Akhenaten – a summary

More than 3,300 years ago a man named Akhenaten rose to power to rule over Egypt during the 18th dynasty. His radical belief in monotheism was cause for alarm during his reign and later rulers of Egypt tried to omit him from the official lists of kings. The Pharaoh Akhenhaten, who came to the throne in 1353 BCE, is an attractive figure to historians and archeologists: what possessed a pharaoh to abandon all the traditional gods and put so much effort into one deity? What caused his rapid fall from grace following his death? Was he the father of the boy king, Tutankhamun, and why did images of Akhenaten depict him with such strange features?

Monotheism

AkhenatenShortly after coming to power, the new pharaoh changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, meaning “He who is of service to the Aten”, in honor of what he believed to be the one true god. Although he initially allowed the continued worship of traditional Egyptian gods, he eventually forbade worship of any deity other than the Aten.

Akhenaten is believed to be the world’s first monotheist by putting his faith in a single god (although other gods were still mentioned in inscriptions). His belief in the one god, Aten, was so powerful that he moved his capitol city from Thebes, one of the largest cities in Egypt at the time, to the city of Akhetaten (modern-day Amarna). This city was to be a tribute to the sun disc god and roughly translates as “Horizon of Aten”.

Akhenaten began removing depictions of other gods as he pushed his people to follow his monotheistic view. Statues, carvings, and paintings of other deities were defaced or destroyed. Any tribute or economic gains offered to other gods were absorbed into the new belief system.

During the first five years of Akhenaten’s seventeen-year reign, he constructed a Temple to Aten in the Karnak Temple Complex. During the 18th dynasty, Karnak was a religious gathering place where most of the pharaohs contributed to the glories of Egypt. It stood as a beacon of religious expression and a historical database of sorts.

Ordinary people were not permitted to worship the Aten directly. Instead they were obliged to worship their pharaoh who claimed to be the sole intermediary between the Aten and the people. The new directive gave the king absolute power over his people. His motives may have been political as it meant he was able to dispense with the services of his once overly powerful priests.

Post-Akhenaten

Upon Akhenaten’s death, city of Akhetaten was abandoned as people moved back to Thebes, and the worship of the Aten was rejected in favor of polytheism and the worship of Egypt’s traditional gods. Statues and depictions of the Aten, constructed throughout Akhenaten’s reign, were dismantled. The Temple to Aten was completely destroyed. All that remained on the sun disc god’s temple where the remnants of the building’s base among the rubble.

Akhenaten’s cause of death remains unclear – some speculate that he could have been the victim of an assassination or that he merely died from health problems. Unfortunately, answers to these questions may be lost to history.

The Missing Wife

NefertitiPharaoh Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti (pictured), was a staunch supporter of her husband’s efforts to enforce the worship of the single god. Together they had six daughters. But Akhenaten had other wives, including Kiya, who may have been the mother of his son, Tutankhamun. Nefertiti disappears from the records towards the end of Akhenaten’s 17-year reign although some argue that, following her husband’s death, she reappears as the queen for a short time using the pseudonym, Smenkhkare or Neferneferuaten before passing the throne to Tutankhamun. But as the neither the tombs of Smenkhkare nor Neferneferuaten have been found, there is no real evidence to support this theory. Nefertiti may have been the victim of a plague that was rampant in Egypt at the time.

Physical Attributes

Akhenaten was often depicted with an elongated jaw and a swollen stomach. Although the practice of elongated skulls by binding was not unheard of, the practice wasn’t widely utilized in Egypt in this fashion.

Skull binding is an ancient tradition for shaping the skull a certain way using ropes, boards, or other objects to create the desired effect by tightly binding the object to the head. This would have been done with infants, as their skulls are malleable. After six months or so, the process is complete and the skull begins to harden in the preferred shape. Many scientists believe this was done in order to show tribute to a higher power or done by entire tribes as a means of social segregation.

Images of Akhenaten and his family depict them with distended stomachs. Some speculate that this could be from an inherited physical condition, which could also contribute to the elongated skulls within his family. Practical methods of genetics are difficult to pinpoint on a body that is more than 3,000 years old.

Tutankhamun

TutankhamunTutankhamun may well have been the son of Akhenaten. DNA tests in 2010 confirmed the theory, but the identity of his mother is still in debate. There is strong support that Smenkhkare was the mother of Tutankhamun although evidence doesn’t exist to prove it. There is also belief that Tutankhamun’s mother and aunt may have been “the younger woman” found in tomb KV35, the tomb of Amenhotep II, in other words Akhenaten’s sister and wife. The boy king of Egypt, like his father, died of mysterious causes. Although evidence supports malaria and other ailments, evidence of what actually killed him are still being reviewed.

The radical changes Akhenhaten implemented were advanced for the 1300s BCE. Egypt was not ready to follow a single deity and the removal of gods could have been the kindling that started a whirl of resentment. In the aftermath, much of the period was destroyed by both supporters of Aten and the old gods in an attempt to erase the other. Unfortunately, we may never fully grasp what had happened to this ancient pharaoh.

Nancy Parker

Nancy is a professional www.enannysource.com and writes about a wide range of subjects such as health, parenting, child care, babysitting, nanny background check tips, etc.

See also articles on Tutankhamun – a brief summary, Ramses the Great, the Great Pyramids of Giza and the process of mummification.

Read more in Ancient Egypt: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.