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Akhenaten (1353–1336 BC), whose name means “he who praises Aten,” was an 18th dynasty king and philosopher who changed his name from Amenhotep, meaning “Amen is satisfied.” Although he was not the first African philosopher, no other thinker of the ancient period was as significant as Akhenaten in establishing a persona that has reverberated through the ages. None of the earlier philosophers such as Imhotep, Merikare, Duauf, or Amenemhat left the enduring reputation for creativity as did Akhenaten. Yet this popularity has been questioned by numerous African scholars and can best be viewed by examining an array of facts surrounding the life and times of Akhenaten. This entry outlines the religious and political contexts in which Akhenaten arose, discusses his reign, and looks at what happened to his work after his death.

Amen and His City

During the 18th dynasty in the Upper Egyptian city of Waset, called Thebes by the Greeks, the god Amen was supreme. No god had dominated the ancient land as Amen did; his name would ring eternally through the ages as Amen and sometimes in combination with Ra as Amen-Ra. Indeed, the 18th dynasty of Kemet, named Egypt by the Greeks, was the Age of Amen's supremacy. Any god raised up against the might of Amen would surely be struck down. Any scribe, sesbesb, or, more precipitously, Per-aa, Great House, called pbaraob by the Hebrews, who dared to question the predominance of Amen would find himself or herself resigned to the margins of Kemetic history and assaulted by 1,000 defenders of the Hidden One.
In the city of Amen, called Waset, the spoils of 100 war victories swelled the coffers of the Almighty and made God Amen all-powerful, in fact, incalculably awesome. Thus, Amen was also wealthy, the richest of any deity the world had ever known. Avenues of sphinxes, grand pylons of massive stones, decorated the city of God. Treasures from foreign capitals, including gold from the kingdoms of Nubia, timber from
Assyria, and spices from Punt, elevated Amen as paramount king of all the gods, the god of gods. So great and foreboding was he that neither the Per-aa nor the high priest could lay claim to this bounty. It had not been won in the service of mere humans; the wealth of Amen was the precious treasure won in service to the Hidden One.
There were no gold or silver coins in Egypt, one of the few civilizations that grew to maturity without metal coinage. But the temporal possessions of Amen were immeasurable. Donations of real estate, boats, vineyards, and livestock from the people of Kemet were constant and an indication of the popularity of the Supreme God, Amen, during the 18th dynasty.
But even Amen, as powerful as he was in the inner sanctum of his mighty temple, could not run his own operations from his hidden domain. Here even a God needed people, clerical and administrative, to hear the word of God and to do his bidding among humans, to carry out his rituals, to punish the disobedient, and to receive his gifts. It was also necessary to have people to manage the increasing stores of goods being shipped daily into the treasures of Amen. As mighty as he was from on high, Amen depended on a company of priests to carry out his will.
Imagine what numbers of functionaries must have been employed to run this large operation. The complexity and comprehensiveness of the priesthood of Amen had no equal among the major deities of Kemet at this time. In fact, some of the deities, such as Maat, had no priesthood at all. Every day more than 3,000 functionaries went to work at the Temple of Amen. As Waset grew in importance, made so by the ceaseless energy of the 18th dynasty kings, so did the significance of the worship of Amen.
Therefore, Waset's energy and dynamism created the spiritual and religious contexts that would exist for most of the 18th dynasty. This was part of the context of the king who was born Amenhotep IV. Perhaps no period in Egyptian history was as glorious as this, and even the glories of the next dynasty, the Ramsessid, dominated by the greatest king in Kemet's history, Ramses II, would be judged by the standards of the 18th dynasty.
File:AR Akhenaten img 0.jpg
Circa 1350 BC, King Akhenaten and his Queen Nefertiti worship Aten or Aton, the Sun God. Originally named Amenhotep IV, the king changed his name to Akhenaten (“Glory of Aten”), whom he worshipped as the one true god. Source: Getty Images.

