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Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Ancient Egyptian culture continued for three thousand years in generally the same pattern. Dynasties rose and fell, Pharaohs made their mark as builders or generals, invaders came and were expelled. The art and religion of Egypt, while dynamic and ever growing, stayed within recognisable bounds.

There is one exception, a leader who abandoned the established patterns, forging a bold and radical vision all his own, striking in its' prescience. Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Queen, Nefertiti are diamonds amid emeralds and rubies, unique spirits among the multitude of artistic geniuses of Ancient Egypt.

Queen Nefertiti brings inscense and precious oil to Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Nefertiti and Akhenaten
by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878.

Egyptian Myth and Legend
by Donald Mackenzie
Published in 1907

Scanned at, April 2002, J. B. Hare, Redactor. This text is in the public domain. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact.
Extensively edited for, 2007.

The Religious Revolt of the Poet King

Akhenaten (Akhenaton) (ruled circa 1352-1336 BCE) appears to have resolved, while yet a boy, to fight against "the selfish and the strong", whom he identified particularly with the priests of Amon, for these were prone to tyrany. The Egyptian prince began to embrace and develop the theological beliefs of the obscure Aten solar cult, and set forth to convince an unheeding world.

As it happened, Akhenaten ascended the throne with the noble desire to make all men "wise, and just, and free, and mild", just when the Empire was in need of strenuous military campaigns against hordes of invaders and rebellious Syrian princes.

Before Akhenaten's father died Thebes received ominous intelligence of the southward pressure of the Hittites and also of the advance on Palestine of the Khabri.

Pharaoh Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and two daughters are waited upon by servants.
The unique artistic style of the rule of Akhenaten
featured hands coming from the Sun's rays
and realistic human features.
by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.

Akhenaten began his reign as Amenhotep IV. He immediately began to erect a temple to Aten (or Aton) in close proximity to the great temple of Amon at Karnac. Before long there was an open rupture between the entrenched priesthood of Amon and the Pharaoh. Amon's high priests had been accustomed to occupying high and influential positions at Court; under Amenhotep III one priest had been chief treasurer and another grand vizier. Akhenaten was threatening the cult with political extinction.

Then something occured, or was attempted by the priestly party, which roused the ire of the strong-minded young king, for he suddenly began a war of bitter persecution against Amon. Everywhere the god's name was chipped from the monuments; the tombs were entered, and the young Pharaoh did not spare even the name of his father. It was at this time that he became known officially as Akhenaten (Akhenaton or Akhen-aton), "the spirit of Aten" or "Aten is satisfied" -- the human incarnation of the solar god.

Akhenaten decided to leave Thebes, and at el-Amarna, about 250 miles north, he caused to be laid out a "garden city", in which were built a gorgeous palace which surpassed that of his father, and a great temple dedicated to "the one and only god" Aten.

The city of Akhetaten was laid out in the desert, parallel to the Nile, with the great temple of Aten in the north of the city.
Map of Akhetaten, near modern Tell el Amarna
by Erbkam and Avennes, 1878.

When he entered his new capital, which he called Akhetaten (Horizon of Aten), the young king resolved never to leave it again. (Note the first "t" in the city name, Akhetaten, the Pharaoh's name has a "n" : Akhenaten) There, associating with believers only, he dedicated his life to the service of Aten and the propagation of those beliefs which, he was convinced, would make the world a paradise if, and when, mankind accepted them.

Meanwhile alarming news poured in from Syria. "Let not the king overlook the killing of a deputy", wrote one subject prince . . . . .. "If help does not come, Bikhura will be unable to hold Kumidi."

Another faithful ally wrote: "Let troops be sent, for the king has no longer any territory; the Khabri have wasted all". (note 1)

In the stately temple at Akhetaten, made beautiful by sculptor and painter, and strewn daily with bright and perfumed flowers, Akhenaten continued to adore Aten with all the abandon and sustaining faith of a cloistered medieval monk.

"Thou hast made me wise in thy designs and by thy might", he prayed to the god
. . . . . "The world is in thy hand."

Akhenaten believed it sinful to take away the life which Aten gave. No sacrifices were offered up in his temple; the fruits of the earth were laid on the altars.

Hard things are often said about Akhenaten. One writer dismisses him as an "ęsthetic trifler", others regard him as "a half-mad king"; but we must recognize that he was a profoundly serious man with a great mission, a high-souled prophet if an impractical Pharaoh. While the empire suffered some small losses during his rule, Akhenaten did not neglect his kingly duties to the extent that has often been portrayed. Yet, he believed he had higher responsibilities. He preached the gospel of culture and universal brotherhood, and his message to mankind is a vital thing which survives to us from Egypt, amidst the relics of the past.

