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The Pharaohs

Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten
Birth name: Amenhotep ("Amun is satisfied")
Adopted name: Akhenaten ("Servant of the Aten")
Throne name: Neferkheperure ("Beautiful are the Manifestations of Re")
Rule: 1350 - 1334 BC (10th king of the 18th dynasty, New Kingdom)
Noteworthy relatives: Nefertiti (queen), Tutankhamun (son), Ankhesenamun (daughter), Merytaten (daughter), Smenkhkare (son), Amenhotep III (father), Tiy (mother). [view family tree]

 

Egypt had experienced few cultural changes for thousands of years- until the controversial king Amenhotep IV came along and turned everything upside down and inside out! The revolutionary era during which he and his family lived is often called "the Amarna Period," named after the modern Egyptian city (Tel el-Amarna) that is located on the spot where his capital once stood. After the end of the Amarna Period, life in Egypt returned to normal. Hoping to forget it ever happened, people later tried to eradicate all traces of Amenhotep IV and his successors' rule by smashing their statues, mutilating their mummies, and ruining their relief carvings. The massive destruction makes it difficult to figure out the events that happened during the Amarna Period. We aren't even 100% sure about how certain people are related to each other, although modern genetic testing of mummy DNA is helping us to figure much of this out. Much of our understanding of this turbulent time comes from making educated guesses based on the archaeological evidence that still remains.

So what did Amenhotep IV do that was so awful?

Well, his reign started out as normal as any other. He was crowned king at the Temple of Amun in Karnak, he had taken his cousin Nefertiti as his queen, and he ruled Egypt from the capital at Thebes. Then, a few years later, things started to change. He declared that all the other gods (and there were LOTS!) did not exist. There was only one god, the Aten, and it was the sun itself. The Aten was shown as the sun's disk, with rays that ended as hands holding ankhs, the symbol of life.

It was now necessary to change his name: "Amenhotep" means "the god Amun is satisfied," but he didn't want to be associated with Amun or any of the other deities. He renamed himself "Akhenaten," which means "servant of the Aten"— a much more appropriate title!

Getting rid of all the other gods meant closing down all their temples. This put all the priests out of work, so naturally they weren't too pleased. This decision was most likely done to put the priesthood in its place; after all, it had been growing more and more influential over the years and could potentially even rival the power of the pharaoh himself.

 

Akhenaten also moved the capital to a brand new city called Akhetaten ("the Horizon of the Aten") which was where Tel el-Amarna stands today. He did this to further isolate himself from the "old" religion, since the previous capital Thebes was the center of worship of Amun.

Portion of a statue of Akhenaten from his temple at Karnak. By Gérard Ducher.

As Akhenaten became increasingly preoccupied with worshiping the Aten, he pretty much ignored what was going on in the rest of the country. His vizier Ay (who was also Nefertiti's father) and the military general Horemheb were the ones truly running Egypt. Public resentment toward Akhenaten was growing, so Ay urged Akhenaten to appoint a co-regent (another pharaoh to rule simultaneously) who would go back to Thebes and keep the people in line. So Akhenaten's son Smenkhkare (whose mother was one of Akhenaten's sisters) was married to one of Akhenaten and Nefertiti's daughters, Merytaten, and together they returned to Thebes to hopefully ease the escalating tensions.

The historical record gets a bit confusing here, because at around the same time Nefertiti is no longer mentioned. Then, within a just a couple years, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, and Merytaten were all dead too. The next person in line to inherit the throne was Tutankhaten, a son of Akhenaten and one of his sisters.

While Akhenaten was alive, a royal tomb had been built in Akhetaten. It was intended to hold all the members of his family upon their death. Although it had been completed and was even equipped with supplies he would have needed in the afterlife, it appears as though Akhenaten had never used it. DNA evidence suggests that a desecrated mummy found in KV55 is most likely Akhenaten.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters. By Unknownmyself (Gerbil from de.wikipedia) (Own work) [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Aten, a solar disk with rays ending with hands holding ankhs

Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti worshipping the Aten. By UnknownJean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France [Public domain or CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Big changes in the style of Egyptian art occurred during Akhenaten's time, too. The royal sculptors were instructed to carve what they saw— realism was emphasized over idealized images. The result was soft, flowing artwork that made Akhenaten appear nothing like typical royal sculpture! He had skinny arms, a flabby pot belly, elongated fingers and toes, and wide feminine hips. His bizarre facial features included large slanted eyes, a prominent chin, a long nose, and big lips. Whether or not he really looked like that has always been a topic of hot debate. Some say it was just an exaggerated art style, others speculated Akhenaten truly did look this way and that perhaps he suffered from a genetic disorder called Marfan's Syndrome which causes people to have these features.

Many works of art were created while Akhenaten was living at Akhetaten with his family, which included his main queen Nefertiti and their six daughters. Relief carvings show them sitting together as a family, kissing and holding each other lovingly— like regular people! This was quite a departure from the usual royal artwork. While Akhenaten spent his days frolicking with his family, posing for portraits, and writing poetry to the Aten, trouble was brewing throughout Egypt.

Skull of Akhenaten

Desecrated coffin of Akhenaten found in KV55. By Hans Ollermann [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Watch: "Akhenaten: The Rebel Pharaoh"

Watch: "Amarna: Egypt's Other Lost City"

Watch: "Nefertiti and the Lost Dynasty"