The Ahmosian Family

Amenhotep IV would mark out his territory in the history of the period as if he knew precisely what he had to do to establish a singular personality in the impressive lineage of Ahmose, Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III, Queen Tiye, Tuthmoses I, Tuthmoses II, Hatshepsut (Maat Ka Ra), and Tuthmoses III. Already by the time of his accession to the throne, he would be in the company of men and women who were larger than life. They had been the sponsors of God Amen, and their victories had been the victories of Amen. The Ahmosian family of the 18th dynasty was every bit the family of Amen as the Windsors are the family of the Christian God or the Saudis are the family of Allah.
Ahmose the Liberator had opened a new era in the Nile Valley when, in 1560 BC, he expelled the Hekar Khasut, usually called Hyksos, from all positions of power and reestablished an indigenous Egyptian dynasty over the entire country. Ahmose and his successors created at Waset, called Thebes by the Greeks, one of the greatest cities in antiquity. Here the shrine to Amen, in the holy of holies, erected by Senursert I (1971–1925 BC) and called Ipet sut, most select of places, stood as the centerpiece of a spiritual and architectural revival coinciding with the liberation of the land. To the south was the shrine of Ipet-rs'it, the southern select place, also dedicated to Amen. Across the Nile River to the west was the massive mortuary temple of Mentuhotep I (2061–2011 BC) adjacent to the spot where Hatshepsut's temple would later be built. To the north lay the tombs of the Antefs, ancestors of Mentuhotep. Waset, the city, took its place alongside the city, Men-nefer, called Memphis by the Greeks, and the city of On, named by the Greeks Heliopolis, as one of the ruling cities of Egypt.
The Wasetian kings went about their business increasing the importance of their native city. Today, the evidence remains quite clear of the grandeur of the ancient city as more than one third of all of the existing major monuments from the antiquity are within 40 miles of the city, now called Luxor.
But the glory of the 18th dynasty was not achieved without effort. The modeling of the 18th dynasty was in many ways the work of Tuthmoses I (1525–1514 BC), Tuthmoses III (1504–1451 BC), Hatshepsut (1502–1483 BC), and Amenhotep II. The first of these personalities conceived an empire, the second made the conquest to create the empire, the third established imperial diplomacy, and the fourth nearly lost the empire. But even so, Amenhotep II (1453–1426 BC) was perhaps the first king in African history born with an empire ready for his use. He exhibited a flamboyantly imperialistic attitude toward his neighbors, often ridiculing those he defeated in batde.

Amenhotep II

Comparing himself to his father Tuthmoses III, perhaps the greatest conquering leader of the ancient world, Amenhotep II claimed to have “entered his northern garden” and took his bow and shot four targets of Asiatic copper while riding in his chariot. The text says that he appeared on his chariot like Montu in his power. He took his bow, grabbed a fistful of arrows, and drove north, shooting at each one of the targets like the bold Montu in his regalia. He hit every one of the targets. Supposedly, “It was a deed never seen before.” In reality, his father Tuthmoses III is said to have done deeds so marvelous and numerous that they are too many to be mentioned. According to a text, Tuthmoses III shot seven lions in the space of a moment and bagged 12 wild bulls in 1 hour. That his son would compare himself with his father demonstrates the level of Amenhotep IPs confidence in his own reign.
Although Men-nefer remained a place where the kings held residence, by the third year of his reign, Amenhotep II had already begun to turn his face toward permanently establishing Waset as the seat of his power. This was the source of the best soldiers in the Egyptian army, a convenient place for recruiting Nubian archers, the famed Ta-Seti fighters. Furthermore, Waset was deeper into Egypt than Men-nefer and could more easily be protected from outsiders.

