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Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Ancient Egyptian culture continued for nearly 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 recognizable bounds.

Akhenaten, lean and intense, at the Luxor Museum

There is one exception, a leader who abandoned the established patterns, forging a bold and radical vision never before imagined, striking in its' prescience. Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Queen, Nefertiti, are unique spirits among the multitude of artistic geniuses of Ancient Egypt.
Photo from EgyptArchive.

Excerpted from:
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 BC) resolved, while yet a boy, to fight against "the selfish and the strong". In his time much power was held by the priests of Amon, and these were prone to tyranny. 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 reports of the southward pressure of the Hittites and also of the advance on Palestine of the Khabri.

Students sculpted in the Amarna artistic style.
Florence Museum, Italy, photograph by Sailko, CreativeCommons.

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 fight between the entrenched priesthood of Amon and the Pharaoh. Amon's high priests were 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 occurred, 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.

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)

Nefertiti and Akhenaten.
There perhaps is some ritual meaning,
or is the Pharaoh having tea?
by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878.

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 flowers and fruits of the earth were laid on the altars.

Kiya, 18th Dynasty -alabaster jar. A Dancer, she became second wife to the Pharaoh. From EgyptArchive Hard things are often said about Akhenaten. One writer dismisses him as an "ęsthetic trifler", others regard him as "a half-mad king". Dark stories spread about his personal life. 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 stood for 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.

(R) Kiya, second wife of Akhenaten, Cairo Museum, Photo from EgyptArchive.

Aten was revealed in beauty, and his worshipers 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 dreamed and strived for a beautiful world pervaded by universal peace.

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,"
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. Shu as the atmosphere 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.

Royal couple from Amarna. Berlin Museum.
Photograph by Andreas Praefcke, CreativeCommons

When Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti were depicted worshiping 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 mideastern gods 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)

Meritaten, daughter of Akhenaten.
Several in the family have somewhat long heads,
the trait became an artistic convention in Amarna.
There is no known connection to the cone-headed skulls found in Peru.
Berlin Museum. Photograph by Miguel Cuesta, CreativeCommons.

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:

From the tomb of Akhenaten, Cairo Museum<br>Photograph by Jean Pierre Dalbera, CreativeCommons. When 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.

Akhenaten built his tomb near Amarna. After his death when the royal court moved back to Thebes the burials were also moved, hastily. The photograph is of a panel from the tomb of Akhenaten, now in the Cairo Museum.
By Jean Pierre Dalbera, CreativeCommons.

A single male burial was found in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes.
Various clues point to this being Akhenaten or perhaps Smenkhare.
This gold pectoral was found on the mummy.
Cairo Museum. Photograph by Ulises Muniz, CreativeCommons.

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 today.

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
One of the world's greatest works of art,
found in the sculptor's studio during the excavation of 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 and Nefertiti,
possibly an artist trial.
Brooklyn Museum, USA, CreativeCommons.

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), husband of Meritaten, became the next Pharaoh. Pharaohs had a short life expectancy at the time, Smenkhare was quickly replaced by Neferneferuaten (as has recently been determined). There is speculation that this new Pharaoh was Queen Nefertiti, ruling as a man and attempting to hold together the collapsing dreams of her husband.

Akhenaten and perhaps Smenkhare
Limestone relief, Cairo Museum.
Photograph from EgyptArchive.

Whoever Neferneferuaten was, she or he was soon deposed in favor of Tutankhaten. Tutankhaten had married Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Tutankhaten may have been the son of Akhenaten by a different wife. He 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.)

Tutankhamen (King Tut) was probably the son of Akhenaten.
This gold chasework from his throne shows elements
of the Amarna artistic style.
Photograph by Jerzy Strzelecki.

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 Amon 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 worshipers 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...

Akhenaten statue from his Aten Temple at Karnak, now at the Cairo Museum (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 at Amarna.
(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 Is is, p. 54).
(note 5) Petrie: The Religion of Ancient Egypt, p. 54.

(right) Statue of Akhenaten, Cairo Museum, Photo from EgyptArchive.

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

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 from the records. 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 Aten shares roots with what evolved into 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 Maat (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.

Sandstone fragments of Akhenaten's
Temple of Aten at Karnak, Thebes.

Recently stones from Akhenaten's first temple at Karnak, long thought lost, were found inside the ninth pylon. The temple is being rebuilt. After his death the priests of Amon tried with much success to remove every trace of Akhenaten. Later generations of Egyptians never knew of him. Soon the rebuilt Aten Temple will be visited by people from all over the world.

wings of the Sun.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti

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