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15 February

Akhenaten – the Heretic Pharaoh


Below is a guest article written by Fiona Skepper.  I have added links and images where I thought appropriate.  Those are the only changes from the original, which Fiona emailed to me.  You will see the phonetic spelling of names in the article.  Fiona put those in there to help me if I podcast about this.  I left them in because I thought all the readers could also benefit from being able to pronounce these names.  If you would like to send in a guest article just email me.  Thank you very much for this great article Fiona.  I did not know anything about Akhenaten before reading this well written account.

(please note that different publications spell the names of Akhenaten, Aten, Tutankhamen and Amen differently, I have elected to use this spelling).


Labelled a heretic king, megalomaniac, and religious zealot, Akhenaten (ah-kuh-NAT-n) (the predecessor of Tutankhamen (too-tang-KAH-mun)) is one of the most unusual and interesting of Egypt’s many Pharaohs. He turned thousand year traditions and beliefs upside down, and if it had been up to the Ancient Egyptians he would have been lost to history forever.

Akhenaten began his reign during the New Kingdom period of Egypt, in the 18th dynasty, as Amenhotep IV (Ah-mun- ho-tep) (meaning Amen is Satisfied) after the death of his father Amenhotep III, a pharaoh who was famous for his diplomacy and helped to lead Egypt to the Zenith of it’s wealth and power. Egypt was going through a golden age. Suggested dates for Akhenaten’s reign are from around 1353 BC, 1351 BC to- around 1336, 1334 BC, a period of 17 years.

Nefertiti (Nofretete in Berlin)

The young Amenhotep IV’s Queen was Nefertiti, (whose name means “the beautiful one has come”,) her image is world famous after her blue crowned head bust was uncovered near Amarna, and is now on display in the Altes museum in Berlin.

Around the 3rd year of his reign Amenhotep IV went through a religious conversion, turning away from the traditional major gods and deciding to worship the Sun itself Aten (Ah-tun). Until Akhenaten’s time, Aten had been a minor deity, the main focus was on Amen (Ah-mun) or Amen-Ra, the sun god. At the temple complex of Karnak near Thebes (modern day Luxor), a powerful Amen priesthood had developed, which had already challenged the power of Akhenaten’s father.

In the fifth year of his reign Akhenaten realised that he needed to get away from the corrupting power of the priests of Amen, so he moved the entire nation’s capital miles away to an uninhabited valley on the east side of the Nile surrounded by high cliffs, creating the city of Akhetaten (‘Horizon of Aten’), an area known today as Amarna.  You can imagine the upheaval in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, moving the heart of the Empire from its centuries old home. At the same time he officially changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten (‘Effective Spirit of Aten’).

Amarna was built remarkably quickly. Today, none of the city is left standing; however archaeologists have developed a picture of the brief Capital which included formal planned gardens, buildings decorated by scenes of nature, and most importantly temples dedicated to Aten which were built open to the sun so the blessing would descend.

Akhenaten even chose a new place for the future burials of Egyptian pharaohs, in the Royal Wadi in Amarna, although his tomb ended up being the only to be built there. Akhenaten’s mummy however has not officially been found (although different archaeologists have claimed different mummies as his), and it was probably moved to the Valley of the Kings.

Akhenaten also broke with tradition in his treatment of his Queen Nefertiti. In some decorations she displayed in Pharaonic heraldry, and as the same size as Akhenaten. Nefertiti has also been shown as a ‘warrior King’ smiting Egypt’s enemies with a scimitar. A Royal consort has never before been shown in such a way and these depictions support the theory that Nefertiti was treated as a co-ruler. Together Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters, whose images are displayed in the reliefs. Egyptian Royal art differed in other ways as well during the Akhanaten period, Akhenaten is often depicted with his family in domestic situations displaying affection, and nature is glorified in his art with scenes depicting animals and vegetation.

It is believed Tutankhamen (or at the time Tutankaten) was Akhenaten’s son from another wife, although it is not certain.

At first Akhenaten had portrayed Aten as the Chief God and master of Amen, and ordered a magnificent Temple to be built at Karnak / Thebes, close to the old temple of Amen. However, by the ninth year of his reign Akhenaten attempted to introduce the radical (at the time) concept of monotheism, belief in only one god – Aten, and there were no intermediary between the God and the people by Akhenaten himself. In his final years, Nefertiti’s name disappears from all records (it is assumed she died) and it corresponds with Akehenaten’s behaviour turning darker. The Pharaoh closed temples to all the other gods, and ordered the defacing of Amen’s temples throughout Egypt. There were to be no idols except for the rayed solar disc representing Aten. Messages were sent from the corners of the Empire, begging for help warning that foreign invaders were attacking. A Century earlier the great pharaoh Tutmose III (Thut- MOE-se) had won great military victories and pushed Egypt’s borders almost to southern Turkey. Historians have argued Akhenaten became something of a religious fanatic, and appeared to shut himself up in Amarna, obsessed by his new religion and ignored matters of state, and Egypt’s boarders were slowly reduced. The Hittites and Nubians took over lands previously belonging to Egypt. The country ceased to prosper. However, some historians have pointed to a cache of diplomatic documents found at Amarna known at the Amarna Letters which show he was aware of the situation and acting accordingly, (if not that successfully).

Besides foreign enemies, Egypt suffered a serious outbreak of plague, which came through Egypt and spread throughout the Middle East during the Amarna period. To the people this plague could have been evidence that the gods had turned against Akhenaten and his new religion.

After his death Akhaneten may have been succeed briefly by a figure named Smenkhare, who may have also acted as co-ruler in the last few years of Akahanten’s rule, but the records are unclear. However, the young Tutankhaten (his name meaning the living image of Aten) soon took over, changed his name to Tutankhamen (the living image of Amen), and moved the capital back to Thebes and to the old worship of Amen, and the old ways of art, building, religion and politics. Tutankhamen’s successors destroyed Akenheton’s art and buildings, using the blocks for other projects.. Akhenaten’s name was removed for the official lists of Pharaohs as well as those of his immediate successors, in an attempt to wipe from history all traces of the worship of Aten and Pharaohs associated with it. It was not until the nineteenth century that Akhenaten’s identity was rediscovered.

There have been many theories about Akhenaten’s radical monotheism, including an attempt to find a connection between early Judaism.

Freud wrote a book named Moses and Monotheism arguing that Moses had been an Aten priest who was forced to leave Egypt after Akhenaten’s death.

Another theory is Akhenaten is the model for the Greek story of Oedipus.

Whatever the truth about Akhenaten’s beliefs, they were disturbing enough to the Egyptians that they attempted to obliterate them from history, and the concept of monotheism was to slowly spread and come to dominate the World’s great religions.


The Life & Times of Rameses the Great

Nefertiti and Cleopatra: Queen-Monarchs of Ancient Egypt

The Life and Times of Akhnaton: Pharaoh of Egypt (1922)