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Akhetaten is the name of the city built by the king Akhenaten when he abandoned the capital city of Waset in a theological and political dispute with the leaders of the Great Temple of Amen. Akhenaten, who had been named Amenhotep IV after his father Amenhotep III, began practicing a religion that elevated the deity, Aten, to the highest position in the Egyptian pantheon. This action created deep divisions within the spiritual leadership in the main worship center of Amen, Waset. Because the entire history of the 18th dynasty until the time of Amenhotep IV had been based on the great power and energy bestowed on the people by their devotion to Amen, the action by the young king was unforgivable and challenged the authority of his lineage, as well as his support among the masses who believed in the triad of Amen, Mut, and Khonsu.
Given the resistance that Amenhotep IV faced in Waset, and he did receive resistance, he soon had to leave the city where his fathers had ruled for centuries. Masses revolted and burned the temple he had built in honor of his newly authorized deity, Aten, and the priests, Her and Suti, at the temple saw him as a heretic. He changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his devotion to the new deity, appointed priests to officiate in the rituals to Aten, and decided to move the royal family, indeed the royal capital, from Waset to a city in northern Upper Egypt to escape the daily strictures of the officials in the capital city. Akhetaten lasted from 366 to 354 BC.
Thus, 6 years after the beginning of his reign, Akhenaten moved the capital to Akhetaten, meaning “The Horizon of Aten.” In some senses, this 12-square-mile city located on the Nile about 100 miles north of Waset was meant to convey newness in the fact that no other deities had been worshipped in that location. Here Akhenaten could convey his love of and appreciation for the Aten, unfettered by history and politics. Nearly 400 tablets were discovered in the 19th century, attesting to the richness of the city in art and culture. Indeed, the poems that we now know as reflecting the culture of Akhenaten court, the Aten hymns, were discovered during this period.
Akhetaten flourished as the capital city because artists who wanted to please the king journeyed to its walls. They produced art reflective of the new religion of Aten and were well regarded and rewarded by Akhenaten. In the meantime, it is believed that, although he lived behind the well-guarded pylons of the city, many other activities in the kingdom were left untended to, and soon Waset began to reassert itself as the true heart of the country. With the death of Akhenaten and the rise of Tutankhamen, the son of Akhenaten, the empire went back to its center, and the royal house was gladly received at the gates of Amen.



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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Grimal, N. (1992). A History of Ancient Egypt (I. Shaw, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Blackwell.
  • Shaw, I. (2004). The Oxford History of Egypt. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.