Ancient History & Civilisation



IN THE ANNALS OF ANCIENT EGYPT, ONE FIGURE PROMPTS MORE COMMENT and speculation than any other. He attracts admiration and loathing in equal measure. From romantic novelists to opera composers, few have been able to resist his allure. In his relatively brief lifetime he changed Egypt utterly; yet his dramatic reforms were hurriedly reversed after his death. He took the institution of divine monarchy to new heights; yet he was never expected to rule. He is Akhenaten, the heretic king (1353–1336), the most controversial and enigmatic of pharaohs, the instigator of a royal revolution. His seventeen-year reign and the tumltuous decade that followed were perhaps the most exhilarating, uncertain, dynamic, and bizarre period in Egyptian history. At its heart was the king’s own radical vision, which, if it had survived, would have changed not just the history of ancient Egypt but, perhaps, the very future of humanity.

For much of Amenhotep III’s glorious reign, the heir apparent was Prince Thutmose, the king’s eldest son, named, following royal tradition, after his grandfather and great-great-grandfather. Of the second son, Prince Amenhotep (as he was then named), little is known until Prince Thutmose’s untimely death, an event that propelled his younger brother into the position of crown prince. Thutmose left few monuments other than a stone sarcophagus lovingly carved for his pet cat. By contrast, his brother’s determination would transform Egypt in less than a generation.

The new heir to the throne must have witnessed firsthand his father’s spectacular sed festivals, and they’d clearly had a profound effect on him. Their dazzling solar imagery, in particular, seems to have burned itself into the young man’s fertile imagination. If notions of radical theology had begun to form in Amenhotep’s mind, there is no evidence of them at the beginning of his reign. Instead, having succeeded as Amenhotep IV, he did what was expected of a pious son and completed the decoration of his father’s great entrance gateway at Ipetsut. He added his own reliefs, in suitably traditional style, showing him smiting the enemies of Egypt. In Nubia, he founded a new town, just as his father had, with a temple dedicated to Amun-Ra, king of the gods. From distant Cyprus, the king of Alashiya wrote to congratulate Amenhotep IV on his accession, sending him a jar of “sweet oil” as a coronation gift.1 Everything seemed set fair for another glorious reign in the familiar dynastic mold. Egypt’s imperial possessions paid suitable homage, too. A particularly obsequious letter arrived from the vassal ruler of Tyre, full of the usual sycophantic formulations:

I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, seven and seven times. I am the dirt beneath the sandals of the king, my lord. My lord is the sun who comes forth over all lands day by day.2

Such sentiments seem to have given Amenhotep IV ideas. Within a year of becoming king, he showed his true colors, with a construction program to rival his father’s. The sandstone quarries at Gebel el-Silsila went into overdrive, manned by record levels of conscript labor that the king raised through a nationwide call-up. Colossal edifices bursting at the seams with royal statuary were nothing new, of course, and Thebes had become well accustomed to monumental building during the last decade of Amenhotep III’s reign. But Amenhotep IV had something alternative in mind. His projects would be focused at a single site, the temple of Ipetsut—not inside the sacred enclosure but outside its eastern wall, on a vacant mudflat. The choice of location, beyond the domain of Amun-Ra and facing the sunrise, was quite deliberate. For Amenhotep’s eight new monuments at Ipetsut were to be dedicated not to its usual incumbent but to the Aten, the visible orb of the sun, whose imagery his father had adopted at the time of his first jubilee. Reflecting this theological shift, the grandest project was a temple named Gempaaten (Gem-pa-Aten, “the Aten is found”), and it was quite as ambitious as anything Thebes had witnessed in the previous reign. At its heart was a vast open court lined with a colonnade. Against the pillars stood twenty-foot-high statues of Amenhotep IV and his wife, Nefertiti, each carved from a single block of sandstone. Their distinctive crowns—the double crown or a twin-plumed headdress for the king, a flat-topped crown for his consort—identified them as Atum, Shu, and Tefnut, the original triad of creator gods according to the ancient myth of Iunu. Where Amenhotep III had stressed his sunlike role in maintaining the universe, his son wished to be associated with the very act of creation.

This fundamentalist theology found startling expression, too, in the appearance of Amenhotep IV’s statuary. To emphasize his oneness with the creator, embodying both masculine and feminine attributes, and at the same time to underline his separateness from the rest of humanity, the king ordered his sculptors to instigate a radical change in the mode of representation. Every aspect of the king’s face and body was deliberately distorted: the head was unnaturally elongated with angular and attenuated features including slit eyes, a long nose, and a prominent chin; a long, sinewy neck and prominent collarbones dominated a narrow upper torso, which contrasted with a distended belly and broad hips; plump legs ended in spindly calves. The overall effect, especially when multiplied over and over again at a colossal scale in the harsh, raking light of the open court, was both frightening and surreal. In a further twist, the statues were emblazoned at strategic points (neck, upper and lower arms, waist) with plaques bearing a pair of royal names, but instead of identifying the king, as might have been expected, they proclaimed the newly invented titulary of the Aten, the monarch’s favorite god. Under Amenhotep III, the king had become the solar orb; under his son, the solar orb had become king. Amenhotep IV was declaring nothing less than a co-regency, with himself and the sun god as joint sovereigns. In the abundant reliefs that decorated the Gempaaten, the royal family was invariably shown in the presence of the Aten, depicted no longer as the traditional falcon-headed man but in abstract form as a solar orb with rays ending in human hands, caressing and bringing life to the royal family.

