Akhenaton: The Egyptian Pharaoh of One God

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While history has favored the names King Tut, Ramses II, and Cleopatra above others, one name stands apart from all the rest as a ruler who not only affected the course of the Egyptian Empire as no ruler had before, but most likely altered the course of h

The dynastic history of the ancient Egyptian Empire--from King Narmer to Alexander the Great--spanned nearly 3000 years, with over 300 named pharaohs (with countless unnamed) ruling 31 dynasties through three dynastic periods.

While history has favored the names King Tut, Ramses II, and Cleopatra above others, one name stands apart from all the rest as a ruler who not only affected the course of the Egyptian Empire as no ruler had before, but most likely altered the course of human history.  That name is Akhenaton.

Akhenaton, born Amenhotep IV (around 1390 BCE), was the son of Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiy. While little is recorded about his life prior to taking the throne, it is known that he succeeded his father at the end of a thirty-eight-year reign, and is believed to have ruled from about 1350 BCE to 1333 BCE, a brief seventeen years before dying in about 1336 BCE.

Ancient clay tablets indicate that when Amenhotep IV came into power, the Egyptian Empire was about to undergo a major transition.  Egyptian outposts were coming under threat from foreign enemies, the Hittites to the north were assuming ever-greater parts of Syria, and the Egyptian kingdom was generally beginning to shrink. 

Amenhotep III had withdrawn Egyptian forces from Palestine as one of his final official acts, and surviving documents indicate that he had apparently ignored requests from outlying protectorates requesting military assistance. Thus, when Amenhotep IV took the throne, the circumstances were primed for change.

Displeased with the state of the Egyptian society, Amenhotep IV set out to restore the Empire to its once great and exalted glory.  Deciding that Egypt was in need of complete social reform, he set out to revolutionize Egypt’s religious system by first displacing the temple priests.  Then, changing his name from Amenhotep, which essentially meant “Serviceable to Amon, the god ruler of Thebes,” to Akhenaton, meaning “Serviceable to Aton (the single, universal god and source of all life; represented by the sun disk), Akhenaton became the first ruler to represent monotheism, the belief in one god rather than many.  He then decided to implement wide-sweeping religious reform as no ruler had even attempted before.

Akhenaton as Sphinx receiving power from Amon, the Sun God

Shutting down the temples dedicated to Amon, Akhenaton began building a new city to honor Aton and serve as the governmental capital of Egypt, at what is present-day Amarna.  Naming his new capital Akhetaton, “the Horizon of the Aton,” its buildings were decorated in a shocking new style that was intended to express the tenets of his new religion, with the sun disk a prominent feature.  He then implemented a wide-scale erasure of all traditional gods' names throughout Egypt, even having the phrase “the gods” chiseled out from many.

Akhenaton, however, did not allow his subjects direct access to Aton, claiming that only he could converse with his god; thus, requiring them to worship him and him alone.  Oral tradition tells of Akhenaton conducting religious ceremonies under the heat of sun which all subjects were required to attend--often utilizing his army to enforce his decrees.  But within a decade, Akhenaton was dead, and the people of Egypt quickly returned to their old ways.

After Akhenaton's death the backlash from his radical religious reforms forced his son, Tutankhamon, to reverse the move to monotheism and return to the worship of many gods.  During his reign it appears likely that only the nobles embraced the Aton cult, but even much of that may have been just to stay in favor with the king. 

Later pharaohs without clear rights of succession from the Eighteenth Dynasty founded a new dynasty, discrediting Akhenaton and his immediate successors as heretics, referring to Akhenaton as "the enemy" in archival records--with many removing his name just as he had that of Amon.

Akhenaton was all but lost to antiquity until the discovery of Amarna in the 19th century, at the nearly demolished site of Akhetaton. 


Early excavations at Amarna by Flinders Petrie sparked interest in the mysterious pharaoh, which increased with the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamon in the Valley of the Kings, at Luxor, who has been proven to be Akhenaton's son according to DNA testing in 2010 by Zahi Hawass of Cairo.  Today, Akhenaton remains a very interesting figure, partly from his connection with Tutankhamun, and partly from ongoing interest in the monotheistic religion he attempted to establish.

Note: The idea that Akhenaton was the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness.  According to Freud, Moses was an Egyptian (not a Hebrew) close to Akhenaton.

The Biblical reference to his “slowness of speech,” according to Freud, could be explained not as a stutter, as many historians have concluded, but by his not being a native Hebrew speaker (1955: 37-8).  Freud's theory has generated a great deal of interest because it represents a possible interpretation of the little historical evidence that is available on when Moses might have lived in Egypt. This  theory, of course, challenges the traditional Jewish and Christian view.


Heroes and Heretics, Barrows

Akhenaten: The Heretic King, Donald B. Redford

Ramses II, Historical Background, L. K. Sabbahy

Ancient Egypt, Lionel Casson

Images via Wikipedia.org except top bust, University of Brussels

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Auron Renius
Posted on Jan 13, 2011
Posted on Jan 13, 2011
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Posted on Jan 13, 2011