What could the Egyptians have thought of their king and his religion?
It is quite clear that only the king and a handful of people very close to him understood what was happening! The rest of the country remained more or less faithful to the traditional religion. This opinion must be tempered, however, by the recent discovery of the remains of a temple to the Aten at Heliopolis and by the certainty, which we now have, that the king did not live cloistered at Akhetaten, even though it was his place of preference.

Even among the courtiers, opinions were certainly very dubious behind a façade of approval either forced or through careerism. Opposition could only be underground.
One clear sign is the small number of tombs dug into the cliffs surrounding the town, of which only one seems to have really been used for burial, in spite of a specific exhortation by the king indicating that it would be unthinkable for courtiers to be buried anywhere but in Amarna...which was not easy.
We have also found, even in the Amarna site itself, and especially in the workers's village, portrayals of the traditional gods and even statuettes of the execrated god Amun! This persistence and probably even revival of the traditional cults towards the end of the reign seem to have irritated the king deeply. As did probably the opposition of the principal religious institutions in the country which, economically strangled, must have reached a point where the covert criticism became overt...

The attitude of the king became more radical at the same time that he changed the qualifying names of his god Aten around year 9 and we have seen that all divine anthropomorphic representations disappeared. Theriomorphic representations, where the king is shown, among others, as a sphinx, also disappeared ().
The king and his zealots mainly attacked Amun and his divine wife, Mut and all those who related to him, smashing statues, hammering out the names of the god everywhere, right up to the tops of obelisks or in cartouches carrying his own coronation name (, erasure of the name of Amun in the cartouche of Amenhotep).
An interesting fact is that even the plural of the word "gods" was erased. Thus, the first outline of "monotheism" was accompanied by the first systematic persecutions in the history of Egypt. There were others, but it had to wait 14 centuries for them; those made by the Christians.

Having said this, this destruction did not affect all of the gods or the various parts of the country in the same way. The destruction was clearly concentrated in the Theban region and concerned all which was closely or distantly related to the execrated Amun.
Whether willingly, through incompetence or by negligence, many cults were not troubled.
Everything takes place as if the gods had been divided into two groups: those who are closely or distantly related, theologically or politically, and those which were hard to eliminate and those which, like Osiris, were not a hindrance and that could be ignored.
So, in Hermopolis, almost opposite Amarna, the cult of Thoth (), was followed with no apparent problem! It must be said that one of the attributes of Thoth was the lunar disc, so maybe that played a role. On the other hand, Amun and all the creator gods were attacked.

But, contrary to the legend, however, the temples were not completely closed, we are sure of that, not even Karnak. They seriously declined, though.
Besides, the king could have had them demolished but that did not happen, though we do not know why.

This iconoclastic, sacrilegious campaign must surely have greatly shocked the Egyptians, especially since it was perpetrated in the name of a god who had not gained their confidence.
And how could it have been otherwise? Akhenaten had instituted a mechanical, abstract and, in fact, inhumane religion. We can even wonder if we should really talk of a religion in the face of this blind and deaf force endowed with an ineluctable, conscience-lacking progress.
The Aten is absolutely not a personal god to whom one may address oneself or to whom one can pray. He is blind to the destiny of men and deaf to their prayers. One can expect neither consolation nor hope from him.
None of the human traits always assigned by men to gods could be applied to him. So, for the Egyptians, as Pierre Grandet said, he was "hardly a god". As we have seen, personal piety could only be addressed to the royal couple. The affective link, which would formerly relate an individual with his divinity, represented till then for him a little liberty of thought. Now this link was diverted to the unique advantage of the royal couple whose control was total.


The Hereafter

There exists a in the concept of the hereafter even regarding its existence as an independent entity. If references to Amun still existed at the start of the reign of Akhenaten, Osiris, sovereign of the dead and of the Underworld, on the other hand, disappears immediately. The deceased cease to become Osirises. There is no longer a place for the great god in the Amarna system because, as the nocturnal sun, he risked becoming a dangerous rival for the Aten.

This makes the discovery of (funerary servants) in the tomb of Akhenaten even more mysterious, as they correspond with a purely Osirian conception of the hereafter.

