The Amarna period is one of the most exciting in the history of Ancient Egypt. It is also the one which has given rise to the most work and controversy.
Our aim here is not to be exhaustive on the subject but to offer the reader a vision which attempts to be objective as a function of the historical data which seem to be confirmed. Nevertheless, there remain several points subject to discussion or interpretation.
With the reign of Akhenaten, the ancient land of Egypt will come to know an exceptional period of agitation and one of the most fascinating religious and spiritual experiments in the history of humanity.
Under the impetus of the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) IV- Akhenaten, and his beautiful and famous spouse Nefertiti (), that which we are used to calling
"The Amarna Heresy" (from the name of its capital Amarna) or "the Amarna Experiment" will attempt to overthrow the traditional beliefs of a multi-millenarian civilisation.
This is a subject which is very much "à la mode" and several works appear regularly on Akhenaten and Nefertiti, of variable quality and which, unfortunately, often reflect the dreams of their authors rather than the reality of the documentation, and that when they are not completely desecrated by soap or other advertisements.
But even among professional Egyptologists, the mere mention of this period often brings passionate reactions and taking of sides, so important being the subtended questions for religious history and the history of ideas in general.
It must be said that the personality of Akhenaten and the significance and extent of his action and his idea have been judged in various ways. At the end of the 19th century, the great English Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, the first to understand Akhenaten’s historical importance, described him both as the first monotheist and the first individual in history and wrote
"a man who was indisputably a genius and who managed to crush the thousand-year-old shell of habits, superstitions and conventions of society and courageously resisted the power of the clergy and other dignitaries". Freud in "L’homme Moïse et la religion monothéiste (The man Moses and monotheistic religion)" saw a filiation between the prophet and the king (see - sorry, it's only available in French).
Nowadays, many historians have overturned this judgement and many of them consider Akhenaten as a tyrant, a fanatical despot or even a madman and an atheist!
Well, let’s try to see things a bit more clearly using the authenticated facts available to us while proposing plausible, if not certain, hypotheses.
To do this, we must go back in time to around 1350 BCE in the imperial Egypt of the New Kingdom at the time of the father of Akhenaten, the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) III.
Egypt is already a very ancient civilisation, as the pyramids have already been standing for more than 1000 years on the Giza plateau. The country possesses a very ancient tradition which has endured and asserted itself in spite of the vicissitudes of history.
The pharaohs of the glorious XVIIIth. Dynasty have governed the two lands of Egypt for a century after having driven out foreign Hyksos invaders. This occupation has left a deep impression on the collective imagination. To protect itself against further invasions, Egypt has built an immense empire stretching from the 4th. cataract of the Nile, in modern-day Sudan, to the Euphrates and the borders of Anatolia ( .
Under the reign of Amenophis (Amenhotep) III, the empire is at its zenith. Immense riches from tributes paid by the dominated nations flow into the Nile valley and contribute to a general prosperity and are conspicuous notably for the rich donations to the traditional temples and by an abundance of architectural and artistic output whose refinement will never be exceeded.
The enrichment of the country and external contacts favourised the transformation of the Egyptian society. From now on, it is a more open society, a society which has become, above all, a cosmopolitan one with an ever greater presence and influence by the foreigners living in Egypt.
Thus, little by little, mentalities changed… the consequences are many, both in regard to ideas about the nature of the monarchy and of spirituality, with a development of the imperial concept, superimposed upon the development of the solar cult. The universality of royal power on earth, in a similar way to that of the sun, Ra, in the heavens, is proclaimed.
Thus the laudatory epithets flourish, the king being called "king of kings, prince of princes" and, already, "the Aten for all countries". The theologians begin to associate more and more the sun god par excellence, Ra () with all the other gods of the pantheon, starting with Amun.
From the start, the XVIIIth. Dynasty placed itself under the protection or patronage of the god Amun of Karnak, promoted to dynastic god, god of the empire ().
"King of gods and god of kings", Amun saw his role as principal divinity of the land reinforced little by little and now he is amalgamated with the great god Ra, in the form of Amun-Ra. This solarisation of Amun makes the sun the principal form of divinity, whereas the other gods will represent special manifestations at a given time and at a precise place ().
Amun, whose name means "the hidden one", he who has not yet shown himself. He now represents the creator god par excellence; a god who created and re-creates, each day, the world. He is considered more and more as he in whom all things reside .
This interpretation, which consists of deriving the many from the one, imposes itself progressively on the dominant classes and the literate- who are growing in numbers. It is typical of the Egyptian tradition and mentality though, at this time, it would nevertheless not enter anybody’s mind to wish to obliterate or deny any of the other divine entities!
