| AKHENATEN AND THE COURT AT AMARNA
Amarna according to http://www.thearchitecturestore.co.uk/
1- Royal Palace
2- The king's private palatial apartments
3- Large temple of the Aten
4- Small temple of the Aten
5- Footbridge of "Appearances"
crossing the processional way.
6- Administrative offices and storerooms.
8- Bakeries and storerooms.
So now we have the royal family in
their new capital.
The king and queen have changed their names. Amenophis
(Amenhotep) IV has now become Akh-n-Itn, "He
who is useful to the Aten" ("the
radiance of the Aten" has also
been proposed but that seems less correct)
and he has modified one of his other
titular names to "Neferneferure-Waenre",
i.e. "perfect are the perfections
of Ra, the only of Ra".
Nefertiti is now called Nefernferuitn-
Nefertiti, "perfect are the
perfections of the Aten- the beautiful
one has come".
no canonic text. His "education" of
his faithful was above all, oral, aided
by mnemonic images.
We can, nevertheless, get a good idea
of his religious conceptions thanks,
on one hand, to the explanations that
he gave of the names of the
god Aten and, on the other hand, to two
series of hymns that were found engraved in
the tombs of courtiers at Tell-el-Amarna.
For a list of Akhenaten's who's
|| Akhenaten's six daughters
(names and photograph: Renaud de Spens)
(i.e Neferneferouaten the small one)
The names of the Aten
Akhenaten attached very great importance to the name which
he had contrived- on a pharaonic titular model- for the
In fact the correct name of the god is not Aten, which is
an abbreviation. The texts speak of Pa-Iten-Ankh, i.e. "the
living Aten", the living disc, but even this is but
an abbreviation of a much longer official didactic
which is a real theological explanation.
. Thus, from year 1 to year 9 of the reign
it was " Ra-Horakhty-
We see appearing in this expanded name of the Aten, the
names of three other classic Egyptian divinities, all with
a solar connotation: Ra, the great god of the sun, the falcon
Horus who is its classic figurative manifestation, and the
god Shu who represents the air, the space between heaven
Then we notice, for the first and last time in Egypt, that
the divine names are incorporated into cartouches, which
was exclusively reserved for the pharaoh. [appendix 7].
. The significance is clear: the Aten governs
the world as a pharaoh of Egypt does for the two lands. It
is a way
of proclaiming the consubstantiality of Akhenaten
and the god of whom he is the emanation: the royalty of the Aten
in heaven is of the same nature as that of Akhenaten on
. From year 9 to the end of the reign,
Akhenaten changes the name of the god at the same time as
his policy but without changing the doctrine, by having
the animal form of Horus and the name of the god Shu
removed, leaving only Ra remaining.
. This government of the world by the
Aten-king is also shown in the iconography of the god.
We do not know which brilliant theologian imagined the
famous appearance of the radiating disc (fig
18), but this extraordinary representative idea
illustrates perfectly the discussion: the rays emanating
from the disc
end in hands and descend upon all creation: they embrace
the whole universe, to which they give life via the intermediary
of the royal couple, who are the only ones to receive the
symbol of life, Ankh (appendix 10).
Apart from the extended name of the god, two series of hymns
to the Aten have come down to us, carved on the walls of
tombs of high dignitaries.
great hymn to the Aten exists as one copy
only, carved in the entrance corridor of the tomb of Ay (fig
61 and 61b),whereas
we know of five copies of the lesser hymn to the Aten.
These hymns, original though they are, are nevertheless
not entirely new in their inspiration. We have, in fact,
found examples of solar hymns written just before the Amarna
period which are derived from this rationalist trend of
which we have spoken and which already take, as a theme
for reflection, the unique visible reality.
Those who frequent pharaonic Egypt know that these are
the most celebrated texts of ancient Egypt and, as is
often the case, this celebrity indirectly feeds imaginative
ideas or dreams which are sometimes far removed from the
reality of the source.