The ultimate purpose of Amenhotep IV’s entire building program at Gempaaten, like his father’s constructions at Malkata, was to provide a grand architectural setting for the celebration of a royal jubilee. Amenhotep IV held his own sed festival in the third year of his reign, maintaining the frequency established by his father’s jubilees. In so doing, he was clearly signaling that his father’s reign had not really ended. The inscriptions emphasized that the sed festival was not so much the king’s as the Aten’s. It was a radical but entirely logical development of Amenhotep III’s theology: the old king had become the solar orb and, as such, would continue to reign for all eternity, endlessly repeating jubilees stage-managed for him by his son, Amenhotep IV. The sed festival at Ipetsut thus marked not a culmination but the beginning of a brave new world. Sun god and king would reign together, re-creating the world anew each day.

Colossal statue of Amenhotep IV from Ipetsut (modern Karnak)   WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

The jubilee celebrations also pointed the way to a new future for Egyptian religious life as a whole. Gone were the traditional processions of the gods. In their place, the king and other members of the royal family were the focus of attention and reverence as they traveled each day in state from palace to temple and back again, cheering crowds and dignitaries lining the route. A year after the sed festival at Gempaaten, the king set the seal on his new theology by changing his own name, an act of the greatest symbolic power. While many a previous ruler had changed his throne name to signify a new direction, it was highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a king to change the name he had been given at birth. Through the power of the jubilee, Amenhotep IV believed he had been reborn to new life as co-regent of the Aten. In place of Amenhotep, “Amun is content,” he would henceforth be known as Akhenaten, “effective for the Aten.” (Similarly, his wife, Nefertiti, added an epithet to her name, to become Neferneferuaten, “beauteous are the beauties of the Aten.”)


SO PUBLIC A REJECTION OF THE AMUN CULT MUST HAVE SAT UNEASILY with the king’s continued patronage of Thebes, city of Amun par excellence. To be sure, the Gempaaten and the other Aten temples stood outside the sacred precinct of Ipetsut, but the center of Amun worship was still too close for comfort. Amun’s monuments on both banks of the Nile dominated the skyline and were a constant reminder of his hegemony over all other cults. If the Aten were to be truly magnified above all other deities, he would need his own domain, his own city, a place where the solar orb (and his son) could reign supreme. The search was on for a new royal capital.

Akhenaten’s chosen location was nothing short of inspired. (Indeed, he claimed to have been led there by the Aten.) In Middle Egypt, roughly halfway between the great religious center of Thebes and the traditional administrative capital of Memphis, there was a spot where the towering limestone cliffs forming the east bank of the Nile receded to form a desert embayment, some seven miles long and three miles wide. It was secluded, easily defensible, and conveniently served by a broad expanse of fertile floodplain on the opposite bank. Most important of all, it was virgin territory, previously unoccupied and unclaimed by any other cult. Even the landscape seemed tailor-made for the king’s beliefs, the shape of the eastern cliffs forming the hieroglyph for “horizon,” the place where the sun rose each morning to bring new life to the world. It was indeed Akhet-Aten, the “horizon of the orb,” and the perfect setting for Akhenaten to realize his utopian vision.

In the late spring of his fifth year on the throne, 1349, the king paid his first formal visit to the site (modern Amarna). Appearing in front of his assembled courtiers on an electrum-plated chariot, dazzling like the sun itself, he issued the decree establishing his new city. After making a spectacular open-air offering to the Aten in front of the cliffs, he declared that Akhetaten would belong to his god forever, as his monument “with an eternal and everlasting name.”3 Not even Nefertiti would be able to shake his determination to realize his dream:

Nor shall the king’s great wife say to me, “Look, there is a good place for Akhetaten elsewhere,” nor shall I listen to her.4

The king further decreed that his model city would contain a suite of principal buildings for the worship of the Aten and the glorification of the royal family. And Akhetaten, not Thebes, would be the king’s eternal resting place:

If I die in any town of the north, the south, the west, or the east in these millions of years, let me be brought back so that I may be buried in Akhetaten.5

The whole ceremony and the details of the king’s decree were recorded for posterity on three massive tableaux cut into the cliffs at the northern and southern limits of the site and adorned with statues of the king and queen.

