Akhenaten is know as one of the greatest mystical revolutionaries of all time, but was his new religion a product of his creative genius, or merely a reaction to threats within his own empire. As Pharaoh, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, changed the traditional polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one centered on the Aten (the sun disk). He moved the Egyptian capitol from Thebes to a site now know as el-Amarna. After Akhenatens death, his successors re established the old order of things and set about systematically destroying any trace of him and his reforms.
In this essay, through the analysis of evidence, I will come to a conclusion as to what really inspired Akhenaten, need or enlightenment. Very little is known about Akhenatens early years. As had an older brother, Thutmose, it is not likely that he was expected to rule. Amenhotep, as he was then called, was probably trained as a priest of Re at Heliopolis, as where all young princes. The manner Akhenatens accession to the throne is still a much debated event in his life. Scholars are still unsure as to weather he came to power directly after his fathers death or if he ruled with his father in a co regency.
Scholars are still debating the length of the co regency, some say a short period of around 2 years while others argue it was probably around 12 years. At the start of his reign, Akhenaten did not do anything unorthodox. He completed his fathers building projects, and had himself depicted worshiping the traditional gods of Egypt, although special attention was paid to the falcon-headed Re-Horakhty, who wears the Aten sun-disk on his head. By year 3 of his reign, Akhenaten was beginning do make changes.
He celebrated his first Sed festival, which was a celebration that showed that the Aten was in partnership with Akhenaten. At the same time, Akhenaten ordered the building of four new temples at East Karnak which where to be dedicated to the Aten. This would have been quite a surprise to many people of the time because East Karnak was the traditional precinct of the god Amun. The cult of Amun was the strongest of all the cults and its power had grown almost so as to rival the pharaoh himself. Many modern day historians believe that this was the firs blow in a plan to take all power away from the cult.
Others argue he was only showing his devotion to the Aten, with no ill intent. Nefertiti lived a good life as Akhenatens queen in Thebes. She held a prominent place in society, higher than any other queen before. At the temples in East Karnak she is depicted in a traditional head smiting pose, like the king, and is shown worshiping the Aten with her daughter, Meritaten. A topic which has been greatly discussed by historians is the unusual appearance of Akhenaten in the paintings he had made of himself.
Many believe it was a product of his creative nature; he wanted to look different to uphold the theory of his religion which says that he is the son of the Aten. The most likely theory is that Akhenaten suffered from Frhlich syndrome, which caused physical abnormalities such as a woman shaped body, incredibly long neck and facial distortions. Akhenaten might have preferred to be depicted in his actual image than shame himself by having the painting made to look perfect. There are many theories but as of yet, historians are still unsure, some even claim Akhenaten was a woman posing as a man.
In year 5 of his reign, Akhenaten made drastic changes to the Egyptian empire. It was at this time that he changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten. Shortly after this he began the establishment of a new city, which was to be built in a barren plane which is now called El-Amana. The city was to be named Akhetaten He ordered the construction of 14 border stelae on the hills surrounding the site. The main reason for Akhenatens selection of this sit was the fact that it had never been dedicated to any god.
This action took even more power away from the priests as it moved the court and capital away from Karnak The city was built quickly, partly due to Akhenatens new building techniques, which included the use of talitat blocks (smaller building blocks that could be carried by one man), and through the use of sunken relief, which was quicker and more effective and stood out stronger in the Atens rays. Another contributing factor was the sheer scale of the building project. Thousands and thousands of workers built the palaces, temples, promenades and dwellings of the new city.
Once the city was complete, the court and royal family moved in. Nefertiti Enjoyed a great lifestyle. She was seen as almost an equal with the king. She appeared with the king in the window of appearances to reward their good subjects and was much loved. Nefertiti was a central part of Akhenatens atenist religion. In relives Nefertiti is often depicted wearing crown traditionally only worn by the king and smiting enemies in battle. At the peak of her power she shared a co-regency with Akhenaten.