It is not known who wrote the hymns to the Aten, maybe
it was the king himself. Anyway, they reflect the official
doctrine. They are addressed to three persons: firstly
to the god Ra-Horakhty, of whom the Aten is the visible
manifestation, but also to Akhenaten and Nefertiti, inextricably
mixing divine praise and royal eulogy.
deal successively with two themes: the daily solar
cycle and the revelation
of the god to his son Akhenaten.
These hymns take the form of poems, written now in the
Akhenaten has effectively raised the spoken
language of the New Kingdom into a new written language.
This is an important evolution which will last. Up till
then, canonic texts, and especially those carved in tombs
or on temple walls, were written in Middle Egyptian,
a language which had not been current for centuries (like
Latin in our churches). In the general care for naturalism,
which guides the new religion, Akhenaten orders that, from
now on, all religious texts shall be written in
the current language that we call neo-Egyptian.
hymns were probably liturgical texts designed to be recited
or chanted during venerations in the temples of the capital.
The high spiritual elevation of the texts is undeniable.
Let's listen to them.
Source: Pritchard, James B., ed., The Ancient Near East
- Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 227-230].
The prime source, from the tomb of Ay at Amarna, begins with an introduction by Ay. This is as follows :
"Praise of Re Har-akhti, Rejoicing on the Horizon, in His Name as Shu Who Is in the Aten-disc, living forever and ever; the living great Aten who is in jubilee, lord of all that the Aten encircles, lord of heaven, lord of earth, lord of the House of Aten in Akhet-Aten; (and praise of) the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives on truth, the Lord of the Two Lands: Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re; the Son of Re, who lives on truth, the Lord of Diadems: Akh-en-Aten, long in his lifetime; (and praise of) the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands: Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefert-iti, living, healthy, and youthful forever and ever.
The fan-fearer at the right hand of the King, Ay; he says :"
It then proceeds with the actual hymn :
Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aten, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.
When thou settest in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up,
Nor sees one eye the other.
All their goods which are under their heads might be stolen,
(But) they would not perceive (it).
Every lion is come forth from his den;
All creeping things, they sting.
Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness,
For he who made them rests in his horizon.
At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aten by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays.
The Two Lands are in festivity every day,
Awake and standing upon (their) feet,
For thou hast raised them up.
Washing their bodies, taking (their) clothing,
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work.
All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds which fly from their nests,
Their wings are (stretched out) in praise to thy ka.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet.
Whatever flies and alights,
They live when thou hast risen (for) them.
The ships are sailing north and south as well,
For every way is open at thy appearance.
The fish in the river dart before thy face;
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.
Creator of seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother,
Who soothest him with that which stills his weeping,
Thou nurse (even) in the womb,
Who givest breath to sustain all that he has made!
When he descends from the womb to breathe
On the day when he is born,
Thou openest his mouth completely,
Thou suppliest his necessities.
When the chick in the egg speaks within the shell,
Thou givest him breath within it to maintain him.
When thou hast made him his fulfillment within the egg,
to break it,
He comes forth from the egg to speak at his completed (time);
He walks upon his legs when he comes forth from it.
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.
The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,
Thou bringest forth as thou desirest
To maintain the people (of Egypt)
According as thou madest them for thyself,
The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,
The lord of every land, rising for them,
The Aten of the day, great of majesty.
All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
For thou hast set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.
How effective they are, thy plans, O lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples
And for the beasts of every desert that go upon (their)
(While the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt.
Thy rays suckle every meadow.
When thou risest, they live, they grow for thee.
Thou makest the seasons in order to rear all that thou hast
The winter to cool them,
And the heat that they may taste thee.
Thou hast made the distant sky in order to rise therein,
In order to see all that thou dost make.
Whilst thou wert alone,
Rising in thy form as the living Aten,
Appearing, shining, withdrawing or aproaching,
Thou madest millions of forms of thyself alone.
Cities, towns, fields, road, and river --
Every eye beholds thee over against them,
For thou art the Aten of the day over the earth....