We have already mentioned the problem of the significance of the night, the dark side of the world, which can no longer correspond with anything and is likened to death; men "sleep as though they were dead". We do not know what happened to the Atenian sun at night. Apparently, one was content to notice that it was no longer there... It is, of course, out of the question in this context to imagine the awakening of the dead by the sun entering the underworld, which disappeared. Thus, the abandonment of the orientation to the west of the sepulchre entrances, which were now turned towards the east.
But we should also ask: why is a sepulchre still needed? Tombs were still excavated at Amarna, even for the king himself. They seem to have been conceived as simple empty shells, which no longer participated magically in the survival of their owner. Nevertheless, their existence is capital as is their architecture, since they are the real "kingdom" of the deceased who no longer benefited from that of Osiris.

What happens after death?

We know almost nothing. Nothing appears to have been formally proposed by the king…

It is supposed that men would have to wander in a more or less ghostly fashion on earth close to the great temple of Amarna (or, failing that, to the nearest temple of the Aten), their Ba taking advantage of the offerings sacrificed to the Aten each morning.

The inscriptions from the site of Kom el-Nana - one of the last surviving peripheral cult complexes of ancient Akhetaten - prove that it is the “Sunshade of Re” temple of Queen Nefertiti (see ). The Sunshade of Re served as the locus for the king’s divine renewal and daily rebirth, brought about by Nefertiti’s attributes as a fertile stand-in for the goddess Hathor. Inscriptions from the temple also reveal that it played an important role in the mortuary cults of the elite dead at Amarna – with dead courtiers coming to Nefertiti’s Sunshade of Re as spirits to obtain offerings to sustain them for eternity.

It was therefore vital to become a "Living Ba". Thus, as the tomb of Tutu tells us, the main event is the matinal awakening, parallel to the appearance of the rays of the Aten. No more need for the "field of offerings" and the "field of reeds", any more than for the traditional funerary books.

So the hereafter develops on earth, essentially at the site of Akhetaten (Meryre proclaims himself "justified in Akhetaten") and it all depends on the king who is the bestower of life on the earth, whether the individual is alive or dead. It was he who decided if an individual was "maa-kheru" (justified) or not. The king WAS the maat, those who had acted in accordance with his regulations –and they alone- were justified, as we have already seen.

Another surprising fact : Akhenaten did not have a Temple of Millions of Years (improperly called "funerary temple") built in Amarna, like those found in Thebes. It cannot be excluded that the link between Akhenaten and his god was considered so close that it led de facto to a fusion of the cult of Aten and his person, thus making the existence of a separate funerary temple unnecessary.

Death in the royal family

The problems posed by this post-mortem destiny appear in a glaring fashion from year 14, when one of Akhenaten's daughters, Maketaten dies. We see great disarray surrounding the king, materialised in his tomb by the celebrated scene where the royal couple are lamenting the death in childbirth of their daughter who has just (perhaps- let's be very prudent) given life to the future Tutankhamun ().
In addition, the king, perhaps sick, is very conscious of the problem of his successor. Though the Great Royal Wife Nefertiti had indeed given six daughters to the king, there was no male heir. The lady Kiya, whose role remains uncertain, but who seems to have succeeded Nefertiti as Great Royal Wife (though without the religious role) could also have given birth to Tutankhamun.
A building inscription in a limestone quarry at Dayr Abū Ḥinnis dated to Year 16 of Akhenaten proves that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were still the royal couple near the end of his reign. It is the highest known date of Queen Nefertiti and the latest dated inscription which can be certainly attributed to Akhenaten himself.
Whatever the situation, Akhenaten knew that his successor would have problems of legitimacy and that he would need to look to the traditional clergy for support.

The result of all this is that the royal attitudes began to soften, to the point where one wonders if, at the end of his reign, the king still really believed in his system. It is impossible to give an answer. We can only observe that, in two late Amarna tombs, -which could possibly date from after the death of the king- the name of Amun reappears beside that of the Aten. Some, like Alain Zivie, wonder if Akhenaten had not been removed from real power by this time.