Amun is also the supreme guarantor of rights and morals, whose wish manifests itself in the oracles, especially those given to the faithful who consult him during his processional outings on great feast days.
It goes without saying that these speculations were mainly above the heads of the basic faithful and anyway, no attempt at vulgarisation had ever been made to try and explain these concepts to an unfortunate population who had a great many more concrete worries and who confided mainly in the small gods and spirits which watched over their daily life.
Nevertheless, in spite of this, Amun is not just an official, distant god. He was able to gain the trust of many Egyptians who made him their personal god, their divine, privileged interlocutor. For at this time, a form of personal piety progressively developed, which Assmann calls the "new theology of divine will", a direct relationship between the man and his god, which had not existed in previous periods. Amun thus becomes he who listens to the one who implores, who can pardon, who can comfort. He is described as "he who gives succour to the humble", "he who gives strength to the unfortunate". One can pray to him, persuade him, he forgives mistakes if one can prove an irreproachable behaviour, if one has, as the texts say, "followed the way of Maat".
A word is now necessary concerning the goddess Maat. ()
Maat is the basis for understanding the Egyptian religious system and society. Maat is the organised world, stability, justice that reigns. Maat is the balance between the antagonistic forces that govern the world.
The role of the king is to cause Maat to reign over the world. The supreme offering that the king makes to the gods is that of a figurine of this goddess. By this offering, the king indicates that, thanks to his personal action, aided by those of men, the terrestrial world conforms to that which they, the gods, demand. It is now their turn to act for men in exchange.
It is this reciprocity that is fundamental in all of the Egyptian religion and upon which rests the continuity of the world.
Note here something very important for what follows: In the traditional concept, the king causes Maat to reign over the world but he is not Maat.
Parallel to the rise of the god Amun, the temporal power of his clergy was considerably heightened, together with their political power. For evidence, we only need to look at the magnificence of the great temple of Karnak where each sovereign’s desire was to leave his mark in architectural works.
In addition, the will of Amun, as we said, was expressed by means of oracles. Oracles conveyed by the priests, of course! These oracles even permitted, on occasion, certain sovereigns whose legitimacy was uncertain to accede to the throne (for example, Queen Hatshepsut).
Indeed, this power of the god and his clergy manifested itself very clearly in the appearance of the notion of theogamy. The pharaoh no longer appears as the son of his father and mother but as the son of his mother and of Amun, incarnated as his father. By this process of theogamy he thus reinforces his divine filiation and his traditional rôle as the guarantor of Maat.
By the subterfuge of the oracles, the god or his clergy could approve or censure the behaviour of individuals but there existed the danger that he might do the same concerning royal behaviour. This menace seems to have been unacceptable to Akhenaton, as we shall see.
Thus we witness in this period a consecration of the god Amun-Ra and, in parallel, a revival of the solar cults and devotion, especially within the royal family. It is in this context of a triumphant god Amun that the god Aten will make his appearance.
Who is this god, the Aten, who will be at the centre of the religion that Akhenaten will try to impose?
In fact, it is not really a new god because we find mention of his name in the pyramid texts of 1000 years earlier.
Originally, the Aten represents one of the common names designating the sun derived from a verbal root meaning "to be distant". It was probably pronounced something like "yati (n) ". Over time, the final "n" has been lost.
It is not really considered especially as a divinity but simply the disc in motion.
We saw that under the reign of Akhenaten’s father, Amenophis (Amenhotep) III, the god Amun was considered more and more as a manifestation of the sun in the form of Amun-Ra. Well, now it is considered that, as the Aten, the sun disc visible everywhere and by everyone, he fulfils his celestial circumnavigation and by this fact, encompasses the whole universe with his power.
Throughout the 18th Dynasty, this universal power of the sun is placed in parallel with royal power, which is considered more and more as universal. There is a kind of return to the Old Kingdom, a kind of religious neo-heliopolitanism and from the reign of Thutmosis IV (a reign pivital for numerous things) a political will to return to the total monarchical power of more ancient times.
We see the relationship between the Aten and the king become progressively stronger and stronger. Thus, when Amenophis (Amenhotep) III leaves his palace, it is the Aten which rises on the horizon, when he marches into foreign lands, it is the Aten who traverses the sky and a vizier described himself as "he who contemplates the disc in his horizon" i.e. the king in his palace.
This ascent of the Aten under Amenophis (Amenhotep) III is also evident from the name "the Aten is resplendent", given to one of the palaces and to the royal parade boat. An Egyptian army corps took the name of the Aten.