Exactly a year later, Akhenaten paid a second visit to inspect progress. After spending the night in a carpeted tent (called “Aten is content”), he once again rode out at sunrise in a golden chariot, made another great offering to his god, and swore an oath by the Aten and by the lives of his wife and daughters that everything in Akhetaten would belong to the Aten and no other, forever. This second decree, establishing the city limits more precisely, was duly carved into a further set of thirteen boundary markers on both banks of the Nile. Construction of the city itself stepped up a pace, too, helped by vast quantities of stone that were transported from a huge quarry cut into the northern cliffs. Stone “bricks” of a standard size (one cubit by half a cubit), small enough to be handled by a single workman, made for rapid building. Two years of feverish activity later and the city was ready to welcome the royal family to their permanent home.

As Akhenaten had intended, “the horizon of the Aten” was carefully laid out to give prominence to the major public buildings. These were linked by the Royal Road, which ran parallel to the Nile and formed the capital’s ceremonial backbone. The king’s daily chariot ride from the royal residence to the seat of government and back again deliberately recalled the path of the Aten through the heavens, signaling the close connection between celestial and earthly co-regents. It also gave the city and its inhabitants a regular, ritual focus, replacing the religious festivals of old, which the king’s new theology had consigned to oblivion.

The principal royal residence was located at the northernmost edge of Akhetaten, hemmed in between the cliffs and the riverbank, a site chosen as much for security as for aesthetic appeal. As well as the palace itself, set within a fortified enclosure, with extensive barracks for guards, there was a large administrative building and a group of impressive mansions for the king’s closest advisers.

As the king traveled south each morning, his chariot accompanied by running platoons of soldiers and police—and, no doubt, flunkies trying hard to keep up—his journey took him first past a separate harem palace for the women of the royal family. Richly decorated with painted murals and gilded stonework, it was a haven of luxury and tranquility. In its central courtyard there were gorgeous formal gardens, kept watered from the river by a sophisticated irrigation system, while stalls for cattle and domesticated antelope provided the palace with the finest meats on a daily basis.

Beyond this royal enclave began the city proper, and we may imagine the king’s cavalcade speeding up as it passed the homes of ordinary mortals. A northern suburb, one of two main residential quarters, spread eastward from the Royal Road. Akhenaten’s formal planning code evidently did not extend beyond the principal public buildings, for the houses of his subjects were arranged higgledy-piggledy. Large villas belonging to wealthy merchants were surrounded by the smaller houses of dependents, a maze of side streets and back alleys adding to the villagelike atmosphere. The neighborhoods were noisy and bustling, and constituted a more or less permanent building site as new dwellings were erected.

Continuing southward along the Royal Road, the king’s chariot procession finally entered the central city, the religious and administrative heart of Akhetaten. The largest building of all was the House of the Aten, the god’s principal place of worship, with a street frontage of 750 feet and stretching back almost half a mile. Beyond its two massive entrance towers stood vast open courts, filled with mud brick altars. On festival days, these would be piled high with fruit, vegetables, meat, and poultry, offerings to be consumed by the Aten as he passed overhead. Extensive food production facilities and a dedicated slaughterhouse inside the temple kept the altars well stocked.

Next to the temple was the “king’s house,” Akhenaten’s “office,” where the business of government was carried out. One of its most prominent features was a balcony for the royal family’s public appearances. A covered bridge led over the Royal Road to the Great Palace, the largest residential building in the entire city, with an area of nearly four acres. Principally a setting for grand state receptions and royal ceremonies, the Great Palace also included offices and quarters for members of the royal household. At its center was a massive open courtyard flanked by colossal statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the better to impress visiting ambassadors. The sense of fear and wonder was further heightened by the floor decoration. The main route used by the king had a plastered pavement painted with images of foreigners. This allowed Akhenaten to trample his enemies underfoot as he went about his state business—“the unselfconscious trumpeting of official brutality.”6

The final major building in the central city was the Mansion of the Aten, a smaller temple designed for the royal family’s daily worship. Aligned with the cleft in the hills that led to the royal tomb, it perhaps also took the place of a traditional mortuary temple. In common with the House of the Aten, its architecture was dominated by open courts—to allow the worship of the visible sun—with a sequence of ramps, steps, and balustrades instead of closed rooms to divide up the sacred space. Akhenaten’s new religion had spawned a new architectural vocabulary.

A further residential suburb, dominated by the houses of ordinary workers and beyond the area usually frequented by the king, marked the southern end of the main built-up area. But, on the outskirts of the city, five large ritual complexes, each dedicated to a prominent female member of the royal family, ensured a permanent and highly visible royal presence whichever way the inhabitants turned. In his new “sun city,” Akhenaten was omnipresent as well as omnipotent.