Thou art in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re,
For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy
The world came into being by thy hand,
According as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die.
Thou art lifetime thy own self,
For one lives (only) through thee.
Eyes are (fixed) on beauty until thou settest.
All work is laid aside when thou settest in the west.
(But) when (thou) risest (again),
[Everything is] made to flourish for the king,...
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son,
Who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower
Egypt, ... Ak-en-Aten, ... and the Chief Wife of the King
... Nefertiti, living and youthful forever and ever. "
The demythologisation of the great cosmic nocturnal drama
We can see that the Aten, who created himself, completely holds the life of the world in his subordination, that he daily renews the creation of which he is "the father and the mother". There is no longer a "first time" for creation, this aspect is never mentioned in the Amarnian theology. The world is recreated every day at dawn - by the disk, which has no existence or hidden nature.
|| ..." It
is in this negation of any role of the night
and its consequences that the Amarna
heresy really resides"
Strange as it may seem, we touch here on the fundamental
point in the division between traditional religious concepts
and the Amarna concept: It is in this negation
of any role of the night and its consequences that the Amarna
heresy really resides.
Up till now, the nocturnal evolution of the
sun was conceived as being a sort of cosmic drama. The
reappearance of the sun each day could only happen after
a gigantic conflict in the world beyond. The sun of the
day, after having lost his radiance, set and continued
his nocturnal voyage in his barque while progressively
recharging his energy.
But, during this nocturnal voyage,
he had to face all sorts of redoubtable enemies who tried
to sink the solar barque and prevent the rebirth of the
sun in the morning. It was in this figurative way that
the Egyptians expressed the tendency for spontaneous disorganisation
that we call entropy.
To help the sun win his combat each
day required the combined action of the king and men making
the appropriate devotions, Maat must reign.
In the new religion, however, all of this dramatic
aspect of the solar cycle disappears. No more Apophis or divine
barque. The sun will necessarily and mechanically reappear,
tomorrow as it did today. Whether we do something or whether
we don't, the sun will be there and the days and
the seasons will pass.
The sun has from now on a noncyclic trajectory, which ceases at night, like the life which it alone conveys with him.
The Great Hymn clearly says : "You arise as they (men) live, you lie down as they die. You are existence by yourself, it is by you that we live"; "as soon as you lie down in the western horizon, the country is plunged into darkness, in a state of death".
Night is for men the experience of death.
The whole life of the world happens during the day, the night is considered as a state of non-life, where nothing occurs, which is useful for nothing.
Nevertheless the king specifies that the stars remain alive in his heart.
But the traditional nocturnal journey of the sun had another major function: to resuscitate the deceased in the Duat, to give life back them during the time of its nocturnal journey. To suppress this role, it is ipso facto to deny the existence of the whole traditional system imagined, and likewise for the deceased to have a new life in the beyond. Osiris, the traditional justified (and regenerate for death) god doesn't have any place anymore in the new system and disappears.
For AkhenAten there is no other reality nor other life than the one, physically bathed by the rays of the Aten.
The organisation of society, which leaned towards the traditional form of Ma'at, is placed in question
As a consequence, all organisation of society which should
lead to the realisation of Maat is put in doubt. Maat
has not gone but she has changed in nature. Certainly
she has become an optimistic view of the world
but mechanical, implacable. Maat is no longer the collective work of order in the world, which the king must present to the gods
She is everywhere, immutable and only the king can interpret
In effect, Maat is now Akhenaten himself ! So his every word
or gesture becomes sacred and his courtiers address him
as "my sun" or, as in the Amarna letter No. 138, "the
sun of all lands".
By doing this, Akhenaten changes the very nature
of Egyptian royalty, which is now an unlimited absolutism the like
of which the country has never known and will never know
again after him.
This should finally put an end to the
tenacious legend of a gentle, weak pacifist dreamy poet
king full of love for all humanity: which is a historical
The universalism of the Aten
This does not prevent the hymns from being magnificent
literary pieces, especially for the universalist approach
which we find in them for the first time
"The Aten of the day, great of majesty.
