He fathered Tutankhamun, married Nefertiti, and was one of the most original thinkers of his era. Then why is the pharoah Akhenaten often dismissed as a madman?
By Alastair Sooke 09 Jan 2014
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.
Rebel, tyrant, and prophet of arguably the world’s earliest monotheistic religion, Akhenaten has been called history’s first individual. His impact upon ancient Egyptian customs and beliefs stretching back for centuries was so alarming that, in the generations following his death in 1336 BC, he was branded a heretic. Official king lists omitted his name.
For my money, this makes him the most fascinating and controversial figure in Egyptian history. And that’s before you consider his marriage to Nefertiti, known as the Mona Lisa of antiquity thanks to her austerely beautiful painted limestone bust discovered in a sculptor’s workshop at Amarna and now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, or the likelihood that he fathered Tutankhamun, the most famous pharaoh of them all. If I were in charge of the British Museum, I would commission an exhibition about Akhenaten in a trice.
Akhenaten was not supposed to become pharaoh. The son of Amenhotep III, who dominated the first half of the 14th century BC, ruling over a court of unprecedented luxury and magnificence that placed great emphasis on solar theology, Prince Amenhotep, as he was then called, was younger brother to the crown Prince Thutmose. Following Thutmose’s unexpected death, though, he became the heir apparent – and when his father died in 1353 BC, he took the throne as Amenhotep IV.
Almost immediately, his waywardness began to assert itself. He commissioned monumental buildings for the historic religious centre of Karnak in Thebes.
Yet rather than honour Amun, the god associated with the site, his temples were orientated towards the east, facing in the direction of the sunrise, and dedicated to a new form of the sun-god, known officially by the not-so-catchy formula of “The living one, Ra-Horus of the horizon who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun disc.” Before long this was shortened to “the Aten”, the Egyptian word for “the sun disc”, and the king had changed his name from Amenhotep (“Amun is content”) to Akhenaten (“effective for the Aten”).
A number of colossal sandstone statues of the king carved for the temples of the Aten at Karnak, where they were attached to pillars in colonnades lining grand open courts, attest to the drastic convulsions coursing through Egyptian society at this time. One of them can be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which I visited while making the BBC documentary series Treasures of Ancient Egypt. The sculpture is like nothing seen before in the long history of ancient Egyptian art.
The pose and attributes are fairly standard. Akhenaten appears front-on. His crossed arms brandish a crook and a flail – royal insignia like his double crown, distinctive headdress, and short kilt. Yet the distortions of his physiognomy are bizarre beyond belief. His face appears stretched, with high cheekbones and an elongated nose leading down to a pointy chin. His unusually plump lips echo the womanly sensuousness of his broad hips, as well as an unflattering pot belly that sags over his waistband.
To modern eyes, the treatment of the figure appears expressionistic and grotesque. Is this a realistic portrait of a ruler wracked with disease? Or a new vision of kingship scorched free of visual clichés? Moreover, what kind of person would commission something as dark and startling as this: a visionary, or a madman?
“Views of Akhenaten have oscillated between both extremes,” says the Egyptologist Anna Stevens. “The ancient Egyptians excised his reign from their own history. But modern history has been kinder to him: we perhaps value individualism more – and of course we are not directly affected by his actions.”
“Without the basis for proper diagnosis, the charge of madness is best avoided,” says Barry Kemp, emeritus professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University, and author of The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. “But clearly Akhenaten had an original mind. He developed a vision of how God should be honoured, and had the determination and means to turn that vision into reality.” Akhenaten’s vision was extreme: by worshipping a single god, the solar orb, he was razing the Egyptian pantheon. Eventually he would ban the traditional gods altogether, making redundant up to 2,000 time-honoured deities. In the fifth year of his reign, around the time that he changed his name, Akhenaten decided to build a new royal capital – somewhere free of existing religious associations. The site he chose, at modern-day Amarna, was called Akhetaten, or “Horizon of the Aten” – perhaps because the shape of the cliffs to the east formed the hieroglyph for “horizon”.
Construction was rapid and after just two years, the ruling family took up residence to the north of the city in a palace linked to the rest of Akhetaten by a long “Royal Road”. Akhenaten rode along this route in his chariot every day, mirroring the progress of the Aten through the heavens in order to emphasise his proximity to the new godhead.
“It was a fresh start,” says Stevens, assistant director of the Amarna Project, which is excavating Akhenaten’s city. “Ostensibly it was about building a new cult home for the Aten on virgin land – this is what Akhenaten tells us in the inscriptions on the boundary stelae [inscribed stone slabs] around Amarna’s perimeter. But we can guess that there were other motivations, such as a desire to surround himself with loyal officials and create distance from those who offered opposition.” One way of demonstrating that Akhetaten represented a clean break with the past was by sponsoring radically new forms of architecture. “Egyptian temples were traditionally closed affairs,” explains Stevens. “Once you entered the inner part of the complex, the floor level gradually rose, and the roof dropped. Lighting was restricted to a few small windows and lamps. The solar cult brought with it open-air sanctuaries – a form used long before Akhenaten’s reign, but now translated to a much grander scale. Akhenaten’s temples incorporated vast open-air courts with offering tables and unroofed shrines. The cult image, of course, was no longer a statue hidden deep in the sanctuary, but the Aten above.”