IN ONE SENSE, AKHENATEN’S FUNDAMENTALIST THEOLOGY HAD BEEN foreshadowed by his father’s apotheosis. It was but a short and logical step from Amenhotep III’s celebration of solar power to his son’s exclusive exultation of sunlight itself. It is even possible that Akhenaten regarded the Aten as his real as well as his spiritual father—Amenhotep III in deified form. However, in many important respects, Akhenaten’s doctrine was entirely unprecedented and radically at odds with the previous seventeen centuries of ancient Egyptian religious tradition. While kings of the past had stressed their role in upholding maat (truth, justice, and created order), Akhenaten professed to live on maat like the gods themselves. Truth no longer had an existence independent of the king’s actions: it was, by definition, whatever he wanted it to be. Traditional rituals of royal renewal, notably the sed and Opet festivals, had emphasized the one-off rejuvenation of the king, until the next such occasion. Akhenaten’s sed festival at Ipetsut (when he was still Amenhotep IV) had had an entirely different agenda, signifying the permanent rejuvenation of the king and the entire cosmos. Through the co-regency of the Aten and the king, the world had been taken back to its pristine state immediately following the moment of creation. Akhenaten’s universe enjoyed (or suffered) daily re-creation, reflecting the daily rebirth of the sun itself, under the beneficent guidance of the divine triad, namely the Aten, the king, and his consort.

If the dogma was rarefied, the implications were stark. A deity whose power was transmitted through its rays, through light itself, would have no use for an enclosed, hidden sanctuary—such as had been built for gods and goddesses since the dawn of civilization. Worship of the Aten demanded open-air temples, filled with tables piled high with offerings for the god’s direct consumption. Indeed, the entire city of Akhetaten was one great temple to the Aten, since the visible sun could be observed and worshipped overhead at any time of day. This is more than hinted at by the “royal name” given to the Aten at the time of “his” jubilee (1351). Although written inside the classic cartouche (oval name ring) used by kings, the “name” was, rather, a heavily abbreviated statement of the new creed:

Live! Ra-Horus-of-the-two-horizons who rejoices on the horizon in his name of light, which is the Aten.

Just as Akhenaten took the role of Light (the god Shu), so the king’s new city, Akhetaten, “the horizon of the Aten,” was the place where the Aten rejoiced—god, king, and holy city in perfect unison.

Although, in theory, the Aten needed no temples and no priesthood (the king being the god’s sole interlocutor), in practice Akhenaten could not devote himself to worship—much as he may have wished to—every hour of every day. After all, he was head of state as well as prophet of a new religion. So, in a nod to previous practice, he appointed a high priest of the Aten shortly after taking up residence at Akhetaten. Meryra, “beloved of Ra,” seems to have come from nowhere, or at least took pains to ensure that his previous career and background remained hidden. Like most of Akhenaten’s inner circle, he probably owed everything to the king. That way, his loyalty was guaranteed. His formal installation as high priest took place at the king’s house in the central city. Akhenaten and Nefertiti, accompanied by their eldest daughter, Meritaten, appeared at the royal balcony, which had been decorated for the occasion with a richly embroidered cushion. Wearing a long white gown and a decorative sash, and attended by members of his household, Meryra entered the royal presence and knelt before the king while official scribes recorded every aspect of the proceedings. (Even under Akhenaten, Egypt had not lost its obsession with record keeping.) Behind the pen pushers were the baton wielders, ready to swing into action at the least sign of trouble. Police, like scribes, were an everyday feature of life at Akhetaten. With a formal declaration, the king confirmed Meryra’s appointment to universal acclamation. When the hubbub had subsided, Meryra made his own brief speech of acceptance: “Numerous are the rewards that the Aten knows to give, pleasing his heart.”7 It was a model of concision and piety. His friends then raised him up shoulder-high and bore him from the palace.

The other high point of Meryra’s career, some years later, was his investiture with the “gold of honor,” the ultimate accolade for a loyal servant. Once the king had heaped gold collars around the high priest’s neck, everyone present had to listen, attentive and enraptured, while Akhenaten gave a long, verbose, stilted, and legalistic speech. With its ritualized setting and choreographed moves, Meryra’s installation as high priest brings us face-to-face with a style of royal audience that has changed little in three and a half thousand years. His subsequent investiture offers a similar reminder that the world of despots and their cringing lackeys follows an equally time-honored pattern.

At about the same time as Meryra’s appointment to the high priesthood, the king began to promulgate a more elaborate statement of his faith. It was referred to, rather chillingly, as the Teaching. It used the vernacular language of the day rather than the classical forms of yore, and was probably composed by the king himself. The Great Hymn to the Aten, to give it its formal name, has been called “one of the most significant and splendid pieces of poetry to survive from the pre-Homeric world.”8 It is certainly a masterpiece, its rapturous tone and exultant imagery of the creator’s power exerting a profound influence on later religious authors, not least the Jewish psalmists. Its careful reproduction in the tombs of Akhenaten’s high officials, as a public gesture of loyalty to the regime, ensured its survival, and it merits quoting at length. Nothing better captures the unbridled joy (Akhenaten’s joy, at least) of the king’s new religion.

