Akhen-Aten, Ancient Egypt’s Monotheistic King

While Egyptians worshipped multiple gods for some 3,000 years, there was a brief moment in this vast span of history when at least some Egyptians converted to a monotheistic faith thanks to a rather unique pharaoh named Akhen-Aten. 

Upon the death of his father, Amun-hotep III, Amun-hotep IV ascended the throne as the next pharaoh of Egypt.  Physically, he may have seemed an unlikely choice, having an elongated body with abnormally long neck, limbs, and fingers, and somewhat rounded hips and prominent belly.  This was certainly not the stereotypical image of physical perfection that we have come to associate with Egyptian kings.  Certainly, we do not assume that Egyptian kings were really as perfect as their statues and images portray them to be, but nonetheless, there was clearly something odd about the appearance of this young king.  Modern researchers have in fact suggested that Amun-hotep IV may have suffered from a genetic abnormality known as Marfan’s Syndrome which lengthens the limbs and fingers in just this manner. It was once thought that Abraham Lincoln also suffered from this abnormality, although he has since been rediagnosed with multiple endocrine neoplasia. Likewise, the diagnosis of Marfan’s has been dropped from discussions of Akhen-Aten as of this year, 2010, when genetic testing proved that Tut-ankh-Amun was indeed Akhen-Aten’s son and that Tut lacked any genetic traces of Marfan’s.

However Akhen-Aten’s odd appearance may eventually be explained, it is true that Amun-hotep IV was different in other ways as well.  Even as a child and youth, he seemed less inclined to engage in physical activities and sport as other youth did, preferring a more contemplative life one filled with spiritual considerations, extensive periods of prayer and contemplation.  Still, upon his ascension to the throne, he showed no inclination towards any spiritual practices or beliefs outside of the traditional beliefs of the polytheistic Egyptians.  For his first few years as king, he honored the gods of his fathers and provided endowments to the priests of Amun at Karnak, where statues were erected in his honor portraying him in the physical perfection we have come to expect from Egypt’s divine kings. 

Despite the apparent adherence to tradition displayed by the new king, Egypt was clearly at a point in her history when a new god was just coming into prominence.  Durign the reign of Amun-hotep III there seems to have been a greater interest in another of the several sun gods – the Aten.  Egyptian polytheism, being a syncretic evolution of animistic gods derived from the natural world, tended to displayed its gods in human form with perhaps some remnant of their pre-human animal selves still present, for example, images of Horus as a man and Horus as a falcon, or Thoth [Djehuti] as a man with an Ibis head, and Thoth simply as an ibis.  But the Aten was different.  The Aten was the only significant deity to be portrayed purely as the natural element it was believed to be, in this case, the sun disk.  The Aten had no human or semi-human form.  All images of Aten display him as the sun itself, often with rays of light extending outwards with little hands at the end of each ray with which the loving god could carress and comfort its people as well as hold the traditional symbols of life and power. 

Down to his fifth year as king, Amun-hotep continued to use the name given him by his parents, a name which signified a special reverence for the ancient sun god, Amun.  However, in that year he began to refer to himself as well as “the first prophet of Ra-Harakhti Rejoicing in the Horizon in his name the sunlight which is Aten.”  At the palace, the new king began to replace traditional images with images of the sun disk.  This change of religious symbolism slowly extended outside the palace as well.  In the tomb at Thebes of the royal vizier, Ra-mose, who died during the early years of Amun-hotep IV’s reign, we see images of the new king in the traditional style, and of Ra-mose making offerings to the god Amun.  But then on the opposite wall are images in a new style of Amun-hotep IV and his wife, Nefertiti, bathing in the glow of the light of Aten.   

While records of the actual events transpiring at this very significant time in Egyptian history are missing, most likely deliberately destroyed by later Egyptians seeking to wipe away any evidence of what occurred, the archaeological record leads to the following conclusions.  In the sixth year of his reign, Amun-hotep IV decided to leave the old capital of his father and ordered the construction of a new capital city on the west bank of the Nile half-way between modern day Cairo and ancient Luxor.  This site is known today as El-Amarna, a name derived from the tribe of Banu Amran who inhabit the area, but the name given the new city by its founder was Akhet-Aten, meaning the Horizon of Aten.  The city, built in great haste and now completely destroyed, nonetheless reveals much concerning its founder and the revolution he sought to pursue.  It is also the site of one of the finest archives found in Egypt, now referred to as the Amarna letters, letters inscribed in cuneiform, among which is the earliest recorded reference to the Canaanite city of Jerusalem. 

In keeping with his new faith, Amun-hotep IV adopted a new name and a new image.  His new name was Akhen-Aten, which means “It is well with Aten.”  As for his new image, it was so very distinct from traditional images of Egyptian kings as to offer some of the most memorable images out of Egypt’s entire 3000 years of history.  Akhen-Aten has himself portrayed realistically, with every physical flaw intact.  Physical perfection is gone.  On the contrary, Akhen-Aten seems to revel in his realism.  Not only is he shown as he really was, but he is shown doing what he most likely really did in life.  No more stiff, inhuman poses for this king.  We see Akhen-Aten at dinner with his family or playing with his children, something no other pharaoh would ever be shown doing, whether or not he actually did so in real life. 

