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Akhenaten (pronounced /ˌækəˈnɑːtən/[8]), also spelled Echnaton,[9] Akhenaton,[3] Ikhnaton,[2] and Khuenaten[10][11] (Ancient Egyptian: ꜣḫ-n-jtn, meaning "Effective for the Aten"), was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh reigning c. 1353–1336[3] or 1351–1334 BC,[4] the tenth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Before the fifth year of his reign, he was known as Amenhotep IV (Ancient Egyptian: jmn-ḥtp, meaning "Amun is satisfied," Hellenized as Amenophis IV).

Akhenaten is noted for abandoning Egypt's traditional polytheistic religion and introducing Atenism, worship centered on the sun disc Aten. The views of Egyptologists differ whether Atenism should be considered as absolute monotheism, or whether it was monolatry, syncretism, or henotheism.[12][13] This culture shift away from traditional religion was not widely accepted. After his death, Akhenaten's monuments were dismantled and hidden, his statues were destroyed, and his name excluded from lists of rulers compiled by later pharaohs.[14] Traditional religious practice was gradually restored, notably under his close successor Tutankhamun, who changed his name from Tutankhaten early in his reign.[15] When some dozen years later rulers without clear rights of succession from the Eighteenth Dynasty founded a new dynasty, they discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors, referring to Akhenaten himself as "the enemy" or "that criminal" in archival records.[16]

Akhenaten was all but lost to history until the late 19th century discovery of Amarna, or Akhetaten, the new capital city he built for the worship of Aten.[17] Furthermore, in 1907, a mummy that could be Akhenaten's was unearthed from the tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings by Edward R. Ayrton. Genetic testing has determined that the man buried in KV55 was Tutankhamun's father,[18] but its identification as Akhenaten has since been questioned.[6][7][19][20][21]

Akhenaten's rediscovery and Flinders Petrie's early excavations at Amarna sparked great public interest in the pharaoh and his queen Nefertiti. He has been described as "enigmatic," "mysterious," "revolutionary," "the greatest idealist of the world," and "the first individual in history," but also as a "heretic," "fanatic," "possibly insane," and "mad."[12][22][23][24][25] The interest comes from his connection with Tutankhamun, the unique style and high quality of the pictorial arts he patronized, and ongoing interest in the religion he attempted to establish.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children

The future Akhenaten was born Amenhotep, a younger son of pharaoh Amenhotep III and his principal wife Tiye. Crown prince Thutmose, Amenhotep III and Tiye's eldest son and Akhenaten's brother, was recognized as Amenhotep III's heir. Akhenaten also had four or five sisters, Sitamun, Henuttaneb, Iset or Isis, Nebetah, and possibly Beketaten.[26] After Thutmose died relatively young, perhaps around his father's thirtieth regnal year, Akhenaten was next in line for Egypt's throne.[27]

Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti, his Great Royal Wife; the exact timing of their marriage is unknown, but evidence from the pharaoh's building projects suggests that this happened either shortly before or after Akhenaten took the throne.[11] Egyptologist Dimitri Laboury suggested that the marriage took place in Akhenaten's fourth regnal year.[28] A secondary wife of Akhenaten named Kiya is also known from inscriptions. Some have theorized that she gained her importance as the mother of Tutankhamun, Smenkhkare, or both. Some Egyptologists, such as William Murnane, proposed that Kiya is a colloqial name of the Mitanni princess Tadukhipa, daughter of the Mitanni king Tushratta, widow of Amenhotep III, and later wife of Akhenaten.[29][30] Akhenaten's other attested consorts are the daughter of Šatiya, ruler of Enišasi, and a daughter of Burna-Buriash II, king of Babylonia.[31]

This limestone relief of a royal couple in the Amarna style have variously been attributed as Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Smenkhkare and Meritaten, or Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun.

Akhenaten could have had seven or eight children based on inscriptions. Egyptologists are fairly certain about his six daughters, who are well attested in contemporary depictions.[32] Among his six daughters, Meritaten was born in regnal year one or five; Meketaten in year four or six; Ankhesenpaaten, later queen of Tutankhamun, before year five or eight; Neferneferuaten Tasherit in year eight or nine; Neferneferure in year nine or ten; and Setepenre in year ten or eleven.[33][34][35][36] Tutankhamun, born Tutankhaten, was most likely Akhenaten's son, too, with Nefertiti or another wife.[37][38] There is less certainty around Akhenaten's relationship with Smenkhkare, his coregent or successor,[39] who could have been Akhenaten's eldest son with an unknown wife, and later married Meritaten, his own sister.[40]

Some historians, such as Edward Wente and James Allen, have proposed that Akhenaten took some of his daughters as wives or sexual consorts to father a male heir.[41][42] While this is debated, some historical parallels exist: Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III married his daughter Sitamun, while Ramesses II married two or more of his daughters, even though their marriages might simply have been ceremonial.[43][44] In Akhenaten's case, Meritaten, for example, recorded as Great Royal Wife to Smenkhkare, is listed on a box from Tutankhamun's tomb alongside pharaohs Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten as Great Royal Wife. Additionally, letters written to Akhenaten from foreign rulers make reference to Meritaten as "mistress of the house." Egyptologists in the early 20th century also believed that Akhenaten could have fathered a child with his daughter Meketaten. Meketaten's death, at perhaps age ten to twelve, is recorded in the royal tombs at Akhetaten from around regnal years thirteen or fourteen. Early Egyptologists attributed her death possibly to childbirth, because of a depiction of an infant in her tomb. Because no husband is known for Meketaten, the assumption had been that Akhenaten was the father. Aidan Dodson believed this to be unlikely, as no Egyptian tomb has been found that mentions or alludes to the cause of death of the tomb owner, and Jacobus van Dijk proposed that the child is a portrayal of Meketaten's soul.[45] Finally, various monuments, originally for Kiya, were reinscribed for Akhenaten's daughters Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten. The revised inscriptions list a Meritaten-tasherit ("junior") and an Ankhesenpaaten-tasherit. Some view this to indicate that Akhenaten fathered his own grandchildren. Others hold that, since these grandchildren are not attested to elsewhere, they are fictions invented to fill the space originally filled by Kiya's child.[41][46]

Early life[edit]

Akhenaten's elder brother Thutmose, shown in his role as High Priest of Ptah. Akhenaten became heir to the throne after Thutmose died during their father's reign.

Egyptologists know very little about Akhenaten's life as prince. Donald B. Redford dated his birth before his father Amenhotep III's 25th regnal year, c. 1363–1361 BC, based on the birth of Akhenaten's first daughter, which likely happened fairly early in his own reign.[4][47] The only mention of his name, as "the King's Son Amenhotep," was found on a wine docket at Amenhotep III's Malkata palace, where some historians suggested Akhenaten was born. Others contended that he was born at Memphis, where growing up he was influenced by the worship of the sun god Ra practiced at nearby Heliopolis.[48] Redford and James K. Hoffmeier stated, however, that Ra's cult was so widespread and established throughout Egypt that Akhenaten could have been influenced by solar worship even if he did not grow up around Heliopolis.[49][50]

Some historians have tried to determine who was Akhenaten's tutor during his youth, and have proposed scribes Heqareshu or Meryre II, the royal tutor Amenemotep, or the vizier Aperel.[51] The only person we know for certain served the prince was Parennefer, whose tomb mentions this fact.[52]