Amenhotep III

By the time of Amenhotep III, the legacy of his conquering ancestors had spread throughout the known world. He created a court proverbial for its elegance and luxury. Amenhotep III was truly the Dazzling Sun Disk, the Sun-King, as he called himself. He was king of kings, ruler of rulers, Heru par excellence, and he who created the foundations of the land. Never before had the world seen such absolute power, such audacious authority, such exuberant wealth, and so much elegance as Amenhotep III assembled at Waset in the name of service to the God Amen. It would be about 1,500 years later and the time of the Roman cae-sars before this type of accumulation in the name of conquest would be seen again.
Amenhotep III married a young commoner named Tiye. She was the daughter of Tuya and Yuya. Her father, Yuya, was a lieutenant general of chariotry in the Egyptian army. Tiye became, notwithstanding her ordinary origin, the Great King's wife, the head of all of the king's spouses, and one of the greatest power wielders in Egypt's history. She would ultimately be the wife of a king, the mother of a king, the aunt of a queen, and the grandmother of a king. Her titles multiplied during her lifetime. She was the heiress, greatly praised, mistress of all lands who clings to the king, lady of rejoicing, mistress of upper and lower Kemet, and lady of the two lands.
The beautiful Tiye was queen at the height of Egypt's power. Its boundaries of influence stretched from central Sudan to northwest Iraq. Her husband, Amenhotep III, was no stranger to the ladies of those lands, marrying Babylonian, Nubian, Mitannian, and Syrian princesses. Although he may have been kept busy making children or counting children, it would only be the six children of Tiye, the great king's wife, who were targeted for the succession. Four were girls and two were boys.
The oldest girl, Sat-Amen, seemed to be her father's favorite, and you could almost hear him say during this most patriarchal of ages, “I wish she had been a boy.” She had the spunk, intelligence, wit, matter of factness, understanding, personal strength, and insight that he wished for his boys. Soon Amenhotep III elevated her to the rank of the great king's wife like her mother, giving her authority and influence in the inner circle of the kingship. The eldest boy, Tuthmoses, had been slated for the kingship, but, soon after being elevated to the rank of priest of Ptah at Men-nefer, he died and the way was prepared for Amenhotep IV to become king of Kemet.

Amenhotep TV in Ascendancy

Thus, in the fifth month (January 1377) of what had been the 38th year of the reign of Amenhotep III, his second son, Amenhotep IV, ascended the great Heru seat as the Per-aa of Egypt, becoming the holder of the throne of the living king of kings, lord of lords, ruler of rulers, mighty in power, given life, health, and stability for ever and ever. His coronation name would be Neferkbeperura, that is, the transformations of Ra are beautiful. He would add the epithet wa-n-ra (unique one of Ra) to the coronation name. He would take the nesut bity name as king of upper and lower Kemet.
Amenhotep IV, following his father, was crowned at Karnak, the chief place of the God Amen, which means that he was not in open revolt against the priesthood of Amen at the time of his coronation. However, shortly afterward, Amenhotep IV began the gradual process of replacing Amen with images of the deity Aten in the construction of temples and chapels. The so-called talatat blocks, decorated with a lively artistic style, began to define the early technique of the artisans of Amenhotep IV A graffiti at Aswan written by Bek, the chief sculptor for Amenhotep IV, claimed that the king taught them the new, realistic technique. The 12,000 talatat blocks that the Franco-Egyptian Center for the Karnak Temples extracted from the demolished ninth pylon set up by Horemhab give us the best example of Amenhotep IV's art style for the few years he was in Karnak.

The Transformation of the King

Already by the second year into his reign, the king was questioning the norms of art, religion, and philosophy of the society. The king looked to his first jubilee when he would display his prowess and show that he was still fit to lead. In his second year, the idea of an sd festival crystallized in his mind, and Amenhotep IV, moving rapidly, wanted to set the time to coincide with his third anniversary of accession to the throne. The repairs and decorations that he completed during this early period would eventually be eradicated or his name eliminated.
This was perhaps the beginning of the real heresy of Amenhotep IV. The jubilee was never celebrated in the third year; it was normally celebrated in the 30th year of a king's reign. To break this tradition meant that the king could break any tradition. Of course, the king knew what others did not know at the time: that was he was planning his move to a new capital. He called his sculptors around him and ordered Bek, the son and successor of his father's chief sculptor Men, to begin the construction for the sd festival.
Four major structures were to be erected: Gm-(t)-p3-itn Gemti pa Aton (The Sun-disk is found), bwt-bnbn huut benben (the Mansion of the ben-ben-stone), Rwd-mnw-n-itn-r-nbb ruud menu n Aton r neheh (Sturdy are the monuments of the Sun-disk forever), and Tni-mnw-n-itn-r-nbb teni menu n Aton r neheh (Exalted are the monuments of the Sun-disk forever). Although these buildings were mentioned time and time again, their purposes were not disclosed, and they are nowhere described in detail as far as I know. Nevertheless, references to the sun disk appear in the early instructions.