All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
for thou hast set a Nile in heaven, that it may descend
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples, (While
the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt
Their tongues are separate in speech and their natures
as well. Their skins are distinguished as thou distinguishest
the foreign peoples"
the Aten is presented as the universal god while Akhenaten
himself always remains a pharaoh for Egypt and never becomes
a prophet for all humanity. Akhenaten is "lord of
the two lands" while the Aten is "lord of the
world". One even wonders if Akhenaten really had
the intention of imposing the cult of the Aten in all Egypt.
It is certainly not written anywhere.
The text about foreign countries continues thus:
" Thy rays encompass the lands to
the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son."
In this last
phrase we see the limits of the universalist message: the
Aten is indeed the god who governs the world, including
foreign countries and Egypt's traditional enemies,
but the latter continue to be considered exactly as before.
And so the very classical ritual scenes where we see the
king (or the queen) massacring the so-called enemies are
represented as before.
Certainly, they are prophylactic scenes with a magical
aspect, with no relationship with reality, but they are
Likewise, people have tried to read into these texts and
the military non-interventionism of the king, that Akhenaten
was a philosophical, pacifist sovereign. Again: not so!
Badly advised, Akhenaten did not intervene militarily in
Asia to support a disintegrating Egyptian empire. But his
father, Amenhotep III before him had not intervened either,
preferring a gold diplomacy to warlike expeditions. So,
nothing new here.
And the only trace we have of a military
expedition led against the miserable Nubian peoples who
dared, once again, to rise up against Egypt met with the
same vigorous reprisals as was usual.
But let's get back to the hymns.
The lyricism continues
with praise for the creator: in the morning, when the Aten
rises, the earth becomes once again habitable and in festivity.
Men, animals and plants give homage to the creator by their
It is the Aten who holds all life in his control because
he is "Creator of seed in women, Thou who makest
fluid into man".
It is also he who gives the breath of life both to the child
at its mother's breast and to the chick in the egg.
Both distant and near : "it is he
who takes millions of forms from his oneness".
The Amarnian naturalism
This religion of the Aten appears to be a naturalist
one of contemplation of nature, a work of the unique solar
creator. So, when the Aten rises, we are told :
and plants are flourishing. The birds fly from their nests.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet. All the world, they
do their work" .
Here we see this optimistic context expressed: All of nature
is a work of the creator and it is therefore intrinsically
good. It is considered that the order desired by
the creator is the natural order of things and there is
no reason to change it. This explains the special Amarna
representative style of which we spoke earlier.
The head of a princess
Not only are these representations no longer idealised
as before but also no attempt is made to hide defects,
in fact they are accentuated.
We see too that these representations show unheard of scenes
from daily life! The royal couple eating, or holding their
little girls on their knees and kissing them (figs 5,
We note, nevertheless, that the rules of Egyptian
depiction are respected, notably the reclining perspective with the
result that we recognise at first glance that the scenes
are Egyptian. Moreover, towards the end of the reign, the
excesses of the beginning are abandoned and the models
which we find in the sculptors' workshops give us
a real picture of the king and queen (figs 3,
though the dolichocephaly sometimes remains.(fig
The end of the hymns speak of the role of the king himself:
" And there is no other that knows thee save thy
son Nefer-kheperu-Re, Wa-en-Re, for thou hast made him well-versed
in thy plans and in thy strength"
..." It is extremely clear; the
king is the sole divine intercessor, the only
one to have received the revelation of the
Aten and who can convey it.."
and he concludes :
" Everything is] made to flourish
for the king,...
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son, who came forth from thy
body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, ... Ak-en-Aten,
... and the Chief Wife of the King ... Nefertiti "
It is extremely clear; the king is the sole divine
intercessor, the only one to have received the revelation
of the Aten
and who can convey it.
So what was life like in the new capital?