In any case, he had a tomb made himself, on a new model similar to those of the Valley of the Kings. Some external and internal sarcophaguses have been found. The external sarcophagus in stone has been partially reconstituted (see ). The king's internal sarcophagus was found in Bavaria and has just been given back to Egypt. See (sorry, French only) and .

All these preparations are those usual for a king of Egypt. It is probable that the king gave them a particular significance, but we are unaware of what.
In the same way the mummification of the bodies is maintained, and in particular, we are sure that Akhenaton himself was mummified, probably buried initially in his tomb at Amarna, then subsequently re-buried in Thebes. Some believed to see in the mysterious mummy of tomb KV55 of the Valley of the Kings that of the king, but the debate remains open.


Year 17

Then, one day in the 17th. Year of his reign, Akhenaten died...

There are many unanswered questions. What happened after Akhenaten's death? Where was he buried? Who succeeded him? We know that Tutankhamun's reign saw the end of Akhenaten's revolution and the restoration of the old ways, and the boy-king himself was the last of the family line. But it seems clear that there was at least one other pharaoh in between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. Who were they? Could it have been Nefertiti? And who was Smenkhkare?

The disarray of the priests is immediately visible. No longer guided by the sovereign and not knowing what to do, they act exactly as for the burials of previous sovereigns. Akhenaten is mummified and he istemporarily buried in the tomb which he had had furnished for himself. Later, his mummy was brought back to Thebes.
It is commonly accepted nowadays that it was indeed a woman who ascended to the throne of Egypt on the death of Akhenaton. The current dominant theory (Krauss, Gabolde, Laboury) postulates that it was Akhenaton’s daughter Merytaton who succeeded to the throne. Nobody knows exactly what happened to Queen Nefertiti. Was she disgraced during her reign? A few clues suggest that Nefertiti died before her husband. In any case and in spite of Reeves opinion, it is improbable that she succeeded her husband.

What happened to Atenism?

The size of the gulf that had opened between the king and his subjects now becomes apparent by the speed at which the religion of the Aten as such will be abandoned, at least in its executive form, denying the other gods.
The city apparently empties very quickly of its inhabitants. Besides ideological reasons, one can wonder if this abandonment was not related to disease. Indeed the Paleoentomologist Eva Panagiotakopulu found in the houses an abundance of various fossilised insect remains, among which were fleas which carried the bacillus of plague (see ).

On the other hand, the real systematic destruction of the Amarnian monuments will date to the times of Seti I and Ramesses II, who certainly had problems of legitimacy and who wished to use certain Amarnian theses without there being any doubt of their Amunian orthodoxy.
All , all his images and his name were systematically destroyed, his sarcophagus was smashed, his mummy was repatriated to Thebes and finally disappeared.

All this was done with the general approbation of the whole population, without a voice appearing to be raised in the defence of the heretic religion.
Under Tutankhamun, the "Spring" stela proclaimed that the reform was complete, that the too-long neglected cults of the of the traditional gods and goddesses were re-established. Rather as if the country was cured after an illness...

This damnatio memoria extended to his three immediate successors, including Tutankhamun [N.B. we will not cover here the delicate and largely controversial subject of the , a subject so full of controversy that an intelligible synthesis with a chance of being true cannot be made])

Finally, when General Horemheb became pharaoh, he was attributed 59 years of reign as though he had been the successor to Amenhotep III, thus literally effacing Egyptian history during the Amarna period.
Three quarters of a century after his death, during the reign of Ramesses II, the king was only remembered under the terms of "enemy", or "rebel", or even according to some as "criminal".

Akhenaten's legacy

Akhenaten's ideas had, nevertheless, marked the mentality of the Ramesside era and beyond more deeply that is sometimes admitted.
Thus, we observe new theological developments on the question of "the one", notably in relation to "the first time", the beginning of the world.
There is a tendency to picture The One as a manifestation before the creation, which divides itself into "millions" at the creation and whose parts are equal to the whole and are thus worthy of receiving a cult. This is the fundamental difference from the religion invented by Akhenaten and, indeed, later monotheisms.
The importance of the "living Ba" initiated by Atenism will develop and we can consider the images of the Ba-bird near the sycamore-goddess in many post-Amarna tombs is a derivation of it (see at )

As an important sequel to Amarnism, we see a certain doubt appearing as to the destiny in the hereafter, together with the " songs of the harpist" which question what will really happen in the hereafter since "nobody ever came back", with the advice to "have a happy day".
Finally, according to Assmann, the effect of the Amarnian experiment was to clarify the ancient beliefs by confronting them with their antithesis and this is particularly true for the conception held of the underworld and its sovereign Osiris who will progressively dissolve completely into Ra.