You shine forth in beauty on the horizon of heaven,

O living Aten, the creator of life!

When you rise on the eastern horizon,

You fill every land with your beauty.

Beautiful, great, dazzling,

High over every land,

Your rays encompass the lands

To the limit of all that you have made.…

The earth is bright when you rise on the horizon,

And shine as Aten of the daytime.

You dispel the darkness

When you send out your rays.

The Two Lands are in festival …

All the herds are at peace in their pastures,

Trees and plants grow green,

Birds fly up from their nests …

Fish in the river leap in your presence,

Your rays are in the midst of the sea.…

How manifold are your deeds,

Though hidden from sight.

Sole god, apart from whom there is no other,

You created the earth according to your desire, when you were alone.

All people, cattle, and flocks,

All upon earth that walk on legs,

All on high that fly with wings …

Your rays nurse every pasture;

When you rise, they live and prosper for you.

You made the seasons to foster everything of your making—

Winter to cool them, heat that they might taste you.9

The hymn’s emphasis on the richness and abundance of creation found visible expression in the gorgeous painted walls, ceilings, and floors of the royal palaces. But they were a far cry from the experience of ordinary people, even in Akhenaten’s new model city. Cheek by jowl with the grand palaces and temples, the poor citizens of Akhetaten lived short, hard lives. Their bones tell of poor diets, high stress, and physical hardship. Some did irreparable damage to their spines by carrying heavy burdens on a daily basis. Others squatted or knelt all day on mud floors, toiling over crucibles of molten metal or glass in the city’s workshops. Inadequately fed in childhood, and mocking the mountains of food laid out for the Aten, men and women alike were physically stunted and prone to debilitating conditions such as anemia. More than half the population died while still in their late teens, and only a few survived into their forties. Most were dead by thirty-five. Buried in shallow pits dug directly into the sand, with only a pile of stones for a memorial, they were laid to rest with a few cheap pots and perhaps a couple of pieces of old jewelry. It was a world away from the official dogma of life, light, and beauty. Little wonder, perhaps, that Akhenaten’s lowlier subjects continued to put their trust in the traditional gods, even under the noses of the king’s thought police. In the safety of humble dwellings, much-loved deities such as Hathor, Bes, Taweret, and even Amun still had a place.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this continued adherence to the old cults, Akhenaten’s doctrine turned ever more fundamentalist. In the early years of his reign, when the court was still based at Thebes, it was evidently acceptable for a royal butler to include prayers to Osiris and Anubis in his tomb. But after the move to Akhetaten, the Aten was swiftly elevated from supreme god to sole god. No others would be recognized or tolerated. The king’s vision would be imposed on the rest of society. Priests found themselves deposed or reassigned and their temples were closed, and all resources were redirected to the Aten cult. The high-water mark of Akhenaten’s puritanical fervor was signaled in the eleventh year of his reign, 1341, when the doctrine of the Aten was officially “cleansed,” to remove all references to gods other than Aten or Ra—even gods, such as Horus-of-the-two-horizons and Shu, who were themselves solar deities.

This purification of the Aten cult was accompanied by the active proscription of other deities, especially the now hated Amun, whom the Aten had supplanted as supreme creator. To wipe their names from history, Akhenaten launched a systematic program of state-sponsored iconoclasm. Throughout the country, from the marshlands of the delta to the distant reaches of Nubia, armies of the king’s henchmen broke open tomb chapels and burst into temples to deface the sacred texts and images. Armed with chisels and cue cards (reference cards that illustrated for illiterate workmen the phrases to be expunged from monuments), they shinnied up obelisks to hack out the figures and names of Amun-Ra. Personal names that included the element “Amun” or “Mut” were also targeted, even though they included Akhenaten’s own father (Amenhotep III) and grandmother (Mutemwia). The officially sanctioned desecration extended even to the plural form of the word “god.” Terrorized by the king’s cultural revolution, individuals scrambled to protect themselves, subjecting treasured personal possessions to self-censorship and changing their own names to escape the iconoclasts’ wrath. An army scribe called Ptah-mose hurriedly became Ra-mose; the priest Mery-neith became Mery-ra—and only felt safe readopting his original name after Akhenaten’s death. To much of the population, the orgy of vandalism must have felt like the ritual murder of their most cherished hopes and beliefs.

Yet the king remained unshakeable, his Teaching crystal clear. Not only was the Aten the sole god, but the only path to salvation lay through Akhenaten (throne name Neferkheperura) and the members of his family:

There is none other who knows you,

Only your son, Neferkheperura, sole one of Ra.

You have informed him of your plans and your might.

