A Pharaoh Goes Too Far

1390 BCE

Some great thinkers are years ahead of their time, whereas others are millennia ahead of theirs. Pharaoh Akhenaten proved to be the latter when he took on Egypt’s most powerful icons, the gods. Had he succeeded, the world might have experienced a large-scale movement of monotheism a thousand years before the Hebrew Bible was written. Instead, his overzealous tendencies virtually buried his newfound faith. This was a time when the pharaoh was considered a god, so it took a lot of effort for the Egyptian’s living god and messenger to the other gods to alienate almost his entire population, but somehow Akhenaten managed to do just that.

Akhenaten inherited a vast empire when he came to power in 1390 BCE. His father, Amunhotep III, set up diplomatic relations with the surrounding kingdoms and created an era of peace and tranquility. This golden age in Egyptian history gave rise to the cult of Amun-Ra, who was praised above all other gods because he brought great abundance to the Fertile Crescent. As Amun-Ra’s status increased, so did that of his priests. They controlled one-third of the country’s wealth and soon became as powerful as the pharaoh himself. Amunhotep must have recognized the threat because he started showing interest in the god Aten, and when the pharaoh favors a god, the people generally follow suit. This is probably just what Amunhotep hoped for. Whatever his plan, he would not see it come to light. When he died in 1352 BCE, Akhenaten took up the reins under the name Amunhotep IV; however, in just a few short years, he turned the Egyptian world on its ear.

The first noticeable change that occurred after the succession came in the form of art. Depictions of the royal family at this time have a surprisingly realistic look. The pharaoh and his wife, Nefertiti, were shown with full, shapely bellies and thin torsos. They were also seen playing with the royal children and kissing them. In every way, she was shown to be his equal. Compared to modern times when members of royal households have their own talk shows and presidents spend nights on late-night talk-show circuits, this seems rather minuscule. But in ancient Egypt, this was sheer vulgarity.

This was only the beginning. Next, the pharaoh changed his name from Amunhotep, meaning “Amun is satisfied,” to Akhenaten, meaning “one who is beneficial to Aten.” This slap in the face to the priests of Amun-Ra was a direct challenge. Akhenaten began closing the temples to Amun and redistributing funds given to them by the government. Like the priests who said only they could communicate to Amun-Ra, the pharaoh said he was the son of Aten and had a direct line of communication with him. He went one step further by abandoning the old gods and declaring that Aten was the only god. The plural form of the word “god” was no longer used. Put in perspective, this would be like today’s Congress passing a law forbidding people to watch television.

These drastic changes were still not enough for the new pharaoh to ensure power over the people. The priests of Amun retained significant influence in the capital city of Thebes, so Akhenaten undermined them even more by moving the capital to a more remote location in the desert. He called his new capital Akhetaten, meaning “the horizon of the sun.” Tens of thousands of people were expected to make the move to what must have seemed like a wasteland. Mass building projects began almost immediately. The new city would have all the amenities: palaces, lakes, and, most important, the temple to Aten. Much of the country’s resources were tied up in new building projects. In fact, so much of Akhenaten’s efforts went into building his new city that he forgot the importance of maintaining the good relations that his father established with the neighboring countries. Lines of communications and diplomacy were all but broken.

In the twelfth year of Akhenaten’s reign, tragedy struck. His beloved Nefertiti suddenly disappeared from all records. The reason for this is a bit of a mystery, but what is known is that Akhenaten launched a full-scale war against Amun-Ra and his priests. He tried to eradicate all traces of the name Amun. He even went so far as to defile his father’s name by scratching out the “Amun” from Amunhotep. All his energies turned toward the destruction of Amun. Akhenaten began to neglect the needs and will of his own people. The country slowly began to spiral downward. Blame for this was laid on Akhenaten for angering Amun-Ra, but the jilted god soon had his revenge. In 1336 BCE, Akhenaten died, leaving his nine-year-old son, Tutenaten, as his successor. People began to flee back to Thebes in droves, and all construction at the new capital city stopped.

Immediately after Akhenaten’s death, the priests of Amun-Ra reestablished their dominance in the community. Then they went to work on the young pharaoh. Gaining control over the naive leader proved to be an easy task. They pressed him into changing his name to Tutankamun, meaning “the image of Amun.” Tutankamun then issued a statement, under the “guidance” of the priests, faulting his father for Egypt’s decline. Akhenaten was declared a heretic. All images of him and his queen were defaced or destroyed, and the capital city was knocked down stone by stone. The name of Akhenaten was erased from Egyptian history and his father’s god, Aten, was reduced to a minor status.

Akhenaten’s dream of monotheism through the god Aten never came to fruition. By pushing his new religion too strongly, Akhenaten guaranteed its failure. Had he been a better and wiser pharaoh, this might not have been the case. Certainly a thousand years later another monotheistic religion that was introduced from the bottom up and against great resistance, Christianity, joined Judaism as a monotheistic faith.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. How, you ask, do we know anything about Akhenaten? The answer lies in the very stones used to build the city of Akhetaten. These small stones, called talatat, were much smaller than the ones used to build the pyramids. They could be easily transported, allowing building projects to progress at a faster rate than before. Unfortunately, they could also be destroyed with the same swiftness. After dismantling the abandoned city, workers used these same talatat as filler for buildings in Thebes. As a result of being able to study the stones and even reconstruct sections of the original walls they came from, we now know more about Akhenaten’s dynasty than perhaps any other Egyptian dynasty. But the stones were not the only thing uncovered by modern archaeologists. In 1922, Howard Carter made the discovery that has yet to be matched, the tomb of the boy king, Tutankamun. Hidden in the glory of the magnificent riches hung a depiction of King Tutankamun and his wife. Etched in pure gold, the king and his wife stand basking in the rays of the sun god, Aten.

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