Nobody knows what, exactly, was the fate of queen Nefertiti. Was she disgraced during the reign? Did she die shortly after her daughter Makhetaten? Or after the death of Akhenaten, who some even think she might have succeeded for a short time? So many hypotheses. Maybe we have her mummy, see .


1)- Was Akhenaten the founder of a new religion and of monotheism?

An interesting article by the URCI on the subject of monotheism introduces the subject well: "to approach the subject of monotheism in ancient Egypt is an exercise as passionate as it is perilous. Though the specialists agree on many points, their conclusions diverge widely and we would not pretend to give a final answer here but just to propose a few points for reflection. Belonging, as we do, to a Judeo-Christian world, we have many prejudices which could prevent us from making a healthy analysis of forms of religious thought different from our own. Specialists often have a religion of their own and judge those of others with condescension. On the other hand, it would be an equally vain effort to wish to make Egypt, at all costs, that which we want it to be: it has much more to teach us".

The majority of Egyptologists, like Erik Hornung or Jan Assmann, think that the system evolved by Akhenaten is sufficiently complete and original that we can speak of a new religion, which would, for the first time in the history of the world, be accessible to us at its genesis.
Others esteem that his reform should be viewed not as a religion but simply as a philosophy of nature.

"The Amarna experiment" represents, in fact, the personal experiment of the king. Akhenaten "discovered" the Aten via philosophical research or profound intuition (he says clearly that the god is in his heart) and thought that light, as a unique principle, could explain the whole cosmos.
So the immanent and the transcendant are inextricably mixed: "though you are far away, your rays are on earth" say the hymns.
But, through the light, he was tied to the visible universe which forced him to deny all which did not relate to it: the night, life in the underworld, and the divinities of the traditional pantheon, especially Amun, "the hidden one" and Osiris.

Akhenaten had made the Aten into a concentrate, a synthesis of all the gods of Egypt having a solar connotation. But the debate is still open as to whether we have here a real, coherent monotheism.
We have seen that even the name of the god refers, at least at the beginning, to three divine entities: Ra, Horus and Shu. In the same way, the Aten formed a triad with the royal couple, contrived on the one uniting Atum (the one creator god), Shu (whose feathers the king could wear, see , ) and Tefnut.
The existence of a triad seems, à priori, surprising but we have learned from christianity that the notion of trinity does not seem to be incompatible with that of a "unique" god…
We have to be careful with the word "unique" in Ancient Egypt. It is often used by the faithful to give preference to the god that they have chosen for themselves. And nobody is worried about writing on a stela the name of "the one Aten" and mentioning, immediately after, Osiris and Khnum...
We must make the distinction between the official cult and the popular cults. The latter were still widely practiced by the masses who adored mainly the little personal protective gods like Bes or Tawosret ... in parallel with the official Atenism.
The place held by these divinities in the official religion is more difficult to understand.
We know that their cult was not denied or their statues destroyed; - Atenism is therefore not a monotheism -; their adoration was not forbidden - Atenism is therefore not a monolatry.
It appears that we must consider Atenism as a form of henotheism in which the ancient gods were tolerated (on condition that they had no connection with political life, as did Amun) but were humbled in an Atenist reinterpretation: they are now linked to the eternal aspects of the king and queen and, by this fact, formed an integral part of the homage rendered to the royal family: Atum/Ptah-Amenhotep III; Hathor-Tiy; Shu-Akhenaten ; Tefnut/Hathor-Nefertiti. This is illustrated for instance by this of the Metropolitan Museum depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti as Shu and Tefnut.

