Akhenaton: The Egyptian Pharaoh of One God
While history has favored the names King Tut, Ramses II, and Cleopatra above others, one name stands apart from all the rest as a ruler who not only affected the course of the Egyptian Empire as no ruler had before, but most likely altered the course of human history. That name is Akhenaton.
- Changing the course of human history
- An empire primed for change
- “Serviceable to Aton"
- One god
- Petrie, Moses, Tutankhamun, and Nefertiti
Changing the course of human history
The dynastic history of the ancient Egyptian Empire--from King Narmer to Alexander the Great--spanned nearly 3000 years, with over 300 named pharaohs (with countless unnamed) ruling 31 dynasties through three dynastic periods.
While history and pop culture has favored the names King Tut, Ramses II, and Cleopatra above others, one name stands apart from all the rest as a ruler who not only affected the course of the Egyptian Empire as no ruler had before, but most likely altered the course of human history. That name is Akhenaton.
An empire primed for change
Akhenaton, born Amenhotep IV (around 1390 BCE), was the son of Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiy. While little is recorded about his life prior to taking the throne, it is known that he succeeded his father at the end of a thirty-eight-year reign, and is believed to have ruled from about 1350 BCE to 1333 BCE, a brief seventeen years before dying in about 1336 BCE.
Ancient documents indicate that when Amenhotep IV came into power, the Egyptian Empire was about to undergo a major transition. Egyptian outposts were coming under threat from foreign enemies, the Hittites to the north were assuming ever-greater parts of Syria, and the Egyptian kingdom was generally beginning to shrink. Amenhotep III had withdrawn Egyptian forces from Palestine as one of his final official acts, with surviving documents indicating that he had apparently ignored requests from outlying protectorates requesting military assistance. Thus, when Amenhotep IV took the throne, the circumstances were primed for change.
“Serviceable to Aton"
Displeased with the state of the Egyptian society, Amenhotep IV set out to restore the Empire to its once great and exalted glory. Deciding that Egypt was in need of complete social reform, he set out to revolutionize Egypts’s religious system by first displacing the temple priests. Then, changing his name from Amenhotep, which essentially meant “Serviceable to Amon, the god ruler of Thebes,” to Akhenaton, meaning “Serviceable to Aton (the single, universal god and source of all life; represented by the sun disk), Akhenaton became the first ruler to represent monotheism, the belief in one god rather than many. He then decided to implement wide-sweeping religious reform as no ruler had even attempted before.
Shutting down the temples dedicated to Amon, Akhenaton began building a new city to honor Aton and serve as the governmental capital of Egypt, at what is present-day Amarna. Naming his new capital Akhetaton, “the Horizon of the Aton,” its buildings were decorated in a shocking new style that was intended to express the tenets of his new religion, with the sun disk a prominent feature. He then attempted a wide-scale erasure of all traditional gods' names throughout Egypt, even having the phrase “the gods” chiseled out from many to show that the Egyptian people no longer believed in many gods.
Akhenaton, however, did not allow his subjects direct access to Aton, claiming that only he could converse with his god; thus, requiring them to worship him and him alone. (There are many conflicting theories as to why he did this.) Oral tradition tells of Akhenaton conducting religious ceremonies under the blazing of sun which all subjects were required to attend--said to have often utilizing his army to enforce his decrees. But within a decade, Akhenaton was dead, and the people of Egypt quickly returned to their old ways.
After Akhenaton's death, the backlash forced his son, the pop cultural icon Tutankhamon, to reverse the move to monotheism and return to the worship of many gods. During his reign it appears likely that only the wealthy nobles embraced the Aton cult but even much of that loyalty may have been just to stay in favor with the new king.
Later rulers from the Eighteenth Dynasty without clear rights of succession, who founded a new dynasty, discredited Akhenaton and his immediate successors, referring to Akhenaton himself as "the enemy" in archival records--with many removing his name just as he had that of Amon.
Petrie, Moses, Tutankhamun, and Nefertiti
Akhenaton was all but lost to antiquity until the discovery of Amarna in the 19th century, at the nearly demolished site of Akhetaton.
Early excavations at Amarna by Flinders Petrie sparked interest in the mysterious pharaoh, which further increased with the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamon in the Valley of the Kings, at Luxor, who was subsequently proven to be Akhenaton's son according to DNA testing in 2010 by Zahi Hawass of Cairo.
Akhenaton remains an interesting figure, as does his Queen, Nefertiti. Modern interest comes partly from his connection with Tutankhamun, and partly from ongoing interest in the monotheist religion he attempted to establish and the cultural ideology which survives today.
Note: The idea that Akhenaton was the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness. According to Freud, Moses was an Egyptian (not a Hebrew) close to Akhenaton, and the Biblical reference to his “slowness of speech” could be explained not as a stutter, as many historian have concluded, but by his not being a native Hebrew speaker (1955: 37-8). Freud's theory has generated a great deal of interest because it represents a possible interpretation of the little historical evidence that is available on when the historic Moses might have actually lived in Egypt.
Note: The alternate spelling of "Aton" and "Aten" appears to be a regional distinction.
Heroes and Heretics, Barrows
Akhenaten: The Heretic King, Donald B. Redford
Ramses II, Historical Background, L. K. Sabbahy
Ancient Egypt, Lionel Casson
All Images via Wikipedia.org
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