AKHENATEN (1353 B.C. to 1336 B.C.)


Akhenaten was one of ancient Egypt’s the most influential and divisive pharaohs and one world's most important religious innovators. Considered the father of monotheism, he established a monotheistic cult to Aten (“Sun Disk”) and forced Egyptians to abandon the worship of all other gods. He once boasted "My Lord promoted me so that I might enact His teaching." [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, April 2001]

Akhenaten was originally known as Amenhotep IV. Later he changed his name from Amenhotep ("Amun, the Sun God, is content") to Akhenaten ("Light in the Sun Disk"). His father was Amenhotep III. DNA analysis in February 2010 determined that Akhenaten was the son of Amenhotep III and father of Tutankhamun (King Tut). It identified Queen Tiye as the mother of both Akhenaten and his sister-wife (See Amenhotep III).

The statues of Akhenaten are much different than the statues of other pharaohs. He has a long thin face with Asian-style eyes, a prominent nose and full, protruding lips and an oval-shaped head. He is sometimes depicted with a sensuous belly and broad feminine hips. Other times he has a small pot belly and a shallow chest. Some scholars believe his misshapen skull and strange facial features may have been the result a tumor in his pituitary gland. Others have suggest his unusual facial and body features may have been efforts to express the bisexual nature of his single god.

Akhenaten is arguably the second best known pharaoh after his Tutankhamun (King Tut). His image in the Egyptian Museum is among the most memorable there. Agatha Christie wrote a play about him; Phillip Glass penned an opera about him and Nobel-prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz wrote a novel Dweller of Truth inspired by him. Even Sigmund Freud wrote at length about him and his beliefs, arguing that Moses was an Egyptian priest spreading the word of Aten.

Ancient Egypt in the Time of Akhenaten

A study by team of researchers lead by Gerome Rose and Barry Kemp of the University of Arkansas of people buried in the cemetery of Tell el-Amarna---a city that was the capital of ancient Egypt for 15 years in the 14th century B.C. under the Pharaoh Akhenaten---found that life was short, brutish and tough for the ancient Egyptians. Many suffered from anemia, fractured bones, stunted growth and high juvenile mortality rates. The study found that anemia ran at 74 percent among children and teenagers buried there and 44 percent among adults. Several teenagers had severe spinal injures, thought to have been caused by construction accidents that occurred during the building of the city. The average height was 159 centimeters among men and 153 centimeters among women. Rose said, “Short stature reflect a diet deficient in protein...People are not growing to their full potential.” [Source: Alaa Shahine Reuters, March 29, 2008]

Rose, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, told Reuters adults buried in the cemetery were probably brought there from other parts of Egypt."This means that we have a period of deprivation in Egypt prior to the Amarna phase," he said. "So maybe things were not so good for the average Egyptian and maybe Akhenaten said we have to change to make things better," he said.

Rose displayed pictures showing spinal injuries among teenagers, probably because of accidents during construction work to build the city. The study showed that anemia ran at 74 percent among children and teenagers, and at 44 percent among adults, Rose said. The average height of men was 159 cm (5 feet 2 inches) and 153 cm among women. "Adult heights are used as a proxy for overall standard of living," he said. "Short statures reflect a diet deficient in protein. ... People were not growing to their full potential."

Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Akhenaten was married to Queen Nefertiti, one of the most famous of all ancient Egyptian women. One inscription shows Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their three daughters. All three daughters have misshapen skulls. King Tut may have been the son of Akhenaten and a secondary queen.

Nefertiti and Akhenaten
Nefertiti was regarded as a great beauty. A beautiful bust of her is the most prized possession of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. If she did indeed look like the bust she has neck like a swan and a dedicate face made up in a style that is not different from the way modern women make up themselves. Her name means “beautiful one to come.” Not all renderings of Nefertiti depict her as a glamorous beauty. In some images she looks haggard and tired, During Nefertiti’s reign ordinary people started wearing wigs. Nefertiti herself favored Nubian style wigs and is thought to have shaved here head so her wigs fit more snugly.

Nefertiti parents are unknown although her father may been a vizier for King Tutankhamun. Akhenaten elevated Nefertiti to divine status. She may have been only 12 when she married Akhenaten. During the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign Nefertiti disappeared from the historical record. Akhenaten's other wife Kiya was referred to as his "Great Beloved."