Everyone who has passed by since you founded the earth,

You have raised them for your son,

The one who has come from your body,

The dual king who lives on truth, the lord of the Two Lands,

Neferkheperura, sole one of Ra,

The son of Ra who lives on truth, the lord of diadems,

Akhenaten, whose life is long;

And the king’s great wife, whom he loves,

The lady of the Two Lands,

Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, living and youthful forever and ever.10

Never before had the institution of monarchy been elevated to such an absolute position.


THE CLOSING LINES OF THE GREAT HYMN TO THE ATEN (ABOVE) ILLUSTRATE one of the most striking elements of Akhenaten’s entire revolution—the unprecedented prominence given to his wife. In one sense, Nefertiti was merely following in the footsteps of her Eighteenth Dynasty forebears. From Tetisheri, Ahhotep, and Ahmose-Nefertari to Hatshepsut, royal women had grown accustomed to playing an important role in the affairs of state. Tiye had taken this one step further, engaging in her own correspondence with foreign rulers and appearing side by side with Amenhotep III as the female counterpart to his male divinity. But Nefertiti broke new ground from the outset. At Ipetsut, she had been granted her own temple, the Mansion of the Benben, where her husband (then still Amenhotep IV) was not even depicted. She was shown carrying out ritual actions previously restricted to the king, such as smiting a bound captive or inspecting prisoners. On the boundary stelae commissioned to mark the first anniversary of the royal couple’s visit to Akhetaten, Nefertiti is shown at the same scale as the king, which denoted her equal rank. Akhe-naten’s accompanying panegyric further underlines her exalted status:

Great in the palace, fair of face, adorned with the twin plumes, lady of joy who receives praises; one rejoices at the hearing of her voice, the king’s great wife whom he loves, the lady of the Two Lands.11

Every public gesture made by Akhenaten to signal his devotion to the Aten was mirrored by a gesture from Nefertiti. When he changed his name from Amenhotep, she added an epithet to hers. While Akhe-naten was the living incarnation of Shu, the son of the creator, Nefertiti was Tefnut, his consort. She adopted the goddess’s distinctive flat-topped headdress as her own, and made it the public symbol of her authority. In the tomb of Nefertiti’s high steward, the royal couple are shown side by side, their images almost entirely overlapping. In some eyes, at least, Nefertiti and Akhenaten were as one, joint rulers on earth with the Aten in heaven.

The intimacy of their relationship was made a central tenet of Akhenaten’s new doctrine, publicized in statuary and reliefs throughout the city. In one scene, the couple hold hands during an official ceremony, in another Nefertiti sits on her husband’s lap as she ties a bead collar around his neck. A fragment of temple relief even shows Akhe-naten and Nefertiti getting into bed together. The couple’s daughters, too, were brought into the approved iconography. By the time they had been at Amarna for two years, Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters. (Akhenaten also had at least one son, born of a minor wife, but the son was notably excluded from the official record, the female principle being all-important.) A famous stela shows the king and queen relaxing at home with their three eldest daughters. Akhenaten cradles and kisses Meritaten; Meketaten sits on her mother’s knee, gesturing toward her father; and little Ankhesenpaaten pulls at Nefertiti’s earring. It was unprecedented even to acknowledge, let alone publicize, such expressions of affection and emotion among members of the royal family.

The reason for this radical departure from tradition was the royal family’s new role in Egyptian religion, for it had become a holy family, supplanting the traditional groupings of deities. The royal chariot drive into the central city had taken the place of the gods’ processions. Statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti had replaced images of deities. Since the cult of Aten was an exclusive religion, revealed only to Akhenaten and his family, ordinary citizens wishing to obtain blessings from the solar orb had to worship its representatives on earth as intermediaries. In the tombs of favored officials, cut into the cliffs ringing Akhetaten, worship of the king sublimated individual personalities. The offering formula was no longer addressed to Osiris, god of the dead, but to the king, and occasionally to Nefertiti as well. The only eternal existence now on offer was to bask in the Aten’s rays during the day, to receive a share of offerings from the temple, and to return to one’s tomb at night, watched over by Akhenaten. It was a chilling prospect.

Residents of Akhetaten even kept statues and images of the royal family in their household shrines. The size of one’s shrine—some were akin to miniature temples—was a public measure of one’s loyalty to the regime, every bit as important a status symbol as a well, granary, or garden. And for the humble citizens barred from the Aten’s formal temples, there was at least one public place of worship in the central city … a chapel of the king’s statue.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Not everyone shared this unbridled devotion to the king and all his works. Tantalizing references from the first set of boundary stelae suggest dissent may have erupted in the early years of the reign. Akhe-naten’s radical policies must have aroused deep unpopularity among certain sections of the population, and the fear of insurgency haunted his regime. Loyal officials warned potential dissidents of the king’s determination to root them out: “As soon as he rises, he exerts his power against the one who ignores his teachings.”12 Yet even within his new city, the king’s personal safety was clearly a major preoccupation, and Akhetaten crawled with security. As well as the police force, there were the soldiers and “heads of the army who stand in the presence of His Majesty.”13An armed escort, bristling with spears, accompanied Akhenaten on his daily chariot ride into the city. An entire block behind the king’s house was devoted to barracks for paramilitary forces, and there were additional outposts throughout the city. A complex network of tracks crisscrossing the plain allowed systematic policing of the desert behind Akhetaten. Visible by night as well as day, these routes for military chariots facilitated round-the-clock security. The barren wastes of the Eastern Desert provided a ready hiding place for outlaws, and the police were all too aware of dissidents “who would join those of the desert hills.”14