How extensive this new faith in the Aten was is impossible to tell, although it is safe to assume that the great majority of Egyptians had nothing to do with it.  Nonetheless, for Akhen-Aten faith in the Aten meant everything.  An inscription from the tomb of Ay, Akhen-Aten’s advisor and successor, has been attributed to Akhen-Aten himself, and expresses well his deep devotion to the one god: 

You arise beauteous in the horizon of heaven, O living Aten, beginner of life when You did shine forth in the eastern horizon, and did fill every land with Your beauty. You are comely, great, sparkling, and high above every land, and Your rays enfold the lands to the limits of all that You have made, You being the sun, and You reach their limits and subject them to your beloved son. Being afar off, yet Your rays are upon the earth.  You are in men’s faces, yet Your movements are unseen.  When You set in the western horizon, the earth is in darkness after the manner of death.  The night is passed in the bedchamber, heads covered, no eye can see its fellow.  Their belongings are stolen, even though they be under their heads, and they perceive it not.  Every lion is come forth from its lair and all snakes bite.  Darkness is the sole illumination while the earth is in silence, their maker resting in his horizon. (Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, 225) 

Initially, all that Akhen-Aten strove to accomplish with his personal faith in the Aten seems to have been fairly restricted to his immediate environment, particularly his new capital.  Indeed, he may have built his new capital with its strictly delimited boundaries in part to separate his faith from the old faith, while leaving the old faith intact.  However, at some point he clearly decided to eradicate the old polytheism of Egypt rather than leave it to spread its corrupting influence over the people.  He therefore sent workmen across the land to destroy images of the gods and to remove the names of the old gods from the temples.  In these efforts, they largely failed to do little but anger the priests and those people who directly benefitted from the old faith.  In the homes of the Egyptians, worship of the old gods probably continued as usual.  In the village constructed for the workmen employed on building Akhen-Aten’s new capital, even, shrines to the old gods have been found.  Far from leading a successful religious revolution, then, all Akhen-Aten really succeeded in doing was turning many people against him.  One important reason for this failure may have been the lack of a concerted effort to bring the new faith to the people.  Apart from closing the old temples and removing the names of the old gods, the new faith seems only to have been upheld in a couple of new temples, which could not possibly have reached the entire population with their monotheistic message. 

Involved as he was in the everyday affairs of his new faith, Akhen-Aten had neither the time nor the inclination to involve himself in foreign affairs.  Consequently, as uncovered in letters written to the capital by Egyptian outposts, hostile neighbors began to threaten the borders of Egypt, in particular the Hittites in Anatolia, who were just now coming into their own politically and militarily and seeking to expand southward into Palestine.  Letters from the Egyptian governor in Palestine attest to this fact, and paint a picture of a man desperate for assistance from Egypt against the growing threat, but receiving no answer from a king who had no interest in such earthly political matters. 

Towards the end of his reign, Akhen-Aten accepted his son-in-law Smenkh-ka-Ra, husband to the king’s eldest daughter, as his co-regent and heir to the throne of Egypt.  That he had no sons of his own compelled him to this end in acquiring an heir.  However, while Smenkh-ka-Ra may have been eager to become the next king of Egypt, he seems to have had no commitment to the new faith of his father-in-law.  This is indicated by evidence that he quickly left Akhet-Aten to take up residence in the ancient capital of Thebes.  Jilted by his son-in-law, Akhen-Aten was left without an heir.  There is even a suggestion that he may have been abandoned by his wife, Nefer-titi, in the end.  However it happened, we may assume that the monotheistic king of Egypy died an isolated and hated man.  His mummy has never been found, and indeed he may never have been mummified.  His very enemies, in keeping with Egyptian tradition, probably destroyed his body even as they destroyed his city after his death.  His tomb has been found, and his sarcophagus within the tomb, but the sarcophagus stands empty and evidence suggests that it never held a body. 

The curse of Akhen-Aten then descended on his only remaining male heir, husband to his last daughter, Ankhes-en-Amun.  This was the famous King Tut, well known in contemporary society for his remarkable tomb, but most significant in history because it was the boy king Tut who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, rejected the monotheistic revolution of his father Akhen-Aten.  Tut ordered the temples to the ancient gods reopened and generously gave to the priests, no doubt hoping thereby to win their support.  But it was too late for Tut.  Before he had even reached his 20th birthday, Tut died.  A popular theory, based on an early forensic examination of an injury to his skull, was that he had been murdered, most likely by his own chief advisor Ay, who coveted the throne for himself.  We know that Ay did indeed become pharaoh after Tut’s death, but only after he had apparently compelled  Tut’s widow, Ankhes-en-Amun, to marry him.  Thereby, Ay gained legitimacy for his own claim to the throne, although his death put an end to this most amazing dynasty and gave rise to one of the most renowned dynasty in all of Egyptian history – that of Ramesses the Great.  More recent examinations of Tut’s body, however, suggest that he more likely died from malaria or from an infection that had spread through his body following a severe injury to his leg, the kind of injury that might have been caused in battle or even from falling off his horse.