Egyptologist Cyril Aldred suggested that prince Amenhotep might have been a High Priest of Ptah in Memphis, although no evidence supporting this had been found.[53] It is known that Amenhotep's brother, crown prince Thutmose, served in this role before he died. If Amenhotep inherited his brother's roles in preparation for his accession to the throne, he might have become a high priest in Thutmose's stead. Aldred proposed that Akhenaten's unusual artistic inclinations might have been formed during his time serving Ptah, who was the patron god of craftsmen, and whose high priest were sometimes referred to as "The Greatest of the Directors of Craftsmanship."[54]


Coregency with Amenhotep III[edit]

There is much controversy around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father Amenhotep III or whether there was a coregency, lasting perhaps as long as 12 years. Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman, and other scholars have argued strongly against the establishment of a long coregency between the two rulers and in favour of either no coregency or a brief one lasting at most two years.[55] Donald Redford, William Murnane, Alan Gardiner, and Lawrence Berman contested the view of any coregency whatsoever between Akhenaten and his father.[56][57]

Most recently, in 2014, archeologists found both pharaohs' names inscribed on the wall of the Luxor tomb of vizier Amenhotep-Huy. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities called this "conclusive evidence" that Akhenaten shared power with his father for at least eight years, based on the dating of the tomb.[58] This conclusion was called into question by other Egyptologists, according to whom the inscription only means that construction on Amenhotep-Huy's tomb commenced during Amenhotep III's reign and concluded under Akhenaten's, and Amenhotep-Huy thus simply wanted to pay his respects to both rulers.[59]

Early reign as Amenhotep IV[edit]

Wooden standing statue of Akhenaten. Currently in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

Akhenaten took Egypt's throne as Amenhotep IV, most likely in 1353[60] or 1351 BC.[4] It is unknown how old Amenhotep IV was when he did this; estimates range from 10 to 23.[61] He was most likely crowned in Thebes, or perhaps Memphis or Armant.[61]

The beginning of Amenhotep IV's reign followed established pharaonic traditions. He did not immediately start redirecting worship toward the Aten and distancing himself from other gods. Egyptologist Donald B. Redford believed this implied that Amenhotep IV's eventual religious policies were not conceived of before his reign, and he did not follow a pre-established plan or program. Redford pointed to three pieces of evidence to support this. First, surving inscriptions show Amenhotep IV worshipping several different gods, including Atum, Osiris, Anubis, Nekhbet, Hathor,[62] and the Eye of Ra, and texts from this era refer to "the gods" and "every god and every goddess." Moreover, the High Priest of Amun was still active in the fourth year of Amenhotep IV's reign.[63] Second, even though he later moved his capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, his initial royal titulary honored Thebes (for example, his nomen was "Amenhotep, god-ruler of Thebes"), and recognizing its importance, he called Thebes "Southern Heliopolis, the first great (seat) of Re (or) the Disc." Third, while his initial building program sought to build new places of worship to the Aten, he did not yet destroy temples to the other gods.[64] Amenhotep IV continued his father's construction projects at Karnak's Precinct of Amun-Re. For example, he decorated the walls of the precinct's Third Pylon with images of himself worshipping Ra-Horakhty, portrayed in the god's traditional form of a falcon-headed man.[65]

Tombs built or completed early in Amenhotep IV's reign, such as those of Kheruef, Ramose, and Parennefer, show the pharaoh in the traditional artistic style.[66] In Ramose's tomb, Amenhotep IV appears on the west wall, seated on a throne, with Ramose appearing before the pharaoh. On the other side of the doorway, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti are shown in the window of appearances, with the Aten depicted as the sun disc. In Parennefer's tomb, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti are seated on a throne with the sun disc depicted over the pharaoh and his queen.[66]

Early in his reign, Amenhotep IV ordered the construction of temples or shrines to the Aten in several cities across the country, such as Bubastis, Tell el-Borg, Heliopolis, Memphis, Nekhen, Kawa, and Kerma.[67] Amenhotep IV also ordered the construction of a large temple complex dedicated to the Aten at Karnak in Thebes, northeast of the parts of the Karnak complex dedicated to Amun. The Aten temple complex, collectively known as the Per Aten ("House of the Aten"), consisted of several temples whose names survive: the Gempaaten ("The Aten is found in the estate of the Aten"), the Hwt benben ("House or Temple of the Benben"), the Rud-menu ("Enduring of monuments for Aten forever"), the Teni-menu ("Exalted are the monuments of the Aten forever"), and the Sekhen Aten ("booth of Aten").[68]

Amenhotep IV organized a Sed festival around regnal year two or three. Sed festivals were ritual rejuvenations of an aging pharaoh. They usually took place for the first time around the thirtieth year of a pharaoh's reign, then after every three or so years. Egyptologists only speculate as to why Amenhotep IV organized a Sed festival when he was likely still in his early twenties. Some historians see it as evidence for Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV's coregency, and believe that Amenhotep IV's Sed festival coincided with one of his father's celebrations. Others speculate that Amenhotep IV chose to hold his festival three years after his father's death, aiming to proclaim his rule a continuation of his father's reign. Yet others believe that the festival was held to honor the Aten on whose behalf the pharaoh ruled Egypt, or, as Amenhotep III was considered to have become one with the Aten following his death, the Sed festival honored both the pharaoh and the god at the same time. It is also possible that the purpose of the ceremony was to figuratively fill Amenhotep IV with strength before his great enterprise: the introduction of the Aten cult and the founding of the new capital Akhetaten. Regardless of the celebration's aim, Egyptologists concluded that during the festivities, Amenhotep IV only made offerings to the Aten rather than the many gods and goddesses, as customary.[54][69][70]

Among the discovered documents that refer to Akhenaten as Amenhotep IV the latest in his reign are two copies of a letter to the pharaoh from Ipy, the high steward of Memphis. These letters, found in Gurob and informing the pharaoh that the royal estates in Memphis are "in good order" and the temple of Ptah is "prosperous and flourishing," are dated to regnal year five, day nineteen of the growing season's third month. About a month later, day thirteen of the growing season's fourth month, one of the boundary stela at Akhetaten already had the name Akhenaten carved on it, implying that Akhenaten changed his name between the two inscriptions.[71][72][73][74]

Name change[edit]

In regnal year five, Amenhotep IV decided to show his devotion to the Aten by changing his royal titulary. No longer would he be known as Amenhotep and be associated with the god Amun, but rather he would completely shift his focus to the Aten. Egyptologists debate the exact meaning of Akhenaten, his new personal name, as the term "akh" (Ancient Egyptian: ꜣḫ) could have different translations, such as "satisfied," "effective spirit," or "serviceable to," and thus Akhenaten's name could be translated to mean "Aten is satisfied," "Effective spirit of the Aten," or "Serviceable to the Aten," respectively.[75] Gertie Englund and Florence Friedman have arrived at the translation "effective for the Aten" by analyzing contemporary texts and inscriptions, in which Akhenaten often described himself as being "effective for" the sun disc. England and Friedman concluded that the frequency with which Akhenaten used this term likely means that his own name meant "Effective for the Aten."[75]

Some historians, such as Edel Elmar, Gerhard Fecht, and William F. Albright have proposed that Akhenaten's name is misspelled and mispronounced. These historians believe "Aten" should rather be "Jāti," thus rendering the pharaoh's name Akhenjāti (pronounced /ˌækəˈnjɑːtɪ/), as it could have been pronounced in Ancient Egypt.[76][77][78] Contemporaneously, the name would have been pronounced as Akhey-niyatnu.[78][page needed]

Amenhotep IV Akhenaten
Horus name


"Strong Bull of the Double Plumes"



"Beloved of Aten"

Nebty name


"Great of Kingship in Karnak"



"Great of Kingship in Akhet-Aten"

Golden Horus name


"Crowned in Heliopolis of the South" (Thebes)



"Exalter of the Name of Aten"


"Beautiful are the Forms of Re, the Unique one of Re"

Amenhotep Netjer-Heqa-Waset

"Amenhotep god-ruler of Thebes"



"Effective for the Aten"

Founding Amarna[edit]

One of the stele marking the boundary of the new capital Akhetaten.