Throughout Amarna, buildings were decorated with a new and immediately recognisable representation of the Aten: a simple disc emanating rays that culminated in tiny human hands. It is tempting to imagine these solar hands scooping up all the food and incense left out as offerings to the sun: the largest temple precinct in the city, the Great Aten Temple, contained more than 1,700 stone and mud-brick offering tables and benches built for just this purpose.
The strange new visual formula for the Aten wasn’t the only artistic innovation under Akhenaten. Over the years, Amarna has yielded a number of limestone reliefs presenting intimate scenes of the royal family enjoying domestic bliss – forerunners of Christian paintings of the Holy Family, or even of modern paparazzi photographs of celebrities. There is a famous example in Berlin. Akhenaten can be seen cradling one of his daughters as if he is about to kiss her. Opposite him is Nefertiti, whose lap supports a second daughter who is pointing at her sister. A third child, no bigger than a baby, plays with the serpent pendant adorning her mother’s distinctive flat-topped headdress. Above them the Aten beams down its many-handed benefaction.
Compared with earlier Egyptian art, which to the untutored eye can seem like an unending frieze of stiff figures seen in profile, here we have something charming, spontaneous, and full of life. Previously, Egyptian artists had depicted children adopting a distinctive pose, with a finger held against their lips – but here, the royal offspring behave more naturally. Wriggly and curious, they point and turn their heads in an irrepressible fashion – just like real children. While a lot of ancient Egyptian art has a static, monumental quality, as though self-consciously designed to last for eternity, this scene offers a transitory impression of royal family life. It feels as though we have stumbled into this particular room of the palace. The baby’s eye has been drawn to her mother’s glinting jewellery, but in a second or two her gaze will flick elsewhere, and the poses of the other protagonists will change.
Why did Akhenaten wish to promote exciting new art like this? In part because he wanted to reinforce his solar cult: these scenes emphasised his role, as well as that of his wife, as intermediary between the Aten and the people. Perhaps this is also why one of his palaces at Amarna was designed with a special balcony known as the “window of appearances”: millennia before our Royal Family would stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, Akhenaten displayed himself above his courtiers, to whom he dispensed gifts such as leather gloves, gold collars and signet rings.
Recent discoveries at Amarna, though, suggest that Akhenaten’s cult of the Aten was not as successful as he might have hoped. Anna Stevens has excavated the cemetery where the workers who erected Akhenaten’s palaces and temples were interred in shallow graves. “For most people,” she says, “life was tough – with hard labour and a basic diet” – the antithesis of the relaxed family scene depicted on the relief in Berlin. More than two thirds of these workers were dead before they were 35 years old.
Moreover, Stevens noticed a surprising absence among the grave goods buried in the cemetery. There were lots of amulets and votive objects depicting popular minor deities – including faience (glazed earthenware figures) of the bandy-legged dwarf god Bes, who offered protection during childbirth, and had been worshipped for centuries. “But there is not a single representation of the sun disc at this cemetery, nor mention of Akhenaten on finger rings or scarabs or anything,” she says. “This was life continuing as normal.”
Without the support of the people, there was nobody to uphold Akhenaten’s one-man revolution when he died after 17 years on the throne. Even Akhenaten himself appears to have had doubts on his deathbed: his tomb contained “shabti” figurines that were heresy for Atenism. Four years later, when his young son Tutankhamun became king in 1332 BC, the forces of conservatism won out. Tutankhamun issued a decree lamenting the ruinous state of the country’s temples: “Their shrines had fallen into decay, having become mounds thick with weeds. The land was in distress; the gods were ignoring this land.” Akhetaten – at its zenith, home to up to 50,000 people – was abandoned, as the court returned to the traditional capital of Memphis. Old religious customs were restored. Akhenaten was effectively written out of history.
For ancient Egyptians, Akhenaten was a madman, a megalomaniac, a dreamer and a despot. But he was also a brave reformer who single-handedly set about dismantling Egypt’s traditions in order to construct something new. Ultimately, though, his vision burned too brightly.
“Atenism offered little to people who wanted the comfort of a god who could be approached by anyone, even in their own home,” says Barry Kemp. “Akhenaten’s message was just too austere to gather widespread support.” Just imagine, though, what would have happened if his new religion had caught on: perhaps today we would mention Atenism in the same breath as other great monotheistic faiths such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Alastair Sooke’s ‘Treasures of Ancient Egypt: The Golden Age’ will be shown on BBC Four, Thursdays, at 9pm