Akhenaten was a Ruler of Egypt during the period known as the 18th Dynasty. He ascended to the throne as Amenhotep IV, succeeding his father Amenhotep III. Akhenaten's brief reign, only about 16 years, happened at a difficult time in Egyptian history and many scholars maintain that Akhenaten was responsible for this decline, but evidence suggests that it had already started.
Akhenaten, possibly in a move to lessen the political power of the Priests, introduced the worship of one god, the Aten, or Sun disk. The Pharaoh, not the priesthood, was the sole link between the population and the Aten which effectively ended the power of the various temples.
It is interesting to note that when Akhenaten's successors, the generals Ay and Horemheb re established the temples of Amun they selected their priests from the military, enabling the Pharaoh to keep tighter controls over the religious orders.
The cult of the Aten is considered by some to be a predecessor of modern monotheism.
Not a Pharaoh to do things by half, when Akhenaten established his new religion he built an entire city dedicated to the Aten. This city was Akhetaten, the Horizon of the Aten. At the peak of Akhenaten's reign over 20,000 people lived there. The city was built in middle Egypt, on a site not tainted by the worship of other gods.
After the death of Akhenaten the city was abandoned, and the old religions which had been suppressed quickly re-established their control over Egypt. This return to the old ways may have been helped along by the Pharaohs who followed Akhenaten, who allowed the priesthood to re establish control. Akhenaten's immediate successor was Smenkhkare about whom little is known, followed by Tutankhaten. Shortly after gaining the throne Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun and moved his capital from Akhetaten to Memphis.
Akhenaten is not credited with being a particularly successful Pharaoh. Records seem to indicate that he allowed Egyptian influence wane, but this may not be true as these ideas are based on the famous Amarna letters found in Akhetaten. These letters show day to day communication within the Egyptian empire and give a more detailed look at events during Akhenaten's reign than we can obtain from other Pharaohs. In most cases the information on different leaders comes from inscriptions and paintings in their tombs, and if a Pharaoh was having problems abroad this is hardly likely to be included with the decoration to remind him of his difficulties in the afterlife.
Later Pharaohs attempted to erase all memories of Akhenaten and his religion. Much of the distinctive art of the period was destroyed and the buildings dismantled. It is interesting to note that this was directed at Akhenaten personally and not the Aten. In later dynasties it returned to it's original position in Egyptian religion.
The backlash against the religion of Akhenaten led to the widespread destruction of his palaces and temples. Work began on dismantling Akhetaten shortly after it was abandoned and, along with many other of Akhenaten's monuments, it's stone was re-used by later Pharaohs.
Restoration work on the great pylons of Ramesses II at Karnak showed that they used 'recycled' Aten temples for the filling. This has left modern Archaeologists with the worlds biggest jigsaw puzzle. When the Pylons were restored the filling was replaced with concrete. A section of a temple wall has now been restored and is on display in the Luxor Museum.
The Mysteries of Akhenaten
Although we know a great deal about Akhenaten compared to some of the other Pharaohs, there are still some major mysteries concerning his reign. Various 'experts' have differing theories concerning this enigmatic ruler. On this page I will detail some of the various theories which have been presented, along with their relative pros and cons.
Akhenaten's strange appearance in his statues and carvings
Statues of Akhenaten in the so called Amarna style show the Pharaoh as a gaunt figure with a narrow chest and wide hips. The following reasons for this have been given
Akhenaten was a woman
One interpretation of Akhenaten's strange physique was that 'he' was actually 'she'
He suffered from a disease
It has been suggested that Akhenaten suffered from Frohlich's Syndrome. This may explain his strange appearance, but one side effect of that disease is impotence. Akhenaten is reported to have had six daughters by Nefertiti alone which makes this explanation unlikely, although it is possible that the disease struck in later life
It was the unique style of Amarna art
The artistic styles of the Amarna period has no comparison to any other period in Ancient Egypt. For the first time royalty were shown in more natural, less formal poses. In addition the freakish statues at Karnak could have been deliberately exaggerated to set the kings appearance apart from 'mortal' men
He was Moses
When study of Akhenaten's life became more popular in the late 18th century many attempts were made to equate the Pharaoh with the biblical Moses. It has also been suggested that Moses was actually a High official in the court of Amenhotep III
He was a religious visionary
Atenism can be interpreted as the first step in a logical evolution of religion from many minor gods to one major one. If this is the case then Akhenaten could well be viewed as the forefather of most modern beliefs.
He was a political opportunist
When Akhenaten ascended to the throne the priests of Amun controlled much of Egypt. The temples were wealthy and powerful and Akhenaten may have seen their destruction as the way to further his own ambitions. Effectively in Atenism the Pharaoh was the only person who could make offerings directly to the God, which would have given him power as both religious and political leader.
He was a loony
One other possible explanation was that Akhenaten was mad. In many of the Aten texts the god is addressed as 'Father', and it is possible that Akhenaten actually believed the sun disk to be the physical incarnation of Amenhotep III.
His lack of foreign campaigns
Much is made of Akhenaten's lack of action in outlying areas of the Egyptian Empire. Much of this blame arises from the so called Amarna Letters, diplomatic correspondence from outlying governors to the Pharaoh. The evidence of these every day communications should, however, be taken in context. They provide a 'warts and all' look at diplomacy in the age unlike the glorifying tomb writings of other periods. The basic theories about this are as follows. It is likely that Akhenaten's control over the outlying stated was so solid that no major intervention was required. Interestingly there is no evidence that any of the cities pleading for help in the Amarna Letters were lost to Egyptian control at that time.
He allowed Egyptian influence to crumble
There is a lack of evidence of any foreign campaigns during the reign of Akhenaten. It has been suggested that the king was so involved with his new religion, and his new city, that much needed resources were diverted from the rest of the empire.
He has been misrepresented
The artistic style of the Amarna period differed from earlier styles in that the images were much more lifelike, and conquest played a smaller part. Images of the Pharaoh Smiting Asiatics would not have been in the spirit of Atenism. Akhenaten may have wished to be remembered as a family man rather than a warrior. Interestingly a block from the Aten temple used as filling in a pylon at Karnak contains the unusual image of Queen Nefertiti 'smiting' unfortunate foes.
He was unaware of the situation
Akhenaten may not have been fully aware of the situation. The priests of the old temples may have deliberately withheld information from him to try to weaken his rule to an extent where the old order could be reestablished
What happened after his death
There is also uncertainty about events after Akhenaten's death. Evidence indicates that he was originally interred in the royal tomb at Akhetaten, along with his daughter Meritaten, and that he was later moved (by Tutankhamun possibly) to another location, probably the Valley of the Kings. It is possible that after his original burial the Mummy was moved to tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings to protect it from the anti-Atenist backlash. It is also possible that his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is yet to be discovered.
What happened to the Mummy
Akhenaten's mummy has never been positively identified. The most likely candidate was thought to be the mummy found in the tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings but it is very unlikely that this body is Akhenaten's. Research has shown it to be that of a young man. It is more likely that this body is of Smenkhkare. A piece of gold foil bearing Smenkhkare's cartouche, stolen when the tomb was opened, has recently surfaced in Germany which would seem to confirm the identity of the occupant.
The burial seems to have been hastily arranged using a coffin originally intended for a woman. The length of Smenkhkare's reign probably means that there was little time to make arrangements.
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