Around the same time he changed his royal titulary, on the thirteenth day of the growing season's fourth month (around mid-April of the Gregorian calendar), Akhenaten decreed that a new capital city be built: Akhetaten (Ancient Egyptian: ꜣḫt-jtn, meaning "Horizon of the Aten"), better known today as Amarna. The event Egyptologists know the most about during Akhenaten's life are connected with founding Akhetaten, as numerous stele with surviving inscriptions have been found around the city to mark its boundary.[79] The pharaoh chose a site about halfway between Thebes, the capital at the time, and Memphis, on the east bank of Nile, where a wadi and a natural dip in the surrounding cliffs forms a silhouette similar to the "horizon" hieroglyph. Additionally, the site was previously uninhabited. On one of the stele, Akhenaten said that the site is appropriate for a city dedicated to the Aten because of this, for "not being the property of a god, nor being the property of a goddess, nor being the property of a ruler, nor being the property of a female ruler, nor being the property of any people able to lay claim to it."[80]

Historians do not know for certain why Akhenaten chose to build a new capital and leave the old capital of Thebes. The stele detailing the founding of Akhetaten is damaged where it explains Akhenaten's motives for the relocation. The parts that survive claim what happened to Akhenaten was "worse than those that I heard" previously in his reign and worse than those "heard by any kings who assumed the White Crown," and alludes to "offensive" speech to the Aten. Egyptologists believe that Akhenaten could be referring to conflict with the priesthood and followers of Amun, patron god of the capital Thebes. The great temples of Amun, such as Karnak, were all located in the capital of Thebes, and the priests achieved significant power earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty, especially under Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, thanks to the pharaohs offering large amounts of Egypt's growing wealth to the cult of Amun; historians such as James Henry Breasted therefore posited that by moving to a new capital Akhenaten may have been trying to break with Amun's priests and their god.[81][82][83][84]

Talatat blocks from Akhenaten's Aten temple in Karnak

Akhetaten was a planned city with the Great Temple of the Aten, Small Aten Temple, royal residences, records office and government buildings in the city center. Some of these buildings, such as the Aten temples, were ordered to be built by Akhenaten on the stele announcing the city's founding.[83][85][86]

The city was built quickly, thanks to a new construction method that used substantially smaller stone blocks than under previous pharaohs. These blocks, called talatats, measured ​12 by ​12 by 1 ancient Egyptian cubits (c. 27 by 27 by 54 cm), and because of their small weight and standardized size, using them during constructions was more efficient than using heavy building blocks of varying sizes.[87][88] One year after decreeing a new capital city, in regnal year six, Akhenaten visited the city under construction to monitor progress. By regnal year eight, Akhetaten had reached a state where it could be occupied by the royal family. Not the entire Theban court, only his most loyal subjects followed Akhenaten and his family. While the city was being built, in years five through eight, construction work began to stop in Thebes: the Aten temples that had begun were not continued, and a village of workers working on the tombs of the Valley of the Kings was relocated to the workers' village of Akhetaten. However, construction work was continued in the rest of the country, as larger cult centers such as Heliopolis and Memphis also had temples built for Aton.[89][90]

International relations[edit]

Amarna letter EA 362, titled A Commissionner Murdered. In this letter, Rib-Hadda of Byblos informs the pharaoh of the death of Pawura, an Egyptian commissionner.
Painted limestone miniature stela. It shows Akhenaten standing before 2 incense stands, Aten disc above. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Head of Akhenaten

The Amarna letters have provided important evidence about Akhenaten's reign and foreign policy. The letters are a cache of 382 diplomatic texts and literary and educational materials discovered between 1887 and 1979[91] and named after Amarna, the modern name for Akhenaten's capital Akhetaten. The diplomatic correspondence comprises clay tablet messages between Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun, various subjects through Egyptian military outposts, rulers of vassal states, and the foreign rulers of Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Canaan, Alashiya, Arzawa, Mitanni, and the Hittites.[92]

The Amarna letters portray the international situation in the Eastern Mediterranean that Akhenaten inherited from his predecessors. The kingdom's influence and military might increased greatly before starting to wane in the 200 years preceding Akhenaten's reign, following the expulsion of the Hyksos from Lower Egypt at the end of the Second Intermediate Period. Egypt's power reached new heights under Thutmose III, who ruled approximately 100 years before Akhenaten and led several successful military campaigns into Nubia and Syria. Egypt's expansion led to confrontation with the Mitanni, but this rivalry ended with the two nations becoming allies. Amenhotep III aimed to maintain the balance of power through marriages – such as his marriage to Tadukhipa, daughter of the Mitanni king Tushratta – and vassal states. Yet under Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, Egypt was unable or unwilling to oppose the rise of the Hittites around Syria. The pharaohs seemed to eschew military confrontation at a time when the balance of power between Egypt's neighbors and rivals was shifting, and the Hittites, a confrontational state, overtook the Mitanni in influence.[93][94][95][96]

Early in his reign, Akhenaten had conflicts with Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, who had courted favor with his father against the Hittites. Tushratta complains in numerous letters that Akhenaten had sent him gold-plated statues rather than statues made of solid gold; the statues formed part of the bride-price which Tushratta received for letting his daughter Tadukhepa marry Amenhotep III and then later marry Akhenaten. An Amarna letter preserves a complaint by Tushratta to Akhenaten about the situation:

"I...asked your father Mimmureya for statues of solid cast gold, [...] and your father said, 'Don't talk of giving statues just of solid cast gold. I will give you ones made also of lapis lazuli. I will give you too, along with the statues, much additional gold and [other] goods beyond measure.' Every one of my messengers that were staying in Egypt saw the gold for the statues with their own eyes. [...] But my brother [i.e., Akhenaten] has not sent the solid [gold] statues that your father was going to send. You have sent plated ones of wood. Nor have you sent me the goods that your father was going to send me, but you have reduced [them] greatly. Yet there is nothing I know of in which I have failed my brother. [...] May my brother send me much gold. [...] In my brother's country gold is as plentiful as dust. May my brother cause me no distress. May he send me much gold in order that my brother [with the gold and m]any [good]s may honor me."[97]

While Akhenaten was certainly not a close friend of Tushratta, he was evidently concerned at the expanding power of the Hittite Empire under its powerful ruler Suppiluliuma I. A successful Hittite attack on Mitanni and its ruler Tushratta would have disrupted the entire international balance of power in the Ancient Middle East at a time when Egypt had made peace with Mitanni; this would cause some of Egypt's vassals to switch their allegiances to the Hittites, as time would prove. A group of Egypt's allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote letters begging Akhenaten for troops, but he did not respond to most of their pleas. Evidence suggests that the troubles on the northern frontier led to difficulties in Canaan, particularly in a struggle for power between Labaya of Shechem and Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem, which required the pharaoh to intervene in the area by dispatching Medjay troops northwards. Akhenaten pointedly refused to save his vassal Rib-Hadda of Byblos – whose kingdom was being besieged by the expanding state of Amurru under Abdi-Ashirta and later Aziru, son of Abdi-Ashirta – despite Rib-Hadda's numerous pleas for help from the pharaoh. Rib-Hadda wrote a total of 60 letters to Akhenaten pleading for aid from the pharaoh. Akhenaten wearied of Rib-Hadda's constant correspondences and once told Rib-Hadda: "You are the one that writes to me more than all the (other) mayors" or Egyptian vassals in EA 124.[98] What Rib-Hadda did not comprehend was that the Egyptian king would not organize and dispatch an entire army north just to preserve the political status quo of several minor city states on the fringes of Egypt's Asiatic Empire.[99] Rib-Hadda would pay the ultimate price; his exile from Byblos due to a coup led by his brother Ilirabih is mentioned in one letter. When Rib-Hadda appealed in vain for aid from Akhenaten and then turned to Aziru, his sworn enemy, to place him back on the throne of his city, Aziru promptly had him dispatched to the king of Sidon, where Rib-Hadda was almost certainly executed.[100]