Akhenaten believed in the "one and only god", Aten, whose power was manifested in the beneficent sun. The great deity was Father of all mankind, provided for their needs and fixed the length of their days.

Aten was revealed in beauty, and his worshippers were required to live beautiful lives--the cultured mind abhorred all that was evil, and sought after "the things which are most excellent". Akhenaten promoted the idea of universal brotherhood, and conceived of a beautiful world pervaded by universal peace.

Akhenaton and Nefertiti with heaps of flowers and fruits.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti at the Great Temple
by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878.

Although Aten was a sun god, he was not the material sun - he was the First Cause manifested by the sun, "from which all things came, and from which ever issued forth the life-giving and life-sustaining influence symbolized by rays ending in hands that support and nourish human beings".

"No such grand theology had ever appeared in the world before, so far as we know," says Professor Flinders Petrie, "and it is the forerunner of the later monotheist religions, while it is even more abstract and impersonal, and may well rank as scientific theism." (note 2)

Sir Petrie continues: "If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of its view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood we cannot say, but he had certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. No rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole lord or Adon of the Universe". (note 3)

Heliopolis, the center of sun worship in Egypt since pre-dynastic times, was home to an Aten cult that taught that the creator Ra was "Shu in his Aten". Aten is the solar disk and Shu is the air god, the source of "the air of life". Shu is also associated with the sun; as the atmospheric god, Shu is manifested by lightning and fire as well as by tempest. Shu is thus not only "air which is in the sun", but also, according to Akhenaton's religion, "heat which is in Aten".

The development of Aten religion may have been advanced by Yuaa, Queen Tiy's father (Akhenaten's grandfather), during the reign of Amenhotep III, when it appears to have been introduced in Thebian Court circles, but it reached its ultimate splendour as a result of the philosophical teachings of the young genius Akhenaten.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti(?) holding hands.
by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.

When Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti were depicted worshipping Aten, the rays which stretched out from the sun and ended in hands not only supported their bodies but pressed towards their nostrils and lips the "ankh", the symbol of life. The air of life was the sun-heated air; life was warmth and breath. Why the "ankh" touched the lips is clearly indicated in the great hymn. When the child is born, Aten: "Openest his mouth that he may speak."

Aton was thus, like certain other Egyptian gods, "the opener", (note 4) who gave power of speech and life to a child at birth or to the mummy of the dead.

The marked difference between the various Egyptian and Asiatic "Great Fathers" and the god of Akhenaten is that Aten was not the chief of a Pantheon of gods, he was the one and only god. "The Aten", says Professor Petrie, "was the only instance of a 'jealous god' in (Ancient) Egypt, and this worship was exclusive of all others, and claims universality." (note 5)

Akhenaten's hymn to Aten

The chief source of our knowledge of Akhenaten's religion is his great hymn, one of the finest surviving versions was found in the tomb of a royal official at el-Amarna.

Akhenaton's hymn to Aten is believed to have been his own composition. Its beauty is indicated in the following extracts from Prof. Breasted's poetic translation:--

by Ernst WeidenbachWhen thou risest in the eastern horizon of heaven,
Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.

When thou settest in the western horizon of heaven,
The world is in darkness like the dead.

Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon,
When thou shinest as Aten by day.
The darkness is banished, when thou sendest forth thy rays.

How manifold are all thy works, They are hidden from before us,
O thou sole god, whose powers no other possesseth,
Thou didst create the earth according to thy desire
While thou wast alone.

The world is in thy hand,
Even as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen, they live.
When thou settest, they die.
For thou art duration, beyond thy mere limbs.
By thee man liveth,
And their eyes look upon thy beauty,
Until thou settest.

Thou makest the beauty of form. . . .
Thou art in my heart.

Thou (Aten) placest a Nile in heaven that it may rain upon them.

When thou hast made the Nile beneath the earth
Thou bringest it according to thy will to make the people live. . . .
That it may nourish every field.

Aton also made the firmament in which to rise:

Rising in thy forms as the living Aten,
Shining afar off and returning . . .
All eyes see thee before them.

The revolution in art which was inaugurated under Amenhotep III is a marked feature of Akhenaten's reign. When sculptors and painters depicted the king he posed naturally, leaning on his staff with crossed legs, or accompanied by his queen and children. Some of the decorative work at Tell-el-Amarna will stand comparison with the finest productions of to-day.

An extraordinary sculpture of a inteligent, severe but not unkind woman.
Nefertiti, by the sculptor Thutmose.
Altes (Agyptisches) Museum in Berlin
Photo by Arkadiy Etumyan, 2006. License
This world famous bust, found in el-Amarna
was smuggled out of Egypt by the Ludwig Borchardt expedition (1907-14).

Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti (her name means "the beauty that has come") was a queen consort, and became co-regent, an equal to the Pharaoh. She was committed to Akhenaten's vision and is often portrayed worshiping beside him. The royal couple delighted to appear among the people accompanied by their children.

The fall of the Amon party was complete. For years the eight temples of Amon at Thebes lay empty and silent; their endowments had been confiscated for Aten. New temples to Aten were erected in the Fayum and at Memphis, Heliopolis, Hermopolis and as far away as Syria and Nubia.

An endeavour was made to enforce the worship of Aten by royal decree all over Egypt, with the result that the great mass of the people, who showed little concern over the fall of the Amon priesthood, resented the interference with their folk customs and beliefs.

But still the power of Akhenaten remained supreme. The army remained loyal, although much smaller, and when Akhenaten placed Horemheb in command he appears to have effectively controlled the disturbed areas.

Akhenaten offers inscense to the sun Aton.
A rare surviving example of Amarna art from Tunat,
the faces are defaced, perhaps on orders from Horemheb after he became Pharaoh.
by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.

Akhenaten died while still a young man, the cause of his death is unknown. Meritaten, a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti could perhaps have ruled briefly, then Smenkhkare (Smenkhare or Semenkh-ka-ra) became the next Pharaoh. There is speculation that this new Pharaoh was infact Queen Nefertiti, ruling as a man and attempting to hold together the collapsing dreams of her husband.

Whoever Smenkhkare was, she or he was soon deposed in favor of Tutankhaten, who had married Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Tutankhaten may have been the son of Akhenaten by a different wife and bore the name of the sun-god Aten (Aton) in his early reign, yet he (or those who controlled the young Pharaoh) soon renounced Aten, returned to Thebes, and renamed himself Tutenkamon, "Image of Amon" (He is the famous King Tut, the only Pharaoh whose tomb was found mostly unplundered.)

Tutenkamon died in his late teens and was followed by Ay (Eye or Ai), possibly the father of Nefertiti. A military revolt, instigated by the priests, then brought General Horemheb to the throne, who secured his position by marrying a princess of the royal line.

Horemheb popularized himself with the worshippers of Amon by ruthlessly persecuting the adherents of the religion of his former patron Akhenaten, erasing the name of Aten everywhere he could find it.

Horemheb was the last Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the dynasty that set the scene for the explosion of architecture and art that was the nineteenth...

(note 1) "Tell-el-Amarna Letters" in Professor Flinders Petrie's History of Egypt, Vol. II. These cuneiform tablets, nearly 400 of them, were discovered in 1887.

(note 2) Petrie: The Religion of Egypt, London, 1908.

(note 3) Petrie: A History of Egypt, Vol. II, London.

(note 4) Osiris Sokar is "the opener of the mouth of the four great gods who are in the underworld" (The Burden of Isis, p. 54).

(note 5) Petrie: The Religion of Ancient Egypt, p. 54.

excerpted and edited from:
Egyptian Myth and Legend
by Donald Mackenzie
Published in 1907

Akhenaten and Nefertiti raise their hands to the sun. Below are lines of hieroglyphs.
This may be a boundary stella from Akhetaten
by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878.

Akhenaten was not originally intended to ascend to the throne. His older brother Tuthmosis was set for that duty, and was given numerous responsibilities by his father Pharaoh Amenhotep III. A few years before the death of his father Tuthmosis vanished fron the scene. The general academic opinion is that he had died, but interesting speculation has arisen that Tuthmosis (Tuth-Mosis) is known to us as Moses and that the short lived heresy of Aton lives on as the Judiac faiths. The Exodus is usually placed in the reign of Ramesses II, about a hundred years later, but there are no known Egyptian records of the incident. The first Egyptian mention of the Israelites is in a war journal from Palestine during the reign of Merneptah, Ramesses II's son, giving no time for the wanderings if the Israelites left at the later date.

Akhenaten placed his city Akhet-Aten (Akhetaten) near modern Tel el-Amarna at exactly the North / South midpoint of Ancient Egypt. "Living in Maet" ("truth" as in cosmic harmony) was the guiding principal often stated by Pharaoh Akhenaten. By placing his capital in the exact geographic middle of the country he promoted the idea that the old capital, Thebes, was out of balance with natural law and lessened the prestige of the powerful Thebian priesthood. The Temple of Amon in Thebes contained an omphalos stone, the "navel" - geodetic center - from which surveys of Egypt at the time were based. Akhenaten attempted to move this function, with its symbolic importance, to his city Akhetaten.

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Akhenaten and Nefertiti

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The royal couple wear elaborate clothing and tall headdresses.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti, leaning on a cushion,
greet the populace from the "Window of Appearances".
by Otto Georgi, 1845.