Akhenaten (“He who is of service to the Aten” or “Effective Spirit of Aten”) is one of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt, despite the attempts of later rulers to omit him from the lists of kings.
Almost 200 miles south of Cairo, in the heart of Middle Egypt, the archaeological site of Amarna occupies a great bay of desert beside the River Nile.
To the uninformed eye, this semicircle of barren land, bound by the east bank of the river and enormous limestone cliffs, looks like nothing much: a vast, stricken dust bowl, approximately seven miles long and three miles wide, scattered with sandy hillocks.
But 33 centuries ago, this spot was home to tens of thousands of ancient Egyptians, brought there by the will of a single man: the pharaoh Akhenaten.
Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) was a pharaoh of Egypt of the 18th Dynasty. He is also known as `Akhenaton’ or `Ikhnaton’ and also `Khuenaten’, all of which is translated to mean `successful for’ or `of great use to’ the god Aten.
Akhenaten chose this name for himself after his conversion to the cult of Aten.
Prior to this conversion, he was known as Amenhotep IV (or Amenophis IV).
AKHENATEN: ALIEN KING | Name change
On day 13, Month 8, in the fifth year of his reign, the king arrived at the site of the new city Akhetaten (now known as Amarna).
A month before that Amenhotep IV had officially changed his name to Akhenaten.
Amenhotep IV changed most of his 5 fold titulary in year 5 of his reign. The only name he kept was his prenomen or throne name of Neferkheperure.
He was the son of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye, husband of Queen Nefertiti, and father of both Tutankhamun (by a lesser wife named Lady Kiya) and Tutankhamun’s wife Ankhsenamun (by Nefertiti).
His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt.
One of the first works which Akhenaten undertook as an emperor was modifying the temples in his kingdom.
He decorated the south entrance of ‘The Temple of Amun-Re’, where one of the walls depicted Akhenaten worshipping the sun god ‘Re-Harakhte’.
However, it became clear early in his reign that the young king was prepared to go against convention. In his first year, he built a Temple dedicated to the Aten at the perimeter of the Temple of Amun at Karnak.
He took the unconventional step of celebrating a Sed-festival in his third year (this festival was usually conducted in the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh’s reign) but still presented the Aten as a variant of Amun-Ra.
The Eighteenth Dynasty was characterised by powerful women, but Akhenaten seems to have granted his chief wife, Nefertiti, with power surpassed only by the Pharaoh himself.
Some scholars even suggest that she ruled as co-regent for part of his reign.
The introduction of a new cult was accompanied by innovations in the portrayal of the human form in both relief and sculpture.
The royal family was depicted with features that, by comparison with standard conventions of Egyptian art, appear noticeably exaggerated: a prognathous jaw, a thin neck, sloped shoulders, a pronounced paunch, large hips and thighs, and spindly legs.
Facial features were characterized by angular, slitted eyes, fleshy lips, nasolabial wrinkles, and holes for ear plugs, while the princesses are often each depicted with an inflated, egg-shaped cranium.
Much scholarly debate has centred on whether these features reflect the actual appearance of the king—extended by convention to his family and retainers—and various theories have been argued about the presumed pathology of Amenhotep IV and what medical conditions might produce the anatomical traits shown.
The Karnak colossi, in particular, show these new characteristics in notably exaggerated form, including one that apparently depicts the king without male genitalia.
Whether such statues were intended to represent the male and female element combined in the person of the divine king or whether they are simply statues of Nefertiti has not been satisfactorily settled.
More simply, the remarkable innovations of Amenhotep IV in several cultural spheres at once may be reasonably viewed as a manifestation of the intimate connection in Egyptian culture between art and religion.
In devising a radically different cult based on the worship of the sun’s natural form, the king was forced to develop a new artistic idiom with which to express it.
That Amenhotep IV was personally involved in these changes seems clear: the biographical text of one of the reign’s master sculptors indicates that he was instructed by the king himself.
Nefertiti also appears, both beside the king and alone (or with her daughters), in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she enjoyed unusual status for a queen.
Early artistic representations of her tend to be indistinguishable from her husband’s except by her regalia, but soon after the move to the new capital, Nefertiti begins to be depicted with features specific to her.
Questions remain whether the beauty of Nefertiti is portraiture or idealism.
Akhenaten’s chief wife was Nefertiti, made world-famous by the discovery of her exquisitely moulded and painted bust, now displayed in the Altes Museum of Berlin, and among the most recognised works of art surviving from the ancient world.
Queen Nefertiti is often referred to in history as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.”
The Berlin bust, seen from two different angles, is indeed, the most famous depiction of Queen Nefertiti. Found in the workshop of the famed sculptor Thutmose, the bust is believed to be a sculptor’s model.
The technique which begins with a carved piece of limestone requires the stone core to be first plastered and then richly painted. Flesh tones on the face give the bust life.
Nefertiti’s origins are confusing. It has been suggested to me that Tiye was also her mother.
Another suggestion is that Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s cousin. Her wet nurse was the wife of the vizier Ay, who could have been Tiye’s brother.
Ay sometimes called himself “the God’s father,” suggesting that he might have been Akhenaten’s father-in-law.
However Ay never specifically refers to himself as the father of Nefertiti, although there are references that Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnojme, is featured prominently in the decorations of the tomb of Ay. We will never know the truth of this bloodline. Perhaps they didn’t know either.
Why representations of Akhenaten depict him in a bizarre, strikingly androgynous way, remains a vigorously debated question.
Religious reasons have been suggested, such as to emulate the creative nature of the Aten, who is called in Amarna tomb texts, “mother and father” of all that is.
Or, it has been suggested, Akhenaten’s (and his family’s) portraiture exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten’s mummy is positively identified, such theories remain speculative.
The Amarna Letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence discovered in modern times at el-Amarna (the modern designation of the site of Akhetaten), have provided important evidence about Akhenaten’s reign and foreign policy.
This correspondence comprises a priceless collection of incoming messages on clay tablets sent to Akhetaten from various subject rulers through Egyptian military outposts and from the foreign rulers (recognized as “Great kings”) of the kingdom of Mitanni, of Babylon, of Assyria, and of Hatti.
The governors and kings of Egypt’s subject domains also wrote frequently to plead for gold from the pharaoh, and also complained that he had snubbed and cheated them.
There are a number of letters from governors and kings of subject nations begging for help, usually money.
The authors seem to feel abandoned by their powerful friend and left to the wolves. Other evidence suggests that Akhenaten quarreled with the king of Mitanni, former allies of Egypt, and concluded an alliance with the Hittites!
This warlike nation then attacked Mitanni and stole their land. Many other small nation states (who were also allied to Egypt) rebelled against the Hittites and wrote begging Akhenaten for help, but it seems that he did not respond and the Hittites captured or killed their leaders and seized a significant amount of land.
It is suggested that Akhenaten increasingly left government and diplomats to their own devices.
This made the vizier, Ay (father of Nefertiti), and the general Horemheb (who was married to Ay’s other daughter Mutnodjme) very powerful, and both men went on to become pharaoh.