Several Egyptologist in the late 19th and 20th centuries interpretated the Amarna letters to mean that Akhenaten neglected foreign policy and Egypt's foreign territories in favor of his internal reforms. For example, Henry Hall believed Akhenaten "succeeded by his obstinate doctrinaire love of peace in causing far more misery in his world than half a dozen elderly militarists could have done,"[101] while James Henry Breasted said Akhenaten "was not fit to cope with a situation demanding an aggressive man of affairs and a skilled military leader."[102] Others noted that the Amarna letters counter the conventional view that Akhenaten neglected Egypt's foreign territories in favour of his internal reforms. For example, Norman de Garis Davies praised Akhenaten's emphasis on diplomacy over war, while James Baikie said that the fact "that there is no evidence of revolt within the borders of Egypt itself during the whole reign is surely ample proof that there was no such abandonment of his royal duties on the part of Akhenaten as has been assumed."[103][104] Indeed, several letters from Egyptian vassals notified the pharaoh that they have followed his instructions, implying that the pharaoh sent such instructions:

To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky: Message of Yapahu, the ruler of Gazru, your servant, the dirt at your feet. I indeed prostrate myself at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky, 7 times and 7 times, on the stomach and on the back. I am indeed guarding the place of the king, my lord, the Sun of the sky, where I am, and all the things the king, my lord, has written me, I am indeed carrying out – everything! Who am I, a dog, and what is my house, and what is my [...], and what is anything I have, that the orders of the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, should not obey constantly?[105]

The Amarna letters also show that vassal states were told repeatedly to expect the arrival of the Egyptian military on their lands, and provide evidence that these troops were dispatched and arrived at their destination. Dozens of letters detail that Akhenaten – and Amenhotep III – sent Egyptian and Nubian troops, armies, archers, chariots, horses, and ships.[106]

Additionally, when Rib-Hadda was killed at the instigation of Aziru,[100] Akhenaten sent an angry letter to Aziru containing a barely veiled accusation of outright treachery on the latter's part.[107] Akhenaten wrote:

[Y]ou acted delinquently by taking [Rib-Hadda] whose brother had cast him away at the gate, from his city. He was residing in Sidon and, following your own judgment, you gave him to [some] mayors. Were you ignorant of the treacherousness of the men? If you really are the king's servant, why did you not denounce him before the king, your lord, saying, "This mayor has written to me saying, 'Take me to yourself and get me into my city'"? And if you did act loyally, still all the things you wrote were not true. In fact, the king has reflected on them as follows, "Everything you have said is not friendly."

Now the king has heard as follows, "You are at peace with the ruler of Qidsa (Kadesh). The two of you take food and strong drink together." And it is true. Why do you act so? Why are you at peace with a ruler whom the king is fighting? And even if you did act loyally, you considered your own judgment, and his judgment did not count. You have paid no attention to the things that you did earlier. What happened to you among them that you are not on the side of the king, your lord? [...] [I]f you plot evil, treacherous things, then you, together with your entire family, shall die by the axe of the king. So perform your service for the king, your lord, and you will live. You yourself know that the king does not fail when he rages against all of Canaan. And when you wrote saying, 'May the king, my Lord, give me leave this year, and then I will go next year to the king, my Lord. If this is impossible, I will send my son in my place' – the king, your lord, let you off this year in accordance with what you said. Come yourself, or send your son [now], and you will see the king at whose sight all lands live.[108]

This letter shows that Akhenaten paid close attention to the affairs of his vassals in Canaan and Syria. Akhenaten commanded Aziru to come to Egypt and proceeded to detain him there for at least one year. In the end, Akhenaten was forced to release Aziru back to his homeland when the Hittites advanced southwards into Amki, thereby threatening Egypt's series of Asiatic vassal states, including Amurru.[109] Sometime after his return to Amurru, Aziru defected to the Hittite side with his kingdom.[110] While it is known from an Amarna letter by Rib-Hadda that the Hittites "seized all the countries that were vassals of the king of Mitanni."[111] Akhenaten managed to preserve Egypt's control over the core of her Near Eastern Empire (which consisted of present-day Israel as well as the Phoenician coast) while avoiding conflict with the increasingly powerful Hittite Empire of Suppiluliuma I. Only the Egyptian border province of Amurru in Syria around the Orontes river was permanently lost to the Hittites when its ruler Aziru defected to the Hittites.

Only one military campaign is known for certain under Akhenaten's reign. In his second or twelfth year,[112] Akhenaten ordered his Viceroy of Kush Tuthmose to lead a military expedition to quell a rebellion and raids on settlements on the Nile by Nubian nomadic tribes. The victory was commemorated on two stelae, one discovered at Amada and another at Buhen. Egyptologists differ on the size of the campaign: Wolfgang Helck considered it a small-scale police operation, while Alan Schulman considered it a "war of major proportions."[113][114][115]

Other Egyptologists suggested that Akhenaten could have waged war in Syria or the Levant, possibly against the Hittites. Cyril Aldred, based on Amarna letters describing Egyptian troop movements, proposed that Akhenaten launched an unsuccessful war around the city of Gezer, while Marc Gabolde argued for an unsuccessful campaign around Kadesh. Either of these could be the campaign referred to on Tutankhamun's Restoriation Stela: "if an army was sent to Djahy [southern Canaan and Syria] to broaden the boundaries of Egypt, no success of their cause came to pass."[116][117][118] John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa also argued that Akhenaten fought with the Hittites for control of Kadesh, but was unsuccessful; the city was not recaptured until 60–70 years later, under Seti I.[119]

Later years[edit]

In regnal year twelve, Akhenaten received tributes and offerings from allied countries and vassal states at Akhetaten, as depicted in the tomb of Meryra II.

Egyptologists know little about the last five years of Akhenaten's reign, beginning in c. 1341[3] or 1339 BC.[4][120] These years are poorly attested and only a few pieces of contemporary evidence survive; the lack of clarity makes reconstructing the latter part of the pharaoh's reign "a daunting task" and a controversial and contested topic of discussion among Egyptologists.[121] Among the latest pieces of evidence is an inscription discovered in 2012. That year, it was announced that a Year 16 III Akhet day 15 inscription dated explicitly to Akhenaten's reign which mentions, in the same breath, the presence of a living Queen Nefertiti, was found in a limestone quarry at Deir el-Bersha just north of Amarna.[122][123] The text refers to a building project in Amarna, and establishes that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were still a royal couple just a year before Akhenaten's death.