Roving police patrols monitored the royal residence from high on the plateau above, while the sheer cliffs behind the palace were virtually impossible to scale or descend easily. Like other despots throughout history, Akhenaten relied heavily on the loyalty of his security personnel, not least his chief of police. Mahu, in common with all the king’s top officials, owed everything to royal patronage and was at constant pains to demonstrate his devotion. He had the walls of his tomb inscribed with no fewer than four copies of the Hymn to the Aten, the official creed of Akhenaten’s new religion. Mahu’s public expressions of faithfulness in the presence of his monarch were models of sycophancy. However, in such an atmosphere of paranoia, even an archloyalist was not given unfettered control of royal security. The king also had his own elite bodyguard that included foreign soldiers, perhaps less likely to harbor a grudge against the pharaoh. Senior members of the administration, too, may have been drawn from foreign families. The vizier Aper-El, the king’s chief physician Pentu, and the royal chamberlain Tutu may all have been of non-Egyptian descent.

Despite being gods on earth and the sole path to salvation, the royal family nonetheless had to look far afield for unquestioned loyalty.

The final public appearance of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and all six princesses was a magnificent durbar held in 1342, in the twelfth year of the king’s reign. Seated together under a sun shade (for a long, hot spectacle in the open air, comfort came before dogma—for the royal family, at least), they watched as lines of foreign dignitaries paraded before them with exotic gifts, symbolizing the king’s sunlike dominion over all lands. As the official record of the event put it,

Appearance of the dual king Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra and the king’s great wife, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, upon the great palanquin of electrum to receive the tribute of Syria and Kush, the west and the east, every foreign land assembled on one occasion, even the islands in the midst of the sea, presenting tribute to the king.15

Not that every foreign ruler was impressed with this characteristic display of Egyptian one-upmanship. In a strongly worded letter to Akhe-naten, King Asshuruballit of Assyria complained, “Why should [my] messengers be made to stay constantly out in the sun and die in the sun?”16 How ungrateful of the Assyrian ambassador to resent such unstinting exposure to the Aten’s life-giving rays.…


DIVINE FAVOR HAD ITS LIMITS. THE DELEGATES HAD BARELY LEFT Akhetaten before tragedy struck the royal family. Akhenaten’s second daughter, Meketaten, died at the tender age of seven, followed not long afterward by the king’s beloved mother, Tiye. Both were interred, as Akhenaten had decreed, in the royal tomb carved into the hillside in a lonely desert valley on the eastern horizon, eight miles beyond the city. Graphic scenes of mourning capture the mood of the grief-stricken relatives.

A mother’s tears for her dead child are the final image we have of Nefertiti at Akhetaten, for she disappears from the record immediately afterward. Perhaps the same calamity that had carried off her mother-in-law and daughter took her as well. Or perhaps the intimations of mortality that now descended upon Akhenaten prompted a radical reevaluation of his wife’s status. It may be no coincidence that Nefertiti’s disappearance was soon followed by the appointment of a (human) co-regent, to reign alongside Akhenaten. The name of this new co-ruler was none other than Neferneferuaten, the first element in Nefertiti’s titulary. The queen, it seems, had become king. Who better, who more reliable, to carry on Akhenaten’s revolution than its co-instigator and co-beneficiary?

Akhenaten died after the autumn grape harvest of 1336, in the seventeenth year of his reign. He was laid to rest in the royal tomb, accompanied by revealing grave goods. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that his chosen heirloom was a one-thousand-year-old stone bowl inscribed for Khafra, the builder of the Great Sphinx (mother of all solar monuments). Less predictable were the shabti figurines inscribed for Akhe-naten himself, to serve him in the model of an afterlife that his religion fiercely eschewed. Even religious fanatics, it seems, are prone to deathbed doubts. Akhenaten’s body was placed in a stone sarcophagus protected at its four corners not by the four funerary goddesses but by figures of his beloved Nefertiti.

His wife would indeed guard his body, but not his legacy. Graffiti in a Theban tomb, dated to the third year of Neferneferuaten, seem to indicate the beginnings of a rapprochement with the old Amun priesthood—perhaps even the reopening of a temple to Amun in the god’s old heartland. Before Akhenaten’s body was even cold in its grave, his exclusive cult of the dazzling Aten had begun to fade.

