History : Mar-Apr 2016
22 MARCH/APRIL 2016 CITY OF THE SUN Akhetaten—modern- day Tell el Amarna— was founded by Akhenaten as Egypt’s new capital and the center of the solar cult to Aten. The ruins still stand today. AKG/ALBUM For many years the image of Akhenaten has been seen in a purely religious light, especially among scholars who saw his ideas as a precur- sor to the monotheism developed by the He- brews. More recently, however, Egyptologists have sought to refine the profile. The picture of Akhenaten now emerging is far more nuanced and intriguing. Recent scholarship shows that Akhenaten did not shut himself away in his new capital in pious adoration of Aten. On the contrary, he remained an important player on the inter- national stage, managing to maintain Egypt’s influence in Canaan (modern-day Israel) and Nubia (northern Sudan). It seems impossi- ble that Akhenaten could have succeeded in crushing so many cults, especially the power- ful cult of Amun, unless he had a significant military force at his command. Akhenaten also had support in calling for religious reform. The women in his life—his mother, Tiye, and his wife, Nefertiti—were al- so closely involved in the religious and politi- cal revolution that took place during his reign. Akhenaten worked closely on reforms with the cooperation of Nefertiti. Her face is one of the most iconic images associated with ancient Egypt thanks to the discovery of a bust of her in 1912. In some artistic depictions she is shown standing belligerently against Egypt’s enemies. Nefertiti, along with Akhenaten himself, was the sole intermediary between the people and Aten. It is also believed that Nefertiti was made co-regent alongside her husband and took an active role in the religious and political life of the kingdom, carrying out official duties usu- ally reserved for the king. Before becoming co- regent, Nefertiti added to her name the word Neferneferuaten, which means “Beautiful Is the Beauty of Aten.” Then, from the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign, all references to Nefertiti suddenly cease and a new king, Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten, ap- pears. Some believe this new king is Nefertiti, who changed her name again. Some historians believe she may have died, although many oth- ers now posit that she outlived her husband, and even ruled briefly as Pharaoh. Her role, and the possibility she adopted other names, has baffled, intrigued, and divided historians for many years. Today, the profile that seems to fit Akhenaten best is that of a sovereign who had fused both religion and politics into his ruling vision. He followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, are laid out in the Hymn to Aten. Depicting Aten, the sun disk, as the prime mover of life, the hymn also emphasizes how any knowledge and rev- elation from Aten can only be revealed through Akhenaten, who was seen as quasi divine. At first, temples to the other gods contin- ued to be used for worship. But then, around the tenth year of Akhenaten’s reign, came even more radical change: a royal campaign against the cult devoted to Amun and his wife, Mut. Previously, Amun had been predominant in the pantheon, and a powerful priesthood had grown up around him. But Akhenaten ordered that Amun’s name be excised from all monuments. The temples of all other gods except Aten were closed. Heretic or Politic? It is difficult to say exactly what it was that motivated Akhenaten to dismantle centuries of religious tradition, a policy that later led to his posthumous branding as a heretic. Was he a religious fanatic attempting to impose an ego- tistical religion on his people? Or was he, in fact, a shrewd politician looking to undermine the huge economic power enjoyed by the priest- hood of Amun?