Before the 2012 discovery of the Deir el-Bersha inscriptions, the last known fixed-date event in Akhenaten's reign was a royal reception in regnal year twelve, in which the pharaoh and the royal family received tributes and offerings from allied countries and vassal states at Akhetaten. Inscriptions shows tributes from Nubia, the Land of Punt, Syria, the Kingdom of Hattusa, the islands in the Mediterranean Sea, and Libya. Egyptologists such as Aidan Dodson consider this year twelve celebration to be the zenith of Akhenaten's reign.[124]

Historians are uncertain about the reasons for the year twelve reception. Possibilities include the celebration of the marriage of future pharaoh Ay to Tey, celebration of Akhenaten's twelve years on the throne, the summons of king Aziru of Amurru to Egypt, a military victory at Sumur in the Levant, a successful military campaign in Nubia,[125] Nefertiti's ascendancy to the throne as co-regent, or the completion of the new capital city Akhetaten.[126] However, thanks to reliefs in the tomb of courtier Meryre II, historians know that the royal family, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their six daughters, were present at the royal reception in full.[124]

Following year twelve, Donald B. Redford proposed that Egypt was struck by an epidemic, most likely a plague.[127] Contemporary evidence suggests that a plague ravaged through the Middle East around this time,[128] and Egyptologists suggested that ambassadors and delegations arriving to the pharaoh's year twelve reception might have brought the disease to Egypt.[129] Alternatively, letters from the Hattians suggested that the epidemic originated in Egypt and was carried throughout the Middle East by Egyptian prisoners of war.[130] Regardless of its origin, the epidemic might account for several deaths in the royal family that occurred in the last five years of Akhenaten's reigh, including those of his daughters Meketaten, Neferneferure, and Setepenre.[131][132][133]

Coregency with Smenkhkare or Nefertiti[edit]

Akhenaten could have been coregent with Smenkhkare or Nefertiti for several years before his death.[134][135] Smenkhkare could have been Akhenaten's coregent for up to the last five years of Akhenaten's reign. Smenkhkare's relationship with Akhenaten is uncertain; he could have been the son of Akhenaten or his brother, as the son of Amenhotep III with Tiye or Sitamun.[136] Archeological evidence makes it clear, however, that Smenkhkare was married to Meritaten, Akhenaten's eldest daughter.[137]

The so-called Coregency Stela, found in a tomb in Amarna possibly shows queen Nefertiti as Akhenaten's coregent, ruling alongside him, but this is not certain as the names have been removed and recarved to show Ankhesenpaaten and Neferneferuaten.[138]

Egyptologist Aidan Dodson proposed that both Smenkhkare and Neferiti were Akhenaten's coregents to ensure the continued rule of the Amarna family when Egypt was confronted with an epidemic. Dodson suggested that Smenkhkare and Nefertiti could have been chosen to rule as Tutankhaten's coregent if Akhenaten died and Tutankhaten had to take the throne at a young age, or rule instead Tutankhaten if the prince died in the epidemic. Based on depictions in the tomb of Meryre II and artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Smenkhkare could have been Akhenaten's coregent by regnal year thirteen or fourteen, but died a year or two later. Neferitit did not assume the role of coregent until after year sixteen, when a stela still mentions her as Akhenaten's Great Royal Wife.[139]

Death and burial[edit]

Akhenaten's sarcophagus reconstituted from pieces discovered in his original tomb in Amarna, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
The desecrated royal coffin of Akhenaten found in Tomb KV55
Profile view of the skull of Akhenaten recovered from KV55

Akhenaten died after seventeen years of rule, and was initially buried in the Royal Tomb of Amarna, located in the Royal Wadi east of Akhetaten. The order to construct the tomb and to bury the pharaoh there was commemorated on the Boundary Stelae delineating the his capital city's borders: "Let a tomb be made for me in the eastern mountain [of Akhetaten]. Let my burial be made in it, in the millions of jubilees which the Aten, my father, decreed for me."[140] His sarcophagus was destroyed and remained in the Amarna necropolis; reconstructed, it is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as of 2019.[141] After Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna and returned to Thebes, Akhenaten's mummy was removed from the Amarna tombs and moved to tomb KV55 in Valley of the Kings near Thebes.[142][143] This tomb was later desecreated, likely during the Ramesside period.[144][145]

Whether Smenkhkare also enjoyed a brief independent reign after Akhenaten is unclear.[146] If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, and became sole pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was Neferneferuaten, a female pharaoh who reigned in Egypt for two years and one month.[147] She was, in turn, probably succeeded by Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country being administered by the vizier and future pharaoh Ay. Tutankhamun was believed to be a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya, although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. It also has been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned under the name Neferneferuaten[148] but other scholars believe this female ruler was rather Meritaten.[149]

Recent genetic tests have confirmed that the body found buried in tomb KV55 was the father of Tutankhamun.[150] While the author of this paper conclude that he was therefore "most probably" Akhenaten, a number of experts disagree with this assessment, citing the young age at death as evidence.[21][151][152][153][154] The identity of the KV55 mummy continues to be controversial.


With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded fell out of favor: at first gradually, and then with decisive finality. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (c. 1332 BC) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten.[155] Their successors then attempted to erase Akhenaten and his family from the historical record. During the reign of Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the first pharaoh after Akhenaten who was not related to Akhenaten's family, Egyptians started to destroy temples to the Aten and reuse the building blocks in new construction projects, including in temples for the newly restored god Amun. Horemheb's successor continued in this effort. Seti I restored monuments to Amun and had the god's name re-carved on inscriptions where it was removed by Akhenaten. Seti I also ordered that Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay be excised from official lists of pharaohs to make it appear that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. Under the Ramessides, who succeeded Seti I, Akhetaten was gradually destroyed and the building material reused across the country, such as in constructions at Hermopolis. The negative attitudes toward Akhenaten were illustrated by, for example, inscriptions in the tomb of scribe Mose (or Mes), where Akhenaten's reign is referred to as "the time of the enemy of Akhet-Aten."[156][157][158]

Some Egyptologists, such as Jacobus van Dijk and Jan Assmann, believe that Akhenaten's reign and the Amarna period started a gradual decline in the Egyptian government's power and the pharaoh's standing in Egyptian's society and religious life.[159][160] Akhenaten's religious reforms subverted the relationship ordinary Egyptians had with their gods and their pharaoh, as well as the role the pharaoh played in the relationship between the people and the gods. Before the Amarna period, the pharaoh was the representative of the gods on Earth, the son of the god Ra, and the living incarnation of the god Horus, and maintained the divine order through rituals and offerings and by sustaining the temples of the gods.[161] Additionally, even though the pharaoh oversaw all religious activity, Egyptians could access their gods through regular public holidays, festivals, and processions. This led to a seemingly close connection between people and the gods, especially the patron deity of their respective towns and cities.[162] Akhenaten, however, banned the worship of gods beside the Aten, including through festivals. He also declared himself to be the only one who could worship the Aten, and required that all religious devotion previously exhibited toward the gods be directed toward himself. After the Amarna period, during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties – c. 270 years following Akhenaten's death – the relationship between the people, the pharaoh, and the gods did not simply revert to pre-Amarna practices and beliefs. The worship of all gods returned, but the relationship between the gods and the worshipers became more direct and personal,[163] circumventing the pharaoh. Rather than acting through the pharaoh, Egyptians started to believe that the gods intervened directly in their lives, protecting the pious and punishing criminals.[164] The gods replaced the pharaoh as their own representatives on Earth. The god Amun once again became king among all gods.[165] According to van Dijk, "the king was no longer a god, but god himself had become king. Once Amun had been recognized as the true king, the political power of the earthly rulers could be reduced to a minimum."[166] Consequently, the influence and power of the Amun priesthood continued to grow until the Twenty-first Dynasty, c. 1077 BC, by which time the High Priests of Amun effectively became rulers over parts of Egypt.[167][160][168]

Akhenaten's reforms also had a longer-term impact on Ancient Egyptian language and hastened the spread of the spoken Late Egyptian language in official writings and speeches. Spoken and written Egyptian diverged early on in Egyptian history and stayed different over time.[169] During the Amarna period, however, royal and religious texts and inscriptions, including the boundary stelae at Akhetaten or the Amarna letters, started to regularly include more vernacular linguistic elements, such as the definite article or a new possessive form. Even though they continued to diverge, these changes brought the spoken and written language closer to one another more systematically than under previous pharaohs of the New Kingdom. While Akhenaten's successors attempted to erase his religious, artistic, and even linguistic changes from history, the new linguistic elements remained a more common part of official texts following the Amarna years, starting with the Nineteenth Dynasty.[170][171][172]


Relief fragment showing a royal head, probably Akhenaten, and early Aten cartouches. Aten extends Ankh (sign of life) to the figure. Reign of Akhenaten. From Amarna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Pharaoh Akhenaten (center) and his family worshiping the Aten, with characteristic rays seen emanating from the solar disk.