Nefertiti was one of the most influential queens. Reliefs show here conducting religious ceremonies with Akhenaten as an equal. She had more power perhaps than any other queen. Many scholars believe that Nefertiti may have ruled Egypt as Akhenaten co-regent and after Akhenaten's death may have ruled outright under the name of Ankhkheprure. A hymn to the god Amen with a prayer for the queen, written in around 1300 B.C., goes: "Prize from the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved...Nefertiti, living, healthy, and youthful forever and ever."

Nefertiti’s mummy was never found. It may have been hidden to keep it from Akhenaten's enemies. In June 2003, archaeologist June Fletcher claimed she found Nefertiti’s badly-mutilated mummy in a side chamber of the Tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings. Evidence that the mummy was Nefertiti includes distinctive double perching of the left ear which only Nefertiti and her daughter are said to have had, a tight fitting brow band (a sign of royalty), locks from a Nubian wig like that worn by Nefertiti and evidence of embalming of the type that was done in Nefertiti’s time. The mutilations were quite severe. Someone hacked her face and dug a sharp instrument into her chest. The damage is consistent with the kind of desecration performed by zealots opposed to Akhenaten’s religious reforms. The revelations were revealed in a Discovery Channel program. Most scholars are not convinced.

Akhenaten's Rule

Akhenaten ruled for 17 years (from the death of his father Amenhotep III in 1353 B.C. to Akhenaten's death in 1336 B.C.). His reign began with great optimism and hope as expressed by the great works of art that were created in that period.

After an unknown event, five years into his reign, Akhenaten moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new location called Akhetatem ("Horizon of the New Sun") in present-day el-Amarna (180 miles north of Thebes on the east bank of the Nile).

Zahi Hawass wrote in National Geographic, “In the fifth year of his reign, he changes his name to Akhenaten---"he who is beneficial to the Aten." He elevates himself to the status of a living god and abandons the traditional religious capital at Thebes, building a great ceremonial city 180 miles to the north, at a place now called Amarna. Here he lives with his great wife, the beautiful Nefertiti, and together they serve as the high priests of the Aten, assisted in their duties by their six cherished daughters. All power and wealth is stripped from the Amun priesthood, and the Aten reigns supreme. The art of this period is also infused with a revolutionary new naturalism; the pharaoh has himself depicted not with an idealized face and youthful, muscular body as were pharaohs before him, but as strangely effeminate, with a potbelly and a thick-lipped, elongated face. [Source: Zahi Hawass, National Geographic, September 2010]

Some scholars believe that a natural disaster provoked the move to Amarna. Some have suggested that Akhenaten founded the new capital to escape the bubonic plague ravaging Egypt’s main urban centers. Others believe that priests in Thebes had enough of him and forced him to leave. Within a year or two, a city with 20,000 people had sprouted up on the Nile.

Akhenaten renounced militarism, halted foreign military campaigns and dramatically scaled down Egypt's military defenses. His military reforms caused divisions within his kingdom.


Amarna (40 miles south of Al-Minya, near the town of Mallawi) was the royal city built on the Nile by Akhnaten to honor the god Aten and promote Akhnaten’s belief in a single god. A year or two after it was established as a religious center Amarna grew into a city with 20,000 people. The pharaoh lived with his wife and daughters in a luxurious palace with zoos, swimming pools, sunken gardens, bakeries and breweries.

At its height the ancient city stretched for eight miles along the Nile and extended three miles inland. A road along the river led to palaces and temples. The largest temple was an open air structure some 2,500 feet long and 950 feet wide. It contained a large courtyard where

After Akhenaten died, the polytheistic pharaohs that followed him destroyed many things associated with Akhenaten and his worship of one god. Even so a great deal of the foundations of city and its temples, palaces and noble tombs remain because the city was abandoned after Akhenaten's death and no one bothered to build anything on top of it.

Tombs in the area feature artwork and inscribed stelae a wonderful style of exaggerated naturalism, now referred to as new the "Amarna style." Nearby is a temple built by Ramses II to honor Thoth, a local god and the god of wisdom of knowledge. More tombs can be seen in Al-Haj Qandil.

Akhenaten and Monotheism

Known as the "great heretic," Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti attempted to introduce the idea of monotheism to ancient Egypt. Akhenaten's single god was the Egyptian sun god Aten. Akhenaten named himself after the god (Akhenaten means “one who serves Aten”) and got rid of Atem, who had been the state god until then. Aten was described as the"embodiment of the mystical force of the sun."

