Egypt’s First Religious Revolutionary

When he reached the throne, his name was Amenhotep IV, but in his sixth year of power, he changed it to “Akhenaten,” which the late Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat approximately interpreted as “Benevolent one of (or for) the Aten.” He was a religious reformer who made the Aten, or sun disc, the heart of Egypt’s religious life and carried out iconoclasm by erasing the names of Amun, the supreme Egyptian deity, and his wife Mut from monuments and records across Egypt’s kingdom.

Akhenaten with blue crown

During his five-year reign as Amenhotep IV, he maintained his father’s policies as well as Egyptian religious customs. However, in his fifth year, he underwent a dramatic religious transformation, switching his allegiance from Amun to Aten, and for the next twelve years, he was known (or infamous) as the “heretic king” who abolished Egypt’s traditional religious rites and instituted the world’s first monotheistic state religion, and, according to some, monotheism itself.
His reign is known as the Amarna Period because he relocated Egypt’s capital from the customary site of Thebes to Akhetaten, which became known as Amarna. The Amarna Period is Egypt’s most disputed period, with more studies, debates, and books produced about it than any other.


“Akhenaten upended the religion, art, and politics of ancient Egypt, and then his legacy was buried. Now he endures as a symbol of change.“

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Amarna MM6741; 18th Dynasty Akhenaten Amenhotep wall archaeology

Turning to the Aten

The pharaoh Akhenaten thought that light was the sole divine force in the cosmos, and that the solar disc was the conduit for this power. The Aten, Akhenaten’s divinity, is shown as a solar disc with rays terminating in miniature human hands. This Aten sign is a large-scale hieroglyph that represents “light.” One of these hands holds an ankh hieroglyph, the emblem of life, to Akhenaten’s nose in depictions.
Although only the Aten is worshipped and temples are built for him, his religion is most likely not entirely monotheistic. Other gods existed and are named in inscriptions, however they are usually other sun gods or personifications of abstract notions; even the names of the Aten, which are engraved in cartouches like king’s names, include a theological declaration explaining the Aten in terms of other gods. Traditional gods, on the other hand, were not permitted, and teams of workers were dispatched to Egypt’s temples to chisel away the names and pictures of these gods wherever they could be found.


International Relations

The Amarna letters have shed light on Akhenaten’s rule and foreign policy. The letters are a collection of 382 diplomatic writings, literary works, and instructional materials unearthed between 1887 and 1979 and named after Akhenaten’s city, Akhetaten. Clay tablet letters between Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun, different subjects via Egyptian military outposts, rulers of vassal kingdoms, and foreign monarchs of Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Canaan, Alashiya, Arzawa, Mitanni, and the Hittites compose the diplomatic correspondence.
The Amarna letters depict the international position that Akhenaten inherited from his forefathers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Following the expulsion of the Hyksos from Lower Egypt at the end of the Second Intermediate Period, the kingdom’s influence and military prowess grew dramatically in the 200 years leading up to Akhenaten’s reign. Thutmose III, who ruled around 100 years before Akhenaten and led multiple victorious military excursions into Nubia and Syria, elevated Egypt’s strength to unprecedented heights. Egypt’s growth brought it into conflict with the Mitanni, but the two nations eventually became friends.
Egypt’s dominance began to diminish gradually. Amenhotep III used marriages like his to Tadukhipa, daughter of Mitanni monarch Tushratta, and vassal nations to preserve the balance of power. Egypt was unable or unwilling to stop the development of the Hittites in Syria under the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. At a period when the power balance between Egypt’s neighbours and competitors was shifting, the Hittites, a confrontational state, surpassed the Mitanni in dominance, the pharaohs appeared to avoid military conflict.

Akhenaten Sacrificing a Duck

Akhenaten Sacrificing a Duck

Akhenaten, distinguished by his elongated features, lifts a duck toward the Aten on this block from a temple relief. He wrings the bird’s neck with one hand before giving it to the deity. Sculptors later in Akhenaten’s reign adopted a more realistic approach, stressing a feeling of space and movement. Akhenaten’s hands are grabbing and trying to keep the flailing duck in place. A scenario like this, capturing a single moment, would never have been attempted in the past. However, Akhenaten’s right hand is twisted in such a way that all five fingers are visible, following the Egyptian tradition of exhibiting each portion of the body as thoroughly as possible. A second duck’s webbed feet may be seen in the lower right corner.

In this relief, the artist used a technique known as sunk relief to carve the shapes of the figures into the surface. Sunk relief is most commonly found on the exteriors of buildings, where the contours throw shadows that emphasise the sunshine. During the Amarna era, this method was used for practically all relief. (source)


Death and burial

With Akhenaten’s death, the Aten religion he built began to fade from popularity, first gradually and then definitively. In the second year of his reign, Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun and left Akhetaten. After that, their successors endeavoured to wipe Akhenaten and his family from history. Egyptians began to destroy temples to the Aten during the reign of Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the first pharaoh after Akhenaten who was not related to Akhenaten’s family, and reuse the building blocks in new construction projects, including temples for the newly restored god Amun. This attempt was maintained by Horemheb’s successor.
Seti I rebuilt Amun monuments and had the god’s name re-carved on inscriptions where Akhenaten had erased it. To make it appear that Amenhotep III was promptly followed by Horemheb, Seti I had Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay removed from official lists of pharaohs. The Ramessides, who followed Seti I, progressively demolished Akhetaten and utilised the architectural materials around the nation, including at Hermopolis. Inscriptions in the tomb of scribe Mose (or Mes), for example, show that Akhenaten’s reign was referred to as “the period of the adversary of Akhet-Aten.”
After seventeen years of power, Akhenaten died and was buried in a tomb in the Royal Wadi east of Akhetaten. One of the boundary stela marking the capital’s limits recalled the order to build the tomb and bury the pharaoh there: “Allow for the construction of a tomb for me in the eastern mountain [of Akhetaten]. Let my interment take place there, among the millions of jubilees ordained by the Aten, my father.” Akhenaten’s sarcophagus was damaged and abandoned in the Akhetaten necropolis in the years following his burial; it was repaired in the 20th century and is now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as of 2019. Despite leaving the sarcophagus behind, Tutankhamun abandoned Akhetaten and returned to Thebes, and Akhenaten’s mummy was taken from the royal tombs. Most likely, it was relocated to tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. Later, perhaps during the Ramesside dynasty, this tomb was desecrated.


What was Akhenaten known for?

Akhenaten became pharaoh of Egypt in 1353 BC and reigned for about 17 years during Egypt’s New Kingdom’s 18th dynasty. Akhenaten is most known today for the new religion he developed, which was centred on the Aten.

How old was Akhenaten when he became pharaoh?

Amenhotep IV’s age at the time of this act is unclear; estimates range from 10 to 23. He was most likely crowned in Thebes, although it’s also possible that he was crowned in Memphis or Armant. Amenhotep IV’s reign began according to customary pharaonic customs.

What did Akhenaten do for art?

In less than two decades, Akhenaten altered Egyptian religion, revamped Egypt’s royal artistic style, relocated Egypt’s capital to a newly found location, instituted a new architectural style, and attempted to obliterate the pictures and names of some of Egypt’s old gods.

Where is the tomb of Akhenaten?

The Royal Tomb of Akhenaten is the tomb of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, which is found in the Royal Wadi at Amarna.

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