Amenhotep IV

Amenhotep IV (throne name Nefer-kheperue-re) becomes Akhenaten, the famous “heretic” pharaoh.

Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC) was son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy. During his reign both the art and religion in Egypt were marked by rapid change. When he initially succeeded the throne he was known as Amenhotep IV, but changed his name to Akhenaten in his fifth regnal year, and began to build a new capital called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun”), in Middle Egypt. This phase, encompassing Akhenaten’s and Smenkhkara’s reign and the beginning of Tutankhamun’s, is now referred to as the Armarna Period, and the site of the city of Akhetaten is now known as el-Amarna.

Images of Akhenaten
Late-Amarna style sculpture of Akhenaten, probably from the workshop of Thutmose Akenaten and his family, shown adoring the Aten sun-disc. Bust of Akhenaten, Cairo Museum

Akhenaten was a philosopher and a thinker, much more so than his forebears. His father Amenhotep III had recognised the growing power of the priesthood of Amun and had sought to curb it – Akhenaten however took matters a lot further by introducing the new “monothesitic” cult of worship to the sun-disc Aten. This was not a new idea, as a minor aspect of the sun god Ra-Horakty, the Aten had been somewhat venerated in the Old Kingdom. A large scarab belonging to Tuthmosis IV (Akhenaten’s grandfather) has a text that mentions the Aten.

The "aten" sun discThe major religious innovation of this reign was the worship of the sun disc Aten to the exclusion of the rest of the Egyptian gods, even Amun. Art took on a new distinctive style – the reliefs and stelae in the tombs and temples of Akenaten’s reign show Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and the royal princesses worshipping and making offerings to the Aten, which was displayed as a sun-disc with radiating arms and hands stretched downwards (see pictures above). The names of other deities were removed from temple walls in an attempt to reinforce the idea of the Aten as a single supreme deity.

The Aten is portrayed as a sun disc whose protective rays stretch down into hands holding the ankh, the symbol for life. Everywhere the royal family appeared they were shown to be under the protective rays of the Aten. The king, usually accompanied by Nefertiti and a number of their daughters, dominate the reliefs on walls of the tombs of the nobles at el-Amarna. This Aten symbol is prevalent in all of the distinctive art of the Amarna period, and is also depicted upon some of the treasures of the later pharaoh, Tutankhamun.

Physical representations

Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten’s family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. Nefertiti also appears beside the king in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she attained unusual power for a queen. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly bizarre appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips, giving rise to controversial theories such as that he may have actually been a woman masquerading as a man, or that he was a hermaphrodite or had some other intersex condition. The fact that Akhenaten had several children argues against these suggestions. It has also been suggested that he suffered from Marfan’s syndrome.

Until Akhenaten’s mummy is located and identified, proposals of actual physical abnormalities are likely to remain speculative. However, it must be kept in mind that there is no good evidence that we are necessarily dealing with a literal representation of Akhenaten’s physical form, or that of his wife or children. As pharaoh, Akhenaten had complete control over how he, his family, and his government in general was represented in art. We can only assume that what we see as an odd physical abnormality was in fact the way that Akhenaten wanted to be artistically portrayed.

Family values

Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and the couple had six known daughters:

Ankhesenpaaten, later Queen of Tutankhamun
Neferneferuaten Tasherit

Akhenaten’s most famous wife was of course Nefertiti who was known as the “great royal wife” early in his reign. He also had additional consorts, including Kiya, a “lesser royal wife”, Meritaten, who was recorded as his “great royal wife” late in his reign, and Ankhesenpaaten, his third daughter, who is thought to have borne a daughter to her own father. After Akhenaten’s death, Ankhesenpaaten married Tutankhamun.

What happened after Akhenaten?

Following Akenaten’s death, a peaceful but comprehensive political, religious and artistic reformation returned Egyptian life to the norms it had followed previously during his father’s reign. Much of the art and building infrastructure that was created during Akhenaten’s reign was defaced or destroyed in the period immediately following his death. Stone building blocks from his construction projects were later used as foundation stones for subsequent rulers temples and tombs.

The mysterious Smenkhkare

In year 14 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti herself vanishes from the historical record, and there is no word of her after that date. Her disappearance coincides with the rise of co-ruler Smenkhkare to the throne. Smenkhkare is thought to have been married to her daughter Meritaten, and may have become Akhenaten’s co-regent for a few years before Akhenaten’s death. He certainly ruled Egypt for a brief period since he is attested in his Year 1 on a wine label from “the House of Smenkhkare”. However, Smenkhkare is also depicted in many of the same ways as Nefertiti was, and his regnal name, Nefernefruaten, is quite similar to that of Nefertiti. He is sometimes depicted as looking very feminine, and even his name was sometimes written with a feminine ending. This has led some scholars to believe that Smenkhkare was in fact another name for Nefertiti, and instead of falling from grace or dying, Nefertiti actually rose in power, taking the throne for herself after the death of her husband.

After a reign of around 18 years, Akhenaten was succeeded for a short time by Smenkhkara. Soon after, a rather youthful Tutankhaten succeeded the throne. He may have been a son of Akhenaten’s, or a younger brother of Smenkhare, or even a younger son of Amenhotep III. Within a few years, Tutankhaten had abandoned the city at Tell el-Amarna in favour of the traditional administrative centre at Memphis, and in the second year of his reign he changed his name to Tutankhamun, effectively signalling the end of the supremacy of the Aten. Many reliefs from this period were later heavily damaged as a reaction against the so-called heresy of Akhenaten.

What happened to their bodies?

One other mystery remains surrounding the Amarna period – the disappearance of the bodies of Akhenaten and his immediate family. The royal tomb to the east of el-Amarna appears to never have been completed and there is little evidence to suggest that anyone other than one of his daughters was ever buried there. In 1907 a young male member of the royal family was discovered by Theodore Davis in tomb 55 in the Valley of the Kings. This mummy had been reburied with a set of funerary equipment mainly belonging to Queen Tiy, and was initially identified as that of Akhenaten (a view still accepted by some Egyptologists) but is now considered to be that of Smenkhkara.

Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay (Tutankhamun’s successor) were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten’s name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

1 comment

  1. I find peace and solace from your words, and that quote from someone important, “My father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too..”.

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