It was, of course, still a busy building site when the court
moved in. Several temples, exclusively dedicated to the
Aten, were built, among them the great temple, the main
one. It is called "Gem-pa-Aten", i.e. "find" or "meet
the Aten (see
the entrance of the Great Temple).
It is very different to temples dedicated to other deities
in this period, especially to Amun. But it is not an entirely
new style as it is quite similar to the solar temples
of the Vth Dynasty, some nine centuries before.
In a traditional temple the approach was from the light
to the shade, towards the holy of holies where the statue
of the god rested.. Here, all is open sky so that the life-giving
energy of the rays of the Aten might spread over the hundreds
of open-air altars, covered with animal, vegetable and
floral offerings, where the daily worship was celebrated.
It was Akhenaten and Nefertiti themselves who offered
adoration to the rising sun each morning and we can see pictures
of the king humbly prostrated before the divinity who he
alone had the right to venerate with no intermediary.
There are still priests, and even a high priest of the
Aten, but they no longer participate directly in the offering,
in the maintenance of the divine power. Prostrated, during
the worship, before the royal couple (and not before the
divinity), their role is purely administrative: they materially
maintain the domain of the Aten and that is all. They are
known as " the servants of god".
The meaning of the offering has radically changed: since
there is no longer any need to maintain and renew the divine
life each day, the offering has become an action
of indulgence (fig
27). One offers to the Aten a part of his creation
as a sign of recognition for his goodness. Nothing is
in return. Another frequent image is that of the king offering
the names of the solar disc to the solar disc! (fig
The appearance of the king at the "window of appearances" above
the main processional way (fig. 64) is likened to the appearance
of the Aten in the sky. Here is a view of the place where
this window was situated: fig
aspect of the cult is the processional outing of
the king when he leaves his palace to go to the temple. The appearance
of the king and queen is equivalent to the rising of the
They are always shown riding in a chariot and escorted
by policemen and soldiers (fig
48). These movements in a chariot pulled by two
horses take into account an important aspect of the symbolism
so dear to the sovereign: movement. Akhenaten
and Nefertiti move on their chariot like the Aten in the
sky and bring
the breath of life.
These outings of the royal couple replace the ancient traditional
processions of the other gods, especially Amun, during
the great festivals. But here, there are no oracles, the
god Aten is a silent god whose wishes only the king is
competent to reveal.
No more real priests, no more oracles… Akhenaten
has found a very efficient way of preventing any criticism
of his actions!
Note, too, that the practice of magic, so important in
the traditional religion, has no place in the Amarna system
shows us, if that were still necessary; that the
king is not the weak, soft personality that some would
To try to impose on Egypt reforms so contrary to its traditions,
to smother any fancy of resistance in the land, required
an iron hand in a leaden glove. Besides, it is only necessary
to observe the attitudes of the persons in the presence
of the king: never in Egypt do we see so many people bent
before their master, or so many soldiers and policemen
It is also at Amarna that we have found the biggest police
barracks ever found in Egypt.
The choice of the location of the capital is also unparalleled,
with its rocky circle surrounding the city on all sides
except that facing the Nile, thus providing a natural protection
major consequence of the system is that it is immutable,
with only the king able to define it.
Thus the necessity for men to adopt an attitude conforming
to Maat disappears. What is now required is an
attitude conforming to the will of the king!
Likewise, the statues,
to which the Egyptians have always rendered homage as being
the hypostases where their gods manifest themselves, disappear.
Akhenaten is very clear on this point: in a harangue to
his courtiers dating to the beginning of the reign, he
expressly states that they are stone idols of no value
whatsoever. Imagine the effect!
In his religion, there is no need for statues since
the sun is visible to all. The only iconic representations
permitted are those of the radiating disc and the royal
couple, living "statues".
In private houses, too, effigies of the royal couple will
replace the statues, which have become useless. Several
have been found in the houses of Amarna, in the little
domestic altars. As the worship of individuals could not
be addressed directly to the god, it was to these effigies
that it was made