The death of Akhenaten plunged the court and the country into turmoil. Those who owed everything to his patronage—men such as Meryra and Mahu—must have wished devoutly for his revolution, or at least his regime, to continue. Others, including members of the powerful Amun priesthood, who had patiently bided their time while his zealotry ran its course, saw the chance for a return to the old orthodoxy. The royal family, too, seems to have been riven by doubt. An ephemeral ruler named Smenkhkara—perhaps a son of Akhenaten’s of whom we are otherwise unaware; more likely Nefertiti in her third incarnation, as sole king—claimed the throne for the briefest of periods (1333–1332), supported by Meritaten, now elevated to the role of king’s great wife. But reactionary forces were growing in strength and looked to the coming generation for a suitable candidate, someone with the legitimacy of royal blood but young enough to do their bidding. Shielded from public gaze for most of his life, Akhenaten’s nine-year-old son by a minor wife seemed ideal. His (hastily arranged?) marriage to Nefertiti’s “heir,” her third daughter, Ankhesenpaaten, only strengthened his claim. Courtiers, priests, and the influential army officers all agreed—it had to be the boy. His name: Tutankhaten, “the living image of the Aten.”

Within months, the powers behind the throne of the new child pharaoh had set Egypt on the path back to tradition. Under their careful guidance, the king agreed to change his name, thus publically renouncing the Aten in favor of Amun. History had come full circle. Tut-ankhaten thus became Tutankhamun; his wife Ankhesenpaaten became Ankhesenamun (“she lives for Amun”). Next, a great restoration decree was issued in the king’s name—though its wording has his mentors’ fingerprints all over it—from the traditional capital of Memphis. It excoriated Akhenaten’s policies, without mentioning the disgraced ruler by name:

When His Majesty became king, the temples of the gods and goddesses from Abu to the delta marshes … had fallen into ruin. Their shrines had fallen into decay, having become mounds thick with weeds.… The land was in distress; the gods had abandoned this land. If armies were sent to the Near East to widen the borders of Egypt, they had no success. If one made supplication to a god for protection, he did not come at all.17

The language of the decree made pointed reference to the “gods” in the plural, and the new king’s actions matched his words. Immediate measures included the restoration of the temples, paying special attention to the cult centers of Amun-Ra; the reinstatement of their priesthoods; and the dedication of new cult statues (paid for by the royal treasury), all so that Tutankhamun could be said to have “rebuilt what was ruined … and driven away chaos throughout the Two Lands.”18 The court’s abandonment of Akhetaten and the return to Thebes set the seal on the return of the ancien régime. To mark this complete break with his father’s vision, the boy king, like other reunifiers before him, took the highly symbolic epithet “repeater of births.” His reign would not be a re-creation like Akhenaten’s but a renaissance.

So much early promise, so cruelly cut short. Before he was even out of his teens, Tutankhamun followed his father to the grave in 1322. Perhaps he had secretly harbored designs to restore Akhenaten’s reputation, once he’d reached his majority and could rule by himself. Perhaps the real powers in the land were afraid of just such an outcome, and took desperate steps to prevent it. Or perhaps the boy king, physically never very strong, simply met the same fate as most of his subjects: an early death from natural causes. His child bride had tried to perpetuate the royal line, but her tender age and the narrow gene pool of a brother-sister marriage had resulted in miscarriage. Two stillborn daughters were lovingly mummified and interred beside their father in his hastily prepared tomb in the Valley of the Kings, to await their rediscovery—together with the rest of Tutankhamun’s burial treasure—3,244 years later.

Tutankhamun’s grieving widow knew the dreadful fate that the courtiers had in store for her. She was the last surviving descendant of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, of Amenhotep III and his ancestors. She held the keys to the throne of Egypt. In a final, desperate act, she wrote an extraordinary begging letter to the king of the Hittites. She pleaded with him to send one of his sons to Egypt, to marry her and rule beside her. She explained, “Never shall I take a servant of mine and make him my husband!”19 The Hittite king was astonished, telling his courtiers, “Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my entire life!”20 Eventually, he relented and sent a prince southward, bound for Memphis. But Prince Zannanza never arrived, having died—or having been murdered—en route. Ankhesenamun’s worst nightmare came to pass, and she had to endure a forced marriage to a superannuated courtier, a man old enough to be her grandfather, with his eyes on the throne. Her duty done, she too disappeared from the scene, fate unknown.

So died the Thutmoside royal line, one of the most glorious dynasties ever to rule Egypt, progenitor of great conquerors and dazzling rulers. The glory days of Amenhotep III seemed but a distant memory. Defeated abroad and dejected at home, what Egypt needed to restore its confidence and luster—although its long-suffering populace might have disagreed—was decisive leadership. As it happened, there was one institution in the country and one man at its head who could provide just that.

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