A New God and a New City

Waset was becoming quite uncomfortable for the king by his fourth year. During that year, he visited a site he claims was “revealed by the Aten himself” and he called it Akhentaten, “the horizon of the sun-disk.” Amenhotep IV laid out the city with 14 boundary stelae, 11 on the east and 3 on the west. This was to be a new Waset, perhaps even with certain elements of old On, a new Heliopolis, because he had built a private royal necropolis and a cemetery to the Mnevis bull.
Imagine what it must have been like when Amenhotep IV, named after his famous forebears, announced that he was abandoning Amen and elevating the priesthood of Aten as the national religion. What terror was struck in the heart of the Amen priesthood? What confusion existed in the vast bureaucracy at Waset that had been increasing in size since the days of Ahmose? What would this official pronouncement mean to the keepers of the sacred place, the holy of holies? Did the king know what he was doing? Had he lost his mind? Was he really an Egyptian? How would the royal bureaucrats at Men-nefer and Waset take this sudden change in their status?
Such massive transformation called for a new title for the king: He proclaimed his new name on the inscription on the boundary stelae on the east at Akhentaten. He changed his Heru name from “Mighty bull, tall of feathers,” which was too closely connected to the previous kings of Waset, to “Mighty bull, beloved of the Aten.” His Two Ladies name, “Great of kingship on Ipet-sut,” became “Great of kingship in Akhetaten,” and his Golden Heru name was changed from “He who uplifts his diadems in southern On” to “He who uplifts the name of the Aten.” He kept his coronation name, but changed Amenhotep to Akhenaten, meaning “he who praises Aten,” thus completing a universal overhaul of his theological existence by comprehensively replacing Amen with Aten.
When Akhenaten took the royal authority to the new town of Akhetaten, he did not take with him the old religious authority. He took with him the royal court, and chief among his advisors were his mother, Queen Tiye, and his wife, Nefertiti. The mansion of the benben stone in Waset was given over to scenes of Nefertiti's dominance over the enemies of Egypt, but yet she is never mentioned in the diplomatic correspondences of the king. Her influence declines noticeably in the public record at Akhetaten. His daughters and his mother are mentioned frequently, and she may have been separated from her husband given the fact that one of her daughters, Meritaten, appears to have taken the ceremonial place alongside the king and later married Smenkhara who succeeded Akhenaten as king at Akhetaten.
It is good to remember what the king had left behind in the glorious city of Waset. Although Amenhotep IV did not particularly care for the high priests Her or Suti, he was in many ways a child of Ipet-sut more than he was of any other temple or place. The death of his father, Amenhotep III, coincided with the maturity of the great temple of Amen at Karnak. An entourage coming down the river from the Temple of Mut and turning into the canal leading to the great temple could see a monumental entry with the pylon of Amenhotep on one side and farther south constructions built by Hatshepsut.
There were other edifices built by Amenhotep III, including chapels to Montu and Mut, indicating his love for Amen and his dedication to the temple complex. Every king wanted to honor Amen, Mut, or Khonsu at this place above all other places. Even Amenhotep IV, on his accession, had found a single obelisk in a workshed, neglected for 25 years, since the death of Thutmose III, and had it decorated and dedicated to Ra-Harakhty. In addition, he continued work on the two pylons erected but not completed by his father, Amenhotep III.

His Impact and Legacy

What Akhenaten did may not have been a revolutionary change, nor was it some new revelation in religion. Musicians and poets may have been influenced by Akhenaten's contemplations during the Akhetaten period; certainly Egypt had a history of philosophical and artistic responses to national political developments. The society was not nearly as static as some early scholars had contended.
Indeed, powerful movements have always affected the social, architectural, and artistic life of a society. Take the impact of Akhenaten's Great Hymn to Aten. Some compare it to Psalm 104 in the Bible. There are similarities in structure and style. But the significance of Akhenaten's hymns must be in the known drama of his transformation, that is, whereas Ra, the Almighty God, was identified with the sun, Akhenaten reaches for a new solarization based on a common ground of religious experimentation started in the Middle Kingdom.
It is excessive to speak of Akhenaten as creating monotheism. Amenhotep IV chose to worship the visible aspects of the sun, whereas Ra, represented by the more invisible power of the sun, had been seen as the Almighty much longer.