We also witness a multiplication of the colossal statues in the effigy of the king. These colossi represent a materialisation of the divine body of the king. and are the subject of a cult. They also multiply under Akhenaten, in conformity with his perception of his function.
We can see, therefore, that the Aten had a strong presence at the end of the reign of Amenhotep III. It is important to note that the solar devotion of this sovereign is very different to that which will be Akhenaten’s. The king continues to partake in the great diurnal and nocturnal voyage of the sun and aids him in his matinal rebirth after having vanquished his enemies in the underworld, notably the serpent Apophis.
So here we are when, in about 1358 BCE a great calamity strikes the two lands of Egypt: the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) the third has died.
After the 70 days of ritual, he is interred with great pomp in his hypogeum in the Valley of the Kings and his son ascends to the throne (). His legitimacy is incontestable and uncontested. This ascension to the throne may have been preceded by a period of co-regency with his father which may have lasted as much as ten years but this is much discussed .
It is an ever passionate debate which gave rise to the excellent thesis by who concluded that…we can conclude nothing!
He must have been about 25 years old and is called Amenophis (Amenhotep), like his father, a name that comes from a Greek deformation of the Egyptian name Imn htp, "Amun is satisfied", a denomination which makes a direct reference to Amun. (note: according to Jan Qaguebeur, Amenophis would be a mistake since it derives from Imn-m-Ipt and not from Imn-htp).
We know virtually nothing about the youth of he who has become the Pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) IV.
Of one thing we can be sure, that this took place at a period of real crisis of polytheism, as if the Egyptians suddenly didn't know how to manage their immense divine world and had felt the necessity to insist on the unity of the divine more than on the diversity of the gods, notably in allowing the choice for worship of the very old solar cults.
Certain minor literates went very far in rejecting as superstitions the complex mysteries of the religion, to the benefit of a rationalist spiritual interpretation, which granted only visible reality.
All this profoundly affected the young prince, as also did, probably, the influence of his mother, the Great Royal Wife of Amenophis (Amenhotep) III, Queen Tiy whose powerful personality certainly played a role ().
The young Amenophis (Amenhotep) has already married she who is – perhaps- his cousin, the beautiful Nefertiti (whose name means "The beautiful one has come") () who thus becomes the Great Royal Wife and who is required to give birth to the male successor to the throne.
During the first two years of his reign, nothing seems to change. The king is crowned at Thebes, the city of Amun, like his forefathers before him. He adopts a very traditional titulary, which makes clear reference to Amun, and keeps his birth name Imen htp.
During the first two years of the reign, nothing seems to change.
The king crowned himself in Thebes, the city of Amon, as his predecessors before him. He adopted a very traditional titulature, which clearly makes reference to Amon, and kept his birth name of Imen-htp. His very rare representations, those which have not been destroyed, adopt the traditional cannon. This is how on the lintel of entry of the tomb of , which exercised his functions during the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV, one sees the king (whose cartouches are hammered) making a classic offering to Amon ().
However since this time (therefore between 11 and 12 years) he introduces a new solar divine entity based on Horus of the horizon (Horakhty) which he/it names "Ra-Horakhty in his nature of solar light which emanates from the Aten disk", thus making of Ra a "sovereign of the horizon", thus establishing his proximity to the terrestrial royalty.
During year 2, things start to move.
The king orders the construction, in the middle of the domain of Amun at Karnak, of several edifices dedicated to the god Aten. From this moment on, we note innovations which profoundly shake and shock the mentalities of this so traditionalist and conservative society. First of all, in order to go faster, construction is no longer done with big blocks but with the help of sandstone bricks, the talatats, which could be carried by one man ().The construction is considerably accelerated but so is the dismantling which follows the Amarna period, of course.
Above all, the figurative representations undergo important changes. Certainly, the basic canons, notably the reclining perspective are respected and we have no hesitation in recognising the works as Egyptian but the characters become very strange even to us as "modern people". So imagine the effect on the Egyptians of the time!
This innovation in the decoration clearly appears as a deliberate royal wish. Certain sculptors, like Bak () expressly say too that they received their teaching from the king himself.
It is this which is striking, before the official rupture with Amun, which will come later: this sort of naturalist, realist style, sometimes pushed to caricature and which characterises the Amarna period.
The king (and, indeed, other individuals of the royal family) is shown with a stretched-out skull, a long thin neck, a thrown-back head, and big lips (, ). He is almost always wearing the "blue crown (khepresh) or the nemes, and the latter adopts a rounded form which reminds us of the solar disc.
Wide, feminine hips () sometimes give him an androgynous appearance, which has caused much ink to flow, since certain persons have concluded that he was a degenerate suffering from an endocrine illness (Fröhlich’s syndrome). This is wrong!