To honor his god Akhenaten commissioned temples without roofs that were open to the sun and inscriptions that showed Akhenaten and his family being touched by sun’s rays. Akhenaten may have written a poem that went: "Beautifully you appear from the horizon of heaven...Oh living Aten, who initiates life...Oh sole god, without another beside him! You create the Earth according to your wish...You are in my heart, and there is none who knows you except your son."

In Akhenaten’s time the clergy was quite powerful. Akhenaten may have adopted monotheism partly as a means of displacing the powerful pagan clergy whose primarily god was Amun. Images of Amun, a major god, were smashed and his temples were closed. Soldiers were ordered to deface images of Amun and other gods. Egyptians were encouraged to believe that the sun god came to Earth in the form of the royal family.

Impact of Akhenaten's Monotheism

20120211-Nefertiti.tiff Meketaten-.jpg
Nefertiti and Meketaten
Under Akhenaten the old pagan forms of religion were banned. Pagan statues were destroyed and the plural word "gods" was erased from monuments throughout the realm and labeled as blasphemous. Amun’s temples were closed and his name was removed from other temples. The new religion also stressed the concept of truth. Akhenaten attached the phrase "living in truth" to his name. He also preached the gospel of love and encouraged artists to express naturalness and openness.

In one fell swoop Akhenaten threw out a religious system that had brought stability and prosperity to Egypt for around 2,000 years. Monotheism divided Egypt and brought it to near collapse. To build his temples Akhenaten demanded that temples for Atem provide funds even though the god had been deposed and the priests laid off. After about four years in power tensions were running high.

But whether Akhenaten is indeed the father of monotheism is a matter of some debate. Some scholars believe that he may have been the source of monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They say he may have influenced Moses who appeared about century after him or even Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who is said to have been born around 1800 B.C. but in fact may have lived much later..

Akhenaten and the Arts

Under Akhenaten’s stewardship Egyptian art blossomed with new freshness. It is believed to have been inspired by the widespread belief that the sun god had come to Earth in the form of the royal family.

Under Akhenaten, sculptures expressed feeling, sensuality and beauty. Ceramics were filled with color and flare. Beautiful jewelry was made from balls of glass and precious stones. Murals with a natural realism were created that flied in the face of stiff Egyptian art.

Because Akhenaten wanted as many temples as possible to be built for his new god and the temples built under him didn’t need roofs a new style of construction was invented. Before Akhenaten walls were constructed of huge stone slabs that had to be strong enough to support a roof. The temples built under Akhenaten were huge open air structures made of 20-x-10-x-10-inch stone blocks. Many of the temples featured color paintings of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Decline During Akhenaten's Rule

Within a two or three year period beginning in the 9th year of his reign, Akhenaten lost his mother, three daughters and maybe one of his wives. Scholars believed that so many death in such a short period of time may have been the result of a plague or epidemic.

The kingdom itself was neglected and Egypt's arch enemies the Hittites began encroaching from the east. There was also trouble with Mitannians. One ruler wrote a letter to Akhenaten's mother asking why the Egyptian king had not sent gifts as he had promised. "I had asked your husband for statues of solid cast gold...But now...your son has [sent me] plated statues of wood. With gold being like dirt in your son’s country, why have they have been a source of such distress to your son that he has not given them to me?...Is this love?"

Akhenaten's Death and Legacy

In the middle of tense period with the Hittites, when Egypt’s possessions in Syria were being threatened, Akhenaten died. Historians are not sure how he died or when other than it was in the 17th year of his rule. He was buried in a Valley-of-the-Kings-style tomb cut into a cliff east of Amarna.

Akhenaten's revolution came to an end after his death. Pharaohs that succeeded him regarded him as a heretic. The temples he created for his new religion were destroyed and his name was expunged from historical records. His ideas about religion were quickly forgotten and things went back to the way they were before.

After Akhenaten’s death there was a scramble for power. A mysterious Pharaoh named Smenkhkare may have ruled briefly, for a year ir two, before dying himself. Zahi Hawass wrote in National Geographic, “The end of Akhenaten's reign is cloaked in confusion---a scene acted out behind closed curtains. One or possibly two kings rule for short periods of time, either alongside Akhenaten, after his death, or both. Like many other Egyptologists, I believe the first of these "kings" is actually Nefertiti. The second is a mysterious figure called Smenkhkare, about whom we know almost nothing.” [Source: Zahi Hawass, National Geographic, September 2010]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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