The Suburbs

Most of the elite villas were located within two residential areas, usually referred to as the North and South ‘Suburbs’, although they are located much closer to the central city than the term suburbs usually implies. Together, these two areas housed up to 90 per cent of the total population of Amarna (which has been estimated to have been anything from 20,000–50,000).

The South Suburb was the earliest major residential area within Amarna and came to cover over 1.5 sq. km (⅔ sq. mile) and contain well in excess of 2,000 individual houses. It was not physically separate from the Central City, but merged into it. This area included workshops as well as houses, most famously that of the chief sculptor Thutmose, which was found to contain the famous bust of Nefertiti when it was excavated by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. The most notable residents here – usually identified by inscriptions on the stone doorframes of the largely mudbrick houses – include High Priests Pawah and Panehesy (whose tomb is one of those that has been excavated in the necropolis), Vizier Nakht and General Ramose.

The houses in the South Suburb display what British archaeologist Ian Shaw has referred to as ‘an intricate patchwork of production and consumption, involving individual families and neighbourhoods specialising in particular forms of manufacture.’ However, as we have seen, the redistribution of the main food staple, grain, was carried out from large houses to small ones.

Unlike the South Suburb, the North Suburb was clearly detached from the Central City, and has the appearance of a coherent residential area. It was founded later than the South Suburb, and is significantly smaller; although it has suffered from later natural and human damage, it is likely that it contained about 600 houses. The only one of these houses that can be assigned to an important official is that belonging to the ‘Overseer of Work’ Hatiay. A number of scholars who have excavated at, or worked on material from, the North Suburb – including Henri Frankfort, John Pendlebury and Ian Shaw – have suggested that this district can be divided into a series of ‘Quarters’, each with its own distinct character. This character was originally suggested by architecturally identifiable ‘clusters’ of houses, but was later refined by an examination of the artifacts they contained. Examples of this characterization include the high incidence of bronze tools in the northern quarter of the North Suburb (including the house of the Overseer of Works Hatiay), leading to the suggestion that this neighbourhood specialized in woodworking. In contrast, the western side of the North Suburb produced a high number of hooks and other fish-related objects – perhaps this was a district of fishermen.

A further ‘suburb’ can be identified at the northern part of the Amarna bay, where the royal road leads to a cluster of structures that seem to constitute a ‘royal suburb’. These buildings include the North Palace, the North Riverside Palace, the North City and the North Administrative Building. Together these make up a sort of extended royal compound that housed the royal family and those court officials who were especially close to the family.

This pig-pen (left) and mixing trough (right) are evidence of the reality of everyday life in the Amarna Workmen’s Village. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

The End of Amarna

One of the many remarkable features of Amarna is the briefness of its occupation. With the death of Akhenaten in his Year 17 the ‘Amarna Experiment’ came to an end and the short reigns of his successors Smenkhkare and Tutankhaten/amun saw a shift back to both traditional forms of official religious orientation and more traditional sites of royal activity, especially Thebes and Memphis. The only part of Amarna that seems to have been occupied in the following Ramesside Period was the River Temple – part of a much larger building at the southern end of the site, which appears to have been the base for the workers involved in demolishing the stone buildings at Amarna so that the limestone blocks could be used elsewhere.

This aerial photograph of part of the North Suburb of Amarna was taken in 1935, when some of the detail of the houses excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society between 1926 and 30 was still visible. It gives a good sense of the extent and density of housing in this part of the ancient city. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

The limestone gateway erected by Amenemhat II, is one of the few parts of the Middle Kingdom temple complex of the god Thoth to have survived the later remodellings of the sacred area at Hermopolis Magna. Steven Snape.

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