The ordinary people of Akhetaten lived in quickly constructed plastered, mud brick houses. The city was essentially a living parade ground for Akhenaten, Nefertiti and his new religion, atenism. The central belief of atenism was that Akhenaten was the son of the Aten, who he claimed was the only and true god, who believed in Maat. Akhenatens religion was merely a monotheistic version of the traditional religion, with several gods being given names and new forms, but unlike before it made the King divine and so forth the highest individual in Egyptian religion on earth.
In effect he took all power from the Amun cult, and all other cults, which received no further funding. The changes in the methods of worship created incredible focus on the king and the royal family, because the only way to worship the Aten was through worshiping his son on earth, Akhenaten and through him was the only way ones prayers could reach the dead traveling into the afterlife. Many people didnt like the changes because they preferred the personal relationships they had enjoyed with the gods of their old faith.
It is known that in some houses of Akhetaten, shrines to the old gods could be found. It is at this time clear that Akhenaten has completely turned his back on the old order. The changes in temple architecture where in key with Akhenatens revolutionary approach; traditional roofed temples where the statue of the god was kept in the darkest place where replaced with light open temples with no roofs. No cult statues occupied these new temples of sunlight, as traditional representations of gods where avoided. The alters where open to the air and the sun shone brightly on them.
Akhenaten also reintroduced the benben, a ritual stone that dates back to the first old kingdom worship of the sun. A priest of Aten had little to do, as now all worship was directed to the pharaoh. The priest came to hold a position similar to a modern day alter boy, greatly reducing their status. By this time the Amun priesthood was all but destroyed, leaving no rivals to Akhenatens power. Akhenaten created an original artistic style, which later became known as Amarna art, named after the amarna period.
Apart from his controversial depiction of himself, he created a new style of art. It was a beautiful natural looking style, almost classical. This was a very different approach to former artworks, in which people and objects were depicted in unnatural poses, and almost always in perfect health. Prior to the amarna period, the personal life of the royal family was not for the publics attention, but Akhenaten beloved every part of their life was sacred as he was the son of the Aten. Paintings began to portray the royal family in intimate moments, formerly never carved.
The changes to a more realistic style of art are probably as a result of his belief in maat, which is both a word with the meaning truth and also a concept of truth. It came from the old god of truth, Ma at. Akhenaten continued his fathers foreign policy, and was a peaceful king apart from some small campaign early in his reign, although, while his father had been a genius at such diplomacy Akhenaten was to preoccupied to worry about foreign affairs, and relations with other countries grew distant although trade continued to flourish. Akhenaten needed a great deal of funds for his colossal building projects.
In the later years of his reign, Akhenaten became an oppressor of anyone who showed any belief in the old gods. He became obsessive about destroying all trace of the cult of Amun and had its name carved out of every monument in Egypt. Some say this obsession came from his original motive to take power away from the cult of Amun. Others believe he was filled with such religious zeal that he did it for his faith. At the end of his reign, the capital was moves swiftly back to Thebes and all trace of Akhenaten and his religion was destroyed.
For this reason, the armana period is a highly researched period in Egyptian history. Before deciding weather Akhenaten was a revolutionary or a reactionary character, one last point must be mentioned. Akhenaten was not the first pharaoh to show interest in the Aten. Akhenatens forefathers also showed interest in the Aten, devoting several sights to different versions of the sun disk. Was Akhenaten a reactionary, creating the new religion to consolidate his power, raise his status and make him more famous than any pharaoh before.
Or was he a Revolutionary, bravely developing and impementing his beliefs, which would have been influenced buy his fathers obvious soft spot for the Aten. It is true that Akhenaten probably used the new religion as a way to draw more power and prestige to himself, but the new ideology, art forms, architecture, way of life and capitol where all truly the result if a great revolutionary vision. If he began his quest only with the intention to increase his power, then by the time he was at its end, he truly believed in it. What might of began as a reaction no doubt became a great revolution.