Whatever the case, Akhenaten did not create this religion from nothing. He pushed to the extreme the conclusions of the train of thought of which we have spoken and which tended to combine the many in one.
I think that his personal intuition was really one of a single god and that the concept of monotheism is indeed present in the king's mind when we read, carved in his tombs, "there is only he" and he very clearly considers himself as the god's sole interlocutor: "no other knows you", which reminds us strangely of certain passages in the Bible. We can also follow the intellectual path of the king which says, at the start "there is no other god LIKE Thou", changing, at Amarna, to " there is no other god BUT Thou".
However this does not allow us to talk about about monotheism, because this term covers not only a single god, but also a communicating god, which is not the case as we have seen.

2)- Was Akhenaten a "revolutionary" ?

If we accept that a revolution in any domain (politics, fashion, technology...) represents a brutal and drastic split with the past, we can accept this qualification for the religious policy of the king because, although he did not change everything, as is so often stated, he nevertheless caused an upheaval in Egyptian history.
We have here, nevertheless, the prototype of a modern word which has connotations very far removed from those of the Amarna period and which should be used with great prudence.

When we read the hymns, we are struck be the apparent discordance between their loftiness and what we have already said about the person and the actions of the king himself, about whom we could say that he is a passionate but unapproachable person.
In addition, the original ideas of the king are accompanied by the appearance of a court comprising new people, of which not a negligible number were opportunists, giving the severe judgement of Morenz: "Terror at the top, careerism at the bottom".

And here lies the recurrent problem in the history of humanity and for which Akhenaten seems to be the precursor; in the name of seductive ideas – at least for those who are adepts of one of the formal religions – Akhenaten will build a system of inexorable rigour and use all the religious and temporal power available to a Pharaoh of Egypt to try to impose it on all and sundry by force, without there being a real adhesion, either by the elite or by the people of Egypt.

This religion, centred on the king who is the "only one to know the Aten" was thus condemned to die with its founder and, indeed, it fell into oblivion for 2300 years until the end of the 19th. Century.
But Akhenaten himself did not disappear and subconscious traces of Akhenaten's ideas were incorporated into the Egyptian religion and lasted to its end. We have already given some examples of this.
Thus, in a certain manner, we can consider the Amarna period as a breeding ground for the spiritual and artistic future of Egypt.

3)- Akhenaten and Moses

We have compared the texts of the hymns with Psalm 104 of the Old Testament, written several centuries later, whose accents are certainly close.
Inevitably, some have deduced the existence of a secret cult, of a community of initiates who perpetuated the ideas of Akhenaten to the time of Moses. Or we can even read that Akhenaten and Moses were simply one and the same person!
Sigmund Freud, on his part, considered Moses as an Egyptian who transmitted the knowledge of Akhenaten to the tribes of Israel...
It is more prudent and probably truer to consider that the incontestable similarities, which may be established, are due to a parallel evolution of reflections in this cosmopolitan near east where the mixing of ideas and population were incessant.
In passing, note the irony of history; the religion founded by Akhenaten, a person of whom the history is certain, has disappeared, while the Hebrew religion based on a mythical person, Moses, whose existence nobody has ever proved, has lasted, with the success with which we are familiar.

The mono-Atenism of Akhenaten was the first demonstration in history of the distinction "real god – false god" which would be repeated in the mono-Jawehism of Moses. It is through this obstinate research of the "unique principle" in the 14th century BCE that Akhenaten may appear like a modern man. Unfortunately, it is also the basis for fundamentalism, intolerance and persecution.

Fortunately, the ancient Egyptian civilisation was able to survive for 18 centuries after Akhenaten.
It was another monotheism, that of Christ, which finally destroyed it. By an extraordinary intuition, several centuries before this end, theologians foresaw that the abandon of the cult of the gods would signify the end of Egypt. Here's what they said: "The gods, leaving the earth, will return to heaven; they will abandon Egypt. This country, which was once the home of the holy liturgies, now, bereft of its gods, will never again enjoy their presence. Egypt, Egypt, nothing will remain of your cults but fables and even your children, later, will not believe them. Nothing will survive but words carved in stones to recount your pious exploits"