Solar worship had been growing in popularity even before Akhenaten, especially during the Eighteenth Dynasty and the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father. During the New Kingdom, the pharaoh started to be associated with the sun disc; for example, one inscriptions called the pharaoh Hatshepsut the "female Re shining like the Disc," while Amenhotep III was described as "he who rises over every foreign land, Nebmare, the dazzling disc."[173] During the Eighteenth Dynasty, a religious hymn to the sun also appeared and became popular among Egyptians.[174] However, Egyptologists have questioned whether there is a causal relationship between the cult of the sun disc before Akhenaten and Akhenaten's religious policies.[174]

Implementation and development[edit]

The implementation of Atenism can be traced through gradual changes in the Aten's iconography, and Egyptologist Donald B. Redford divided its development into three stages, earliest, intermediate, and final, in his studies of Akhenaten and Atenism. The earliest stage was associated with a growing number of depictions of the sun disc, though the disc is still seen resting on the head of the god Ra-Horakhty. The intermediate stage was marked by the elevation of the Aten above other gods and the appearance of cartouches around his name in inscriptions—cartouches traditionally indicating that the enclosed text is a royal name. The final stage had the Aten represented as a sun disc with sunrays terminating in human hands and the introduction of a new epithet for the god: "the great living Disc which is in jubilee, lord of heaven and earth."[175]

In the early years of his reign, Amenhotep IV lived at Thebes with Nefertiti and his six daughters. Initially, he permitted worship of Egypt's traditional deities to continue but near the Temple of Karnak (Amun-Ra's great cult center), he erected several massive buildings including temples to the Aten. Aten was usually depicted as a sun disk with rays extending with long arms and tiny human hands at each end.[176] These buildings at Thebes were later dismantled by his successors and used as infill for new constructions in the Temple of Karnak; when they were later dismantled by archaeologists, some 36,000 decorated blocks from the original Aton building here were revealed which preserve many elements of the original relief scenes and inscriptions.[177]

One of the most important turning points in the early reign of Amenhotep IV is a speech given by the pharaoh at the beginning of his second regnal year. A copy of the speech survives on one of the pylons at the Karnak Temple Complex near Thebes. Speaking to the royal court, scribes or the people, Amenhotep IV said that the gods were ineffective and had ceased their movements, and that their temples had collapsed. The pharaoh contrasted this with the only remaining god, the sun disc Aten, who continued to move and exist forever. Some Egyptologists, such as Donald B. Redford, compared this speech to a proclamation or manifesto, which foreshadowed and explained the pharaoh's later religious reforms centered around the Aten.[178][179][180] In his speech, Akhenaten said:

The temples of the gods fallen to ruin, their bodies do not endure. Since the time of the ancestors, it is the wise man that knows these things. Behold, I, the king, am speaking so that I might inform you concerning the appearances of the gods. I know their temples, and I am versed in the writings, specficially, the inventory of their primeval bodies. And I have watched as they [the gods] have ceased their appearances, one after the other. All of them have stopped, except the god who gave birth to himself. And no one knows the mystery of how he performs his tasks. This god goes where he pleases and no one else knows his going. I approach him, the things which he has made. How exalted they are.[181]

Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx at Amarna.

In Year five of his reign, Amenhotep IV took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the sole god of Egypt: the pharaoh "disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods...and diverted the income from these [other] cults to support the Aten". To emphasize his complete allegiance to the Aten, the king officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten or 'Living Spirit of Aten.'[177] Akhenaten's fifth year also marked the beginning of construction on his new capital, Akhetaten or 'Horizon of Aten', at the site known today as Amarna. Very soon afterwards, he centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city seems to have continued for several more years. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight rather than in dark temple enclosures as had been the previous custom. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten.

Inscribed limestone fragment showing early Aten cartouches, "the Living Ra Horakhty". Reign of Akhenaten. From Amarna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Fragment of a stela, showing parts of 3 late cartouches of Aten. There is a rare intermediate form of god's name. Reign of Akhenaten. From Amarna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Re (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun's becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However, by Year nice of his reign, Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only worshipable god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt and, in a number of instances, inscriptions of the plural 'gods' were also removed.[182][183] This emphasized the changes encouraged by the new regime, which included a ban on images, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten, who by then was evidently considered not merely a sun god, but rather a universal deity. Representations of the Aten were always accompanied with a sort of hieroglyphic footnote, stating that the representation of the sun as all-encompassing creator was to be taken as just that: a representation of something that, by its very nature as something transcending creation, cannot be fully or adequately represented by any one part of that creation.[184]

Siliceous limestone fragment of a statue. There are late Aten cartouches on the draped right shoulder. Reign of Akhenaten. From Amarna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

Aten's name was also written differently starting around regnal year nine – or as early as year eight or as late as year fourteen, according to some historians.[185] From "Living Re-Horakhty, who rejoices in the horizon in his name Shu-Re who is in Aten," the god's name became "Living Re, ruler of the horizon, who rejoices in his name of Re the father who has returned as Aten," removing the Aten's connection to Shu and Re-Horakhty, two other gods.[186]

Atenism and other gods[edit]

Some debate has focused on the extent to which Akhenaten forced his religious reforms on his people.[187] Certainly, as time drew on, he revised the names of the Aten, and other religious language, to increasingly exclude references to other gods; at some point, also, he embarked on the wide-scale erasure of traditional gods' names, especially those of Amun.[188] Some of his court changed their names to remove them from the patronage of other gods and place them under that of Aten (or Ra, with whom Akhenaten equated the Aten). Yet, even at Amarna itself, some courtiers kept such names as Ahmose ("child of the moon god", the owner of tomb 3), and the sculptor's workshop where the famous Nefertiti Bust and other works of royal portraiture were found is associated with an artist known to have been called Thutmose ("child of Thoth"). An overwhelmingly large number of faience amulets at Amarna also show that talismans of the household-and-childbirth gods Bes and Taweret, the eye of Horus, and amulets of other traditional deities, were openly worn by its citizens. Indeed, a cache of royal jewelry found buried near the Amarna royal tombs (now in the National Museum of Scotland) includes a finger ring referring to Mut, the wife of Amun. Such evidence suggests that though Akhenaten shifted funding away from traditional temples, his policies were fairly tolerant until some point, perhaps a particular event as yet unknown, toward the end of the reign.[189]

Archaeological discoveries at Akhetaten show that many ordinary residents of this city chose to gouge or chisel out all references to the god Amun on even minor personal items that they owned, such as commemorative scarabs or make-up pots, perhaps for fear of being accused of having Amunist sympathies. References to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, were partly erased since they contained the traditional Amun form of his name: Nebmaatre Amunhotep.[190]

After Akhenaten[edit]