We can be certain today that Akhenaten was not suffering from any form of eunuchism and the 8 daughters, at least, that he engendered are the clear proof. On the other hand, it is possible that he suffered from Marfan’s syndrome and the ocular problems which resulted from it could explain part of his theology (see this subject and for a deeper discussion ).
In Amarna art, all that was static, fixed for eternity, is now in motion. Vertical axes now become diagonals, resulting in the stretched heads and crowns. This idea of movement recurs, as we shall see, in the relationship of the king with his god and, notably, in the high presentation of offerings ().We also see it in scenes of the royal family’s private life and, for example, in the ribbons fluttering in the wind to represent the divine breath.
It is probable that the king gave orders to hide nothing of the characteristics of the royal family (and the skulls of the family which have been discovered are indeed stretched) (), and even to accentuate them, both to care for the naturalism which will characterise the new religion and to create a spiritual shock in regard to the tradition. Amarna art thus appears as a mannerist distortion of reality, expressionism in breach of the classic canons.
Remember that, in Ancient Egypt, representations are never neutral. On the contrary, they are the very essence of royal ideology.
In having himself shown in an ambiguous form, both masculine and feminine, or even an asexual form, the king has at least two aims.
Firstly, he shows himself as the fusion of the father and mother of the country, like the primordial human being, the asexual emanation of the god Aten, for whom he is the sole representative on earth.
On the other hand, in harmonising his iconography with that of the queen Nefertiti, he erases more and more the differences that could exist between them. And this is a necessity, a sort of dance: because he, the king, will go up a step in assimilating himself with the Aten and it is necessary that the empty place which he will leave be occupied: occupied by the queen Nefertiti.
Nefertiti will now play a major role in Amarna religion. Previously, in earlier periods, the Great Royal Wife took a greater and greater place in the theology and the organisation of the cult but now she holds a place almost as important as that of the king. Thus, on the stelae and statues, each time where the physical space exists to allow it, it is the royal couple who are represented and not just the king.
We shall also see the queen appropriate the symbols of power that were formerly strictly reserved for the king alone. For example, she is shown (fictively) massacring the enemies of Egypt or accomplishing specifically royal rites of the divine cult, which would have been unthinkable before this period.
Remains of "Osirian" colossi, which alternated with pillars of the façade of the temple court, show this extraordinary aspect adopted by the king ( and ). We also find traces of representations of a Sed festival (). Since the king had, of course, by far not attained the usual given time for this kind of jubilee festival, we must find another significance, which, though plausible, is hypothetical: the wish to mark the beginning of a new era.
Up to the 4th. Year of his reign, he who is still Amenophis (Amenhotep) IV divides his residence between Memphis (near Cairo), which has always remained the administrative capital of Egypt, and Thebes, which is more the religious capital.
Plainly, from the start, he conceives the Egyptian state as a theocracy of which the Aten is the sovereign, and himself the sole earthly representative.
During this period, he busies himself with the development of the cult of his god, the Aten and, at the same time, in taking back, to his advantage, the administration of the domain of Amun, in order to break the religious dynamism of the great god, to try to reduce the temporal power of his clergy and to recuperate the immense riches of Amun which he needs for his programme of great works.
In fact, from year 4 on, the king decides to break completely with Thebes. This is a simple observation, since no document exists which tells us of the religious crisis with the clergy of Amun. He will choose to erect a new capital in middle Egypt, half way between Thebes and Memphis on the site currently known as Tel-el-Amarna, or, more simply, Amarna (). This place is also close to Akhmim, from where the parents of the queen are thought to originate
The king explains to us how he is supposed to have chosen this place. He was guided by the Aten himself who, while he (Akhenaten) was navigating the river, rose precisely in the notch formed in the rocky cliff by the opening of the bed of a dried-up wadi thus forming the hieroglyph Akhet which represents the horizon in Egyptian ().
And the new capital was baptised Akhet-Aten, i.e. the horizon of the disc.
All around the immense rocky circle which surrounds the location of the city (), the king has engraved in the rock 14 stelae () on which he explains his reasons for the choice of the site: apart from being the place of the "revelation "of the Aten, it is also a virgin land belonging to no temple, no funerary estate. Which is not quite exact, as, on the other side of the Nile, close by, is the city of Hermopolis, ancient city of the god Thoth ().
The construction of the city continues from year 5 to year 8, which is, of course, very fast, and will mobilise a large part of the economic and human resources of the kingdom.
It is on this site, chosen by himself, that the king will be able to develop fully his conception of the Aten and his new vision of the world.
(An excellent reconstruction, with numerous 3d photos, may be seen under the title )