Egypt’s Revolutionary Pharaoh


You are in my heart. There is no other
who knows you. Only your son, Sole-One-of-Ra Whom you have taught your ways and
your might. Those on earth come from your hand as you made them. When you have
dawned, they live. When you set, they die. You yourself are a lifetime; one lives by
you. In the latter half of the fourteenth century BCE, an enigmatic figure ascended to the throne of Egypt. This man’s 17-year long reign would be remembered for his
repeated subversion of tradition. His attempt at radically changing the
religious practices of ancient Egypt would lead to his successors doing
everything in their power to discredit his rule, referring to him as “The Enemy”
and “That Criminal” in archival records, and even attempting to destroy
all physical traces of his time in power. So, who was this subversive figure, and
how did his reign differ from those of traditional Pharaohs? Amenhotep IV, the 18th dynasty
Pharaoh who ruled Egypt for a period of about 17 years between 1353 and 1334 BCE,
began distorting tradition from early in his reign. By the time his reign began,
Amun, god of mysteries in the wind, had long since become the chief deity of the
Egyptian Pantheon, and the primary god Pharaohs would seek to evoke. The name
Amenhotep itself, meaning Amun is pleased, serves as an example of this evocation. With the great popularity of Amun, priests of the God held a
considerable amount of power in Egyptian society. In the early reign of Amenhotep
IV, however, the Pharaoh took up the title of
“Prophet of Ra Horekhte” – Ra-of-the-Horizon – evoking the god of the Sun alongside the
invocation of Amun found in his name this exaltation of the Sun deity serves
as a prelude to the increasingly distinct religious movement which Amenhotep IV followed, while his reference to himself as “prophet” could be
seen to reflect his later depictions of himself as less of a living God and more
of a priest to a far greater entity. Amenhotep IV took up an unusual
approach to the worship of Ra. While the god had traditionally been depicted with
the body of a man and the head of a falcon, Amenhotep IV
considered the god to be a discreet deity, and had it represented not in
human form but as the solar disk or “The Aten”. Only a few years into his reign, Amenhotep IV began introducing a religious system entirely revolving
around the Sun disc on as primary deity. It was during this same time that he
began going by the name most know him by, Akhenaten, meaning “he who is profitable
for the Aten”. The major focus on a single deity, a deity considered too
divine to even be referred to as a mere god at that, heavily contrasts with
earlier traditions, which, despite placing certain gods above others, still
recognized a multitude of gods as major parts of the religion. In addition to the religious upheaval he
brought about, Akhenaten pushed forth a dramatic shift in political traditions. Since the beginning of the 18th dynasty, the capital of Egypt had been the city
of Thebes. This city had also served as the center of worship for Amun, and was
the city from which the founders of the dynasty had hailed. Long before the birth
of Akhenaten eighteenth dynasty conquests had brought great riches into
Egypt. Much of this wealth was given as offerings to the gods, and as a result the temples at which these offerings were made grew significantly in wealth and
power. It was during this time that the temple of Amun in Thebes reached an
unprecedented level of power, surpassing even the military aristocracy.
Akhenaten’s religious revolution came as a personal threat to the influence of
the priesthood. This threat would only be amplified as Akhenaten’s reign went on.
Akhenaten reduced the power of the temples at every given opportunity.
Around the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten declared a new capital for
Egypt, tearing power from the seat of Amun worship. While Egypt’s capital had
changed many times in the nation’s long history, Akhenaten not only moved the
capital, but founded an entire city to duly serve as the capital of Egypt and a
center of worship for Aten. He named this city
“Akhetaten”, meaning “horizon of the Aten”. Today the site is called Amarna.
Akhenaten went beyond simply encouraging the primary worship of a specific deity.
He made attempts to completely erase the worship of Amun, and later all gods but
Aten. Around the same time he changed his name, Akhenaten began closing down
temples to Amun across Egypt even forcing the god’s name to be erased from
certain inscriptions. Further into his reign, Akhenaten even went so far as to
order inscriptions referring to “gods” to be altered to refer to a singular God. Akhenaten further defied tradition in
his subversion of typical artistic convention. In addition to a heavy focus
on his patron deity, Akhenaten had himself in his family to pretend in a
manner far different from rulers of past. Pharaohs were expected to be calm, collected
at all times, unmoving even. This demeanor is reflected in ancient Egyptian artwork,
with depictions of Pharaohs almost invariably shown them in stiff poses,
showing no indication of motion except in heroic portrayals of rulers
participating in war or hunting. The period of Akhenaten’s reign from Akhetaten, referred to as the Amarna period, after the modern name of the site, marks
a distinctive shift in Egyptian artwork as a whole. Amarna period artwork is
characterized by a sense of activity. Figures in motion and crowded scenes
full of overlapping figures became more common. While the figures were still
depicted in a stylized manner, this stylization was less idealistic, instead
more closely representing reality. Instead of representing the body type
the ancient Egyptians perceived as ideal, figures during this period were
depicted with more realistic proportions, like less muscular bodies and longer
necks. While past Egyptian artwork had depicted men with dark red-brown skin
and women with skin in a shade of yellow, artists of the Amarna period depicted
men and women alike in the same red brown tone. Interestingly, Akhenaten’s
immediate family was depicted in a manner which, despite being more stylized,
still did not represent the ideal Egyptian body type. Akhenaten himself is
depicted with wide hips, thick lips, thin limbs, a sloping, oddly shaped head, and a
protruding stomach – a major departure from the traditionally muscular
representations of Egyptian men. Similarly, depictions of Akhenaten defy
the traditional portrayal of the Pharaoh as a divine being. Rather than being
depicted as a God on earth, Akhenaten had himself portrayed in a very human light,
In addition to the aforementioned imperfections of his appearance, the
Pharaoh was also shown as a family man, with certain reliefs showing him simply
sitting down alongside his wife and their children. Such casual scenes seem
exceedingly unusual when compared to the impersonal style in which other pharaohs
were typically depicted. Akhenaten was zealously devoted to his new religion.
This devotion correlates to a number of the oddities of his rule, from his
alteration of political traditions to his subversion of artistic ones. His
constant push against traditional religion would lead his successors to
disassociate from him. His son, Tutankhaten – “Living Image of Aten” – would renounce Atenism, returning to the supremacy of Amun, and changing his name to
Tutankhamun – “Living Image of Amun” – to reflect his return to Amun worship.
Tutankhamun would further go on to restore Thebes’s position as capital
of Egypt. Later rulers would further seek to eliminate Akhenaten from history. In
addition to referencing him by unflattering epithets, many of the former
Pharaoh’s construction projects, built from small blocks called Talatat, would
be torn down, with the blocks being entombed within the walls of later
projects. Ironically, this reuse of the Talatat would help to preserve them,
and with them, archaeological record of Akhenaten’s reign. It would seem, then,
that we can credit a fair amount of our knowledge about this unusual figure to
the very people who tried to erase him from history.

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