Following Akhenaten's death, Egypt gradually returned to its traditional polytheistic religion. Atenism likely stayed dominant through the reigns of Akhenaten's immediate successors, Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten, as well as early in the reign of Tutankhaten.[191] For a period of time the worship of Aten and a resurgent worship of Amun coexisted.[192][193]

Over time, however, Akhenaten's successors, starting with Tutankhaten, took steps to distance themselves from Atenism. Tutankhaten and his wife Ankhesenpaaten dropped the Aten from their names and changed them to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun, respectively. Amun was restored as the supreme deity. The temples of the other gods were reestablished, as detailed in Tutankhamun's Restoration Stela: "He reorganized this land, restoring its customs to those of the time of Re. [...] He renewed the gods' mansions and fashioned all their images. [...] He raised up their temples and created their statues. [...] When he had sought out the gods' precincts which were in ruins in this land, he refounded them just as they had been since the time of the first primeval age."[194]

Tutankhamun's building projects at Thebes and Karnak used talatat's from Akhenaten's buildings, which implies that Tutankhamun might have started to demolish temples dedicated to the Aten. Aten temples continued to be torn down under Ay and Horemheb, Tutankhamun's successors and the last pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Horemheb could also have ordered that Akhetaten be demolished.[195] To further underpin the break with Aten worship, Horemheb claimed to have been chosen to rule over Egypt by the god Horus. Finally, Seti I, the first pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, ordered that the name of Amun be restored on inscriptions on which it had been removed or replaced by the name of the Aten.[196]

Artistic depictions[edit]

Akhenaten in the typical Amarna period style.

Styles of art that flourished during the reigns of Akhenaten and his immediate successors are markedly different from the traditional art of ancient Egypt. In many cases, representations are more realistic or naturalistic,[197] especially in depictions of animals and plants, and convey more action and movement for both non-royal and royal individuals than the traditionally static representations.[198][199][200]

The portrayals of Akhenaten himself greatly differ from the depictions of other pharaohs. Traditionally, the portrayal of pharaohs – and the Egyptian ruling class – was idealized, and they were shown in "stereotypically 'beautiful' fashion" as youthful and athletic.[201] However, Akhenaten's portrayals are unconventional and "unflattering" with a sagging stomach; broad hips; thin legs; thick thighs; large, "almost feminine breasts;" a thin, "exaggeratedly long face;" and thick lips.[202]

Based on Akhenaten's and his family's unusual artistic representations, including potential depictions of gynecomastia and androgyny, some have argued that the pharaoh and his family have either suffered from aromatase excess syndrome and sagittal craniosynostosis syndrome, or Antley–Bixler syndrome.[203] In 2010, results published from genetic studies on Akhenaten's purported mummy did not find signs of gynecomastia or Antley-Bixler syndrome,[18] although these results have since been questioned.[204]

Arguing instead for a symbolic interpretation, Dominic Montserrat in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt states that "there is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal... are not to be read literally".[205][190] Because the god Aten was referred to as "the mother and father of all humankind," Montserrat and others suggest that Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in artwork as a symbol of the androgyny of the god. This required "a symbolic gathering of all the attributes of the creator god into the physical body of the king himself", which will "display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions".[205] Akhenaten claimed the title "The Unique One of Re", and he may have directed his artists to contrast him with the common people through a radical departure from the idealized traditional pharaoh image.[205]

Depictions of other members of the court, especially members of the royal family, are also extremely stylized and exaggerated.[198] Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family are shown taking part in decidedly naturalistic activities, showing affection for each other, and being caught in mid-action;[206][207] in traditional art, a pharaoh's divine nature was expressed by repose, even immobility.[208]

Small statue of Akhenaten wearing the Egyptian Blue Crown of War

Nefertiti also appears, both beside the king and alone, or with her daughters, in actions usually reserved for a pharaoh, such as "smiting the enemy," a traditional depiction of male pharaohs.[209] This suggests that she enjoyed unusual status for a queen. Early artistic representations of her tend to be indistinguishable from her husband's except by her regalia, but soon after the move to the new capital, Nefertiti begins to be depicted with features specific to her. Questions remain whether the beauty of Nefertiti is portraiture or idealism.[210]

Speculative theories[edit]

Sculptor's trial piece of Akhenaten.

Akhenaten's status as a religious revolutionary has led to much speculation, ranging from scholarly hypotheses to non-academic fringe theories. Although some believe the religion he introduced was mostly monotheistic, many others see Akhenaten as a practitioner of an Aten monolatry,[211] as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods; he simply refrained from worshiping any but the Aten while expecting the people to worship not Aten but him.

Akhenaten and monotheism in Abrahamic religions[edit]

The idea that Akhenaten was the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judaism has been considered by various scholars.[212][213][214][215][216] One of the first to mention this was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in his book Moses and Monotheism.[212] Basing his arguments on his belief that the Exodus story was historical, Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest who was forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death. Freud argued that Akhenaten was striving to promote monotheism, something which the biblical Moses was able to achieve.[212] Following the publication of his book, the concept entered popular consciousness and serious research.[217][218]

Freud commented on the connection between Adonai, the Egyptian Aten and the Syrian divine name of Adonis as the primeval unity of languages between the factions;[212] in this he was following the argument of Egyptologist Arthur Weigall. Jan Assmann's opinion is that 'Aten' and 'Adonai' are not linguistically related.[219]

It is widely accepted that there are strong stylistic similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten and the Biblical Psalm 104, though this form of writing was widespread in ancient Near Eastern hymnology both before and after the period.

Others have likened some aspects of Akhenaten's relationship with the Aten to the relationship, in Christian tradition, between Jesus Christ and God, particularly interpretations that emphasize a more monotheistic interpretation of Atenism than a henotheistic one. Donald B. Redford has noted that some have viewed Akhenaten as a harbinger of Jesus. "After all, Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god: 'Thine only son that came forth from thy body'."[220] James Henry Breasted likened him to Jesus,[221] Arthur Weigall saw him as a failed precursor of Christ and Thomas Mann saw him "as right on the way and yet not the right one for the way".[222]

Redford argued that while Akhenaten called himself the son of the Sun-Disc and acted as the chief mediator between god and creation, kings had claimed the same relationship and priestly role for thousands of years before Akhenaten's time. However Akhenaten's case may be different through the emphasis which he placed on the heavenly father and son relationship. Akhenaten described himself as being "thy son who came forth from thy limbs", "thy child", "the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc", and "thine only son that came forth from thy body". The close relationship between father and son is such that only the king truly knows the heart of "his father", and in return his father listens to his son's prayers. He is his father's image on earth, and as Akhenaten is king on earth, his father is king in heaven. As high priest, prophet, king and divine he claimed the central position in the new religious system. Because only he knew his father's mind and will, Akhenaten alone could interpret that will for all mankind with true teaching coming only from him.[220]

Redford concluded:

Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development – one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh's death.[223]

Possible illness[edit]

Hieratic inscription on a pottery fragment. It records year 17 of Akhenaten's reign and reference to wine of the house of Aten. From Amarna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Limestone trial piece of a king, probably Akhenaten, and a smaller head of uncertain gender. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

The unconventional portrayals of Akhenaten – different from the traditional athletic norm in the portrayal of pharaohs – have led Egyptologists in the 19th and 20th centuries to suppose that Akhenaten suffered some kind of genetic abnormality.[202] Various illnesses have been put forward, with Frölich's syndrome or Marfan syndrome being mentioned most commonly.[224]