The Words of the Philosopher

So what is meant by these words from the tomb of Ay, where Akhenaten says of Aten:
“How great are your deeds,
Though hidden from sight,
Only God beside whom there is none other!”
Or when he says,
“You alone, shining in your form of living Aten,
Risen, radiant, distant, near.
You made millions of forms from yourself alone.”
Or when we read,
“You are in my heart,
There is no other who knows you,
Only your son, Neferkheperaru, unique one of Ra,
Whom you have taught your ways and your might.”
Few scholars would make the claim today that Akhenaten was the “father of monotheism.” The fact is that there is no such person, male or female. The originality of Akhenaten must be found in the turning of the rays of the sun into a physical reality. He gave the world a creator who had physical hands that reached within the range of humanity. Indeed, he had Aten's name placed in a shenu, cartouche, like that of earthly kings. The image was easy to understand, and he did not have to rely on a trained clergy to teach people about the everyday fact of the sun disk and its rays. It could be seen with a person's own eyes. Accordingly, Aten provided humans with an immediate appreciation of the divine, in contrast to Amen, who was hidden.

The Last Years of His Reign

In the last 3 years of his reign, Akhenaten seemed to have had a coregency with Neferneferuaten Smenkhare, who may have ruled alone for an extra 2 years. Nevertheless, the last days at Akhetaten are confused in the literature because of contradictory evidence. For example, there is a scene in the tomb of Merire showing the image of Akhenaten, Smenkare, and Meritaten together, yet there is almost nothing about the life or the reign of Smenkare. The town of Akhetaten was abandoned when Tutankhamen took over the throne from Smenkhare. The body of Smenkare, who died at 20, was found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but evidence suggested that it was a hasty reburial. It is conceivable that, during the reign of Tutankhamen, many of the Akhetaten royals were reburied in the same tomb.
Clearly at the end of Akhenaten's life, there were two male heirs, Smenkhare and Tutankhamen, who may have been sons or nephews of Akhenaten. Each was a legitimate heir to the throne because each married one of the king's daughters. When Tutankhamen inherited the throne at the age of 9, he married Ankhesenpaaten and lived first at Akhetaten.
Tutankhamen moved the royal residences back to Men-nefer and Waset soon after he became king. It is probably the fact that the return to orthodoxy and the worship of Amen took place under the influence of the Divine Father Ay, who guided the steps of the young Tutankhamen. He issued a famous edict restoring the traditional priesthoods and encouraging the nation to rise from the mistakes of Amenhotep IV. Tutankhamen returned the worship of Amen to its pre-Akhenaten state and called himself “the Living Image of Amen.”
The king who closed down the Akhetaten age, destroying as much as he could of the image of Akhenaten, was the general of Tutankhamen, Horemhab, who became king on the death of Ay. He was called Djoserkheperura Setepenra Horemheb Meryamun, “Beloved of Amen,” underscoring the finality of the return to Waset.
No great temples exist at Karnak that show Amenhotep IV's presence in art or religion. The vast complexes of Amen, Mut, or Khonsu reveal little of Akhenaten, but some representations in battle and images on recycled talatats were used in construction by other kings. Part of the destruction of Amenhotep IV's memory at Karnak was the use of talatats from his era to erect the Ninth Pylon at Karnak erected by Horemhab. It would be Horemhab who would bring an end to the Akhetaten era.
Thus, the first 5 years of Amenhotep IV's rule were basically eradicated from the memory of Waset by his successors. There are no memorials or temple carvings, steles, or chapels that remain on public display at Karnak. Without these major material pieces of evidence, the life and activities of the Per-aa at Waset cannot be written, and he languishes in virtual Wasetian oblivion. This was precisely the intention of his successors.
A connected, logical narrative was created from the years at Akhetaten, called Amarna. There are enough records there to give scholars some appreciation of the immense activities of the king, and this is what they use. Although he was not a warrior king, he was not a pacifist as some have claimed: A small representation shows him massacring his conquered enemies in the traditional depiction as the relief on the faòade of the Third Pylon at Karnak, but also on the talatat blocks where even Nefertiti was seen brandishing the White Mace over the heads of vanquished enemies. Even with these skimpy examples of art at Karnak, it can be seen that Karnak was not his place and Waset was not his city.



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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K., and Abarry, A. (Eds.). (1996). African Intellectual Heritage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Grimal, N. (1994). A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Redford, D. B. (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.