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Akhenaten and the Cult of Aten


Originally called Amenhotep IV, he changed his name to Akhenaten, and so ushered in a new revolutionary period in Egyptian history called the Amarna Period. This era although it lasted only a relatively short time, had a profound impact on Egyptian civilisation. The fact that it is seem as a curious interlude in Egyptian history and due to the fact that great efforts were made to later obliterate this period from existence, leaves us with many unanswered questions. As a result there are many conflicting theories doing the rounds as to why this interlude took place, why if failed and what was its overall significance in Ancient Egyptian history.

It is difficult to come to any firm conclusions when some chronological and other facts are in dispute. For example, there is some dispute as to the exact gender of Akhenaten. This was due to his appearance which looked more female than male. It is known that he suffered from Frohlich's syndrome (tumour of the pituitary gland), which produced certain characteristics such as skull malformation, excess fat around the breasts and thighs, thus projecting a more female appearance. It is agreed however, that Akhenaten ruled between 1350 - 1334 BC in the 18th Dynasty. It would appear that for the first couple of years, he ruled as co-regent with his father Amenhotep III. His father ruled almost forty years and this was a time of relative peace and prosperity. He was probably the second son of Amenhotep III, the prince and elder son Tuthmosis having died at an early age. During the first year of Akhenaten's reign and particularly during the time of co-regency with his father, we see elements of the new revolutionary art style co-existing with the more traditional art styles familiar to the then Egyptians. Modified emphasis to different gods and cults was quite normal from time to time, but Akhenaten once established in power with his wife Nefertiti, altered the entire emphasis from traditional ways to the worship of Aten (Sun god) in a very direct manner.

Why did this happen? There is much that we don't know and we are left to speculate for the most part. It is obvious that in order to effect such change, Akhenaten must have possessed a strong will and was obviously an original thinker of sorts, as it would be easier to adopt the accepted and trusted ways of the time. It is generally thought that this emanated from a power struggle between the ruler and the growing power of the priesthood of Amun. His father had noted this but it was Akhenaten who acted upon it so radically. This type of power struggle has many parallels in later history such as the challenge to the power of the divine right of kings by the nobles in the middle ages or the pressure for power from the bourgeois classes in revolutionary France in the 18th century. Although the time line is different here the underlying principle is the same. By promoting the cult of Aten (Sun god), Akhenaten was promoting a monotheistic cult, thus limiting the powers of the priesthood who were used to administering to a multitudinous cult of gods. This is more obvious as it was he, Akhenaten, and only he who was the centre of this new cult. It was he alone who had access to Aten and the protective rays of the sun, which left the priesthood caught flatfooted and redundant. Major changes took place in so far as he closed the temple of Amun at Karnak, building his own temple instead and moving his capital to a new site at el-Amarna. This of course meant that all the revenues now went directly to him which must have greatly annoyed the priesthood and temple toadies of the day. Why then was there no resistance to this or was there? As far as the ordinary people were concerned, there was no great difference to them, as they were not involved in temple or religious ceremonies to any great extent anyway. There is evidence from excavations at Amarna that they continued for the most part with traditional ways. Even amongst the nobles there is evidence that both the traditional and new cults were practised side by side with lip service being paid to the later. No doubt there were some who rose to prominence on the back of the new cult and gave it their fullest backing but many bided their time for a return to normality. Doubtless Akhenaten had great spirit of purpose and no little persuasive qualities to advance his dream, however there is ample evidence that he could not control all things. Egypt's strength on the foreign stage began to diminish and this would have catastrophic consequences in the future. With Akhenaten concentrating full time on his new religion, affairs of state began to slip away. There is no doubt that two key figures played a key part in maintaining the status quo during this period. Ay who was Akhenaten's father-in-law and Horemheb the great Egyptian general and Ay's son-in-law and who had married Nefertiti's sister Mutnodjme played a crucial role. Both these men were strong individuals and both would rule as Pharaoh in their own right later in this dynasty.

The new art style shows a new realism and a distinct change in style, with individuals such as the young princesses being endowed with the physical attributes of their father. This is a complete change from earlier official depictions of the royal family. There are many poignant scenes of Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children and there is no doubt that they were very happy in their relationship. Nefertiti whose bust can be seen in Berlin was depicted as one of the most beautiful women of her time. She is said to have died after the 12th year of their reign soon after the tragic death of their daughter Mekytaten at childbirth. Merytaten and her other sister Akhesenpaaten (later to become the wife of Tutankhamun) are believed to have married their father. Merytaten later married Smenkhkare who succeeded Akhenaten, if only for a brief period. Elaborate arrangements were made for the burial of the royal family at el-Amarna but it is believed that not many bodies were interred here. If they were buried here they would have been removed quickly to escape the bad feeling generated by this cult. The entire city was dedicated to the god Aten and everywhere within the city the royal family were seen depicted under the protection of Aten's rays.

We have some valuable evidence from this period when inscribed clay tablets were found in 1885. These tablets contain correspondence from the outposts of the empire and are written in Akkadian, a language of the Near East. Most of this correspondence deals with requests for aid and supplies but it is believed most of these requests remained unheard. The writing was on the wall for all to see and Smenkhkare who was most likely his brother and who succeeded Akhenaten began to distance himself from the sun cult and moved activity back to Memphis resuming the old religion. His reign was quite short but his successors re-established the old ways but certainly the empire was considerably weakened as a result and it would later fall to Ramesses II (the Great) to reassert Egyptian pride and dominance. Later rulers would try to obliterate the memory of this period altogether.

To conclude, we may ask was this the first true intellectual revolution or was it as we have suggested; an attempt to curb the power of the nobles. In any event although the experiment ultimately failed, this remains a fascinating period in ancient history that is open to much conjecture and this debate will go on for quite a long time yet.


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