Cyril Aldred,[225] following up earlier arguments of Grafton Elliot Smith[226] and James Strachey,[227] suggested that Akhenaten may have suffered from Frölich's syndrome on the basis of his long jaw and his feminine appearance. However, this is unlikely, because this disorder results in sterility and Akhenaten is known to have fathered numerous children. His children are repeatedly portrayed through years of archaeological and iconographic evidence.[228]

Burridge[229] suggested that Akhenaten may have suffered from Marfan syndrome, which, unlike Frölich's, does not result in mental impairment or sterility. Marfan sufferers tend towards tallness, with a long, thin face, elongated skull, overgrown ribs, a funnel or pigeon chest, a high curved or slightly cleft palate, and larger pelvis, with enlarged thighs and spindly calves, symptoms that appear in some depictions of Akhenaten.[230] Marfan syndrome is a dominant characteristic, which means sufferers have a 50% chance of passing it on to their children.[231] However, DNA tests on Tutankhamun in 2010 proved negative for Marfan syndrome.[232]

By the early 21st century, most Egyptologists argued that Akhenaten's portrayals are not the results of a genetic or medical condition, but rather should be interpreted through the lens of Atenism.[190][205] Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in artwork as a symbol of the androgyny of the Aten.[205]

In the arts[edit]

External video
House Altar with Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Three Daughters (Amarna Period) (5:03), Smarthistory[233]
The Lost Pharaoh: The Search for Akhenaten (56:35), National Film Board of Canada[234]

The life of Akhenaten has inspired many fictional representations.

On page, Thomas Mann made Akhenaten the "dreaming pharaoh" of Joseph's story in the fictional biblical tetraology Joseph and His Brothers from 1933–1943. Akhenaten appears in Mika Waltari's The Egyptian, first published in Finnish (Sinuhe egyptiläinen) in 1945, translated by Naomi Walford; David Stacton's On a Balcony from 1958; Gwendolyn MacEwen's King of Egypt, King of Dreams from 1971; Allen Drury's A God Against the Gods from 1976 and Return to Thebes from 1976; Naguib Mahfouz's Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth from 1985; Andree Chedid's Akhenaten and Nefertiti's Dream; and Moyra Caldecott's Akhenaten: Son of the Sun from 1989. Additionally, Pauline Gedge's 1984 novel The Twelfth Transforming is set in the reign of Akhenaten, details the construction of Akhetaten and includes accounts of his sexual relationships with Nefertiti, Tiye and successor Smenkhkare. Akhenaten inspired the poetry collection Akhenaten by Dorothy Porter. And in comic books, Akhenaten is the major antagonist in the 2008 comic book series (reprinted as a graphic novel) "Marvel: The End" by Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom. In this series, pharaoh gains unlimited power and, though his stated intentions are benevolent, is opposed by Thanos and essentially all of the other superheroes and supervillains in the Marvel comic book universe. Finally, Akhenaten provides much of the background in the comic book adventure story Blake et Mortimer: Le Mystère de la Grande Pyramide vol. 1+2 by Edgar P. Jacobs from 1950.

On stage, the 1937 play Akhnaton by Agatha Christie explores the lives of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhaten.[235] He was portrayed in the Greek play Pharaoh Akhenaton (Greek: Φαραώ Αχενατόν) by Angelos Prokopiou.[236] The pharaoh also inspired the 1983 opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

In film, Akhenaten is played by Michael Wilding in The Egyptian from 1954 and Amedeo Nazzari in Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile from 1961. In the 2007 animated film La Reine Soleil, Akhenaten, Tutankhaten, Akhesa (Ankhesenepaten, later Ankhesenamun), Nefertiti, and Horemheb are depicted in a complex struggle pitting the priests of Amun against Atenism. Akhenaten also appears in several documentaries, including The Lost Pharaoh: The Search for Akhenaten, a 1980 National Film Board of Canada documentary based on Donald Redford's excavation of one Akhenaten's temples,[234] and episodes of Ancient Aliens, which propose that Akhenaten may have been an extraterrestrial.[237]

In video games, for example, Akhenaten is the enemy in the Assassin's Creed Origins "The Curse of the Pharaohs" DLC, and must be defeated to remove his curse on Thebes.[238] His afterlife takes the form of 'Aten', a location which draws heavily on the architecture of the city of Amarna. Additionally, a version of Akhenaten (incorporating elements of H.P. Lovecraft's Black Pharaoh) is the driving antagonist behind the Egypt chapters of The Secret World, where the player must stop a modern-day incarnation of the Atenist cult from unleashing the now-undead pharaoh and the influence of Aten (which is portrayed as a real and extremely powerful malevolent supernatural entity with the ability to strip followers of their free will) upon the world. He is explicitly stated to be the Pharaoh who opposed Moses in the Book of Exodus, diverging from the traditional Exodus narrative in that he retaliates against Moses's 10 Plagues with 10 plagues of his own before being sealed away by the combined forces of both Moses and Ptahmose, the High Priest of Amun. He is also shown to have been an anachronistic alliance with the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, who are strongly implied to be worshiping Aten under a different name.

In music, Akhenaten is the subject of several compositions, including the jazz album Akhenaten Suite by Roy Campbell, Jr.,[239] the symphony Akhenaten (Eidetic Images) by Gene Gutchë, the progressive metal song Cursing Akhenaten by After the Burial, and the technical death metal song Cast Down the Heretic by Nile.


See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Aldred, Cyril (1973). Akhenaten and Nefertiti. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Aldred, Cyril (1984). The Egyptians. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge (2004) [1988]. "Sect. I, vol. 2". Le Créateur et la Création dans la pensée memphite et amarnienne. Approche synoptique du Document Philosophique de Memphis et du Grand Hymne Théologique d'Echnaton (in French) (new ed.). Munich-Paris: Academy of African Thought.
  • El Mahdy, Christine (1999). Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of a Boy King. Headline.
  • Choi B, Pak A (2001). "Lessons for surveillance in the 21st century: a historical perspective from the past five millennia". Soz Praventivmed. 46 (6): 361–68. doi:10.1007/BF01321662. PMID 11851070.
  • Rita E. Freed; Yvonne J. Markowitz (1999). Sue H. D'Auria (ed.). Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten – Nefertiti – Tutankhamen. Bulfinch Press.
  • Gestoso Singer, Graciela (2008). El Intercambio de Bienes entre Egipto y Asia Anterior. Desde el reinado de Tuthmosis III hasta el de Akhenaton Free Access (in Spanish) Ancient Near East Monographs, Volume 2. Buenos Aires, Society of Biblical Literature – CEHAO.
  • Holland, Tom (1998). The Sleeper in the Sands (novel), Abacus – a fictionalised adventure story based closely on the mysteries of Akhenaten's reign
  • Hornung, Erik (1999). Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, translated by David Lorton. Cornell University Press.
  • Kozloff, Arielle (2006). "Bubonic Plague in the Reign of Amenhotep III?". KMT. 17 (3).
  • McAvoy, S. (2007). "Mummy 61074: a Strange Case of Mistaken Identity". Antiguo Oriente. 5: 183–194.
  • Najovits, Simson. Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, Volume I, The Contexts, Volume II, The Consequences, Algora Publishing, New York, 2003 and 2004. On Akhenaten: Vol. II, Chapter 11, pp. 117–73 and Chapter 12, pp. 205–13
  • Redford, Donald B. (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton University Press
  • Shortridge K (1992). "Pandemic influenza: a zoonosis?". Semin Respir Infect. 7 (1): 11–25. PMID 1609163.
  • Stevens, Anna (2012). Akhenaten's workers : the Amarna Stone village survey, 2005–2009. Volume I, The survey, excavations and architecture. Egypt Exploration Society.

External links[edit]