Akhenaten: Egypt's religious revolutionary

Face of Akhenaten
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Akhenaten was a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt who ruled for 17 years. He is noted for being the first ruler to believe in one god, Aten, and for his artistic innovations.


Akhenaten's rule was tumultuous, and he was eventually succeeded by his probable son Tutankhamun.

Female tourist taking a photo of the Pyramids of Giza
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Early life

Akhenaten was born around 1370 BC as Amenhotep IV. He was the son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.


Akhenaten's upbringing is not well-documented, but it is known that he was educated in religious texts and literature.


He also received military training, as was customary for royal princes at the time.


During his childhood, Egypt was the richest and most powerful kingdom in the ancient world.


The wealth and prestige from a series of successful military pharaohs had been shared with some powerful groups.


The most powerful group at the time were the priests of Amun, who were based in the city of Thebes.


The money and political influence the Amun cult at Karnak possessed rival that of the pharaohs themselves.


For a number of years, Amenhotep IV may have ruled as co-regent with his father Amenhotep III.


This arrangement would have allowed Akhenaten to learn more about governing before taking on the role of pharaoh himself.


However, Amenhotep III died unexpectedly in about 1351 BC, and Amenhotep IV became pharaoh at about the age of 16 or 17.

Religious revolution

The first few years of Amenhotep IV's reign seem to have been fairly traditional. He continued to worship the god Amun, as was customary in Egypt.


He remained in the capital city of Thebes, probably at the palace of Malkata, which had been built by his father.


However, in around his fifth year of rule, Amenhotep IV began to promote a new god: Aten.


Aten was represented by the sun disk, and Amenhotep IV claimed that Aten was the one true god.


The pharaoh then renamed himself to Akhenaten ("servant of Aten") to show his dedication to this new deity. 


Around the same time, Akhenaten outlawed the worship of all other gods in Egypt. He closed the temples of other deities, and he had their images removed from public places.

This religious revolution was very controversial, and it was not well-received by the people of Egypt.


Many felt that Akhenaten was betraying the traditions of their culture. There was also political unrest, as the powerful priests of Amun lost their influence.


Akhenaten also moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new city that he built, called Akhetaten ("Horizon of Aten").


The city was erected on a section of the Nile that had never been occupied before. He only erected temples dedicated to Aten there. 


The city plan dictated that all the Aten temples in the city had to face east, towards the rising sun and positioned to illuminate the temples doors.

Sunset through the clouds
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Akhenaten's reign was marked by conflict both within Egypt and beyond its borders. In domestic affairs, he faced opposition from the powerful priesthoods of other gods.


The priests of Amun were particularly opposed to Akhenaten's religious revolution, but they were required to become priests in the new Aten religion and forget their old gods.


Akhenaten seems to have focused a lot of his time and resources into building his new capital city rather than expanding his empire through military endeavours.


As a result, Akhenaten seems to have also damaged important diplomatic relationships with client kings in the Middle East.


In a series of letter found in the ruins of Akhetaten at Amarna, these kings complain about Akhenaten's neglect of them and his demands for gold and other gifts.

Egyptian carving showing war captives
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Akhenaten's wife was Nefertiti, who played a very prominent role in his reign. She was shown alongside her husband in official art more often than any other Egyptian queen before her. 


In many ways, she was Akhenaten's equal. She was given the title "Great Royal Wife", and her name appears in hieroglyphs next to his on public monuments. 


Nefertiti also held authority in religious matters. She was depicted taking part in religious rituals, such as offering sacrifices to the Aten sun disk.


She even had her own temple dedicated to her worship at Akhetaten. 

Changes in art

During Akhenaten's reign, there was a significant change in the style of Egyptian art.


The traditional idealized images of kings and gods were replaced by more realistic depictions of everyday life.


This change is most evident in the artwork produced at Akhetaten, which depicts the royal family in a much more naturalistic style than had been seen before.


This new art style may have been inspired by Akhenaten's belief that Aten was present in all things, including humans. 


The sun disk of the Aten featured prominently in artwork from this time. The disk was often portrayed with arms outstretched, symbolizing Aten's rays of light.

Decline and death

Around Year 12 of his reign, Akhenaten's health may have begun to decline. In Year 17 of his reign, perhaps around 1335 BC, Akhenaten died suddenly.


His cause of death is unknown, but it may have been natural or due to assassination.


It is believed that he may have suffered from a physical deformity, which is reflected in the portrayal of his body in artwork from this period. 


Akhenaten's religious revolution did not last long after his death. By the end of his reign, Akhenaten was unpopular with both the Egyptian people and the ruling class.


His son Tutankhamun reverted back to the worship of Amun and reopened the temples of other gods. He even moved the capital back to Thebes. 


It is likely that Tutankhamun felt he needed to undo his father's changes in order to regain the support of the people.


After all, Akhenaten's reign was a time of great turmoil and conflict, both within Egypt and beyond its borders. 

Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun
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Erasing the memory of Akhenaten

The ancient Egyptians made a concerted effort to erase the memory of Akhenaten and his reign.


His name was removed from public monuments, and his images were destroyed. 


In fact, the Pharaoh Akhenaten was unknown in Egyptian history until the 19th century, when Amarna was rediscovered.


The tomb of Akhenaten was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1907, and Tutankhamun's tomb was excavated by Howard Carter in 1922.


The discovery of his tomb, along with the many artworks and artifacts that were found there, has given us a much fuller picture of this enigmatic figure. 


Over time, however, the memory of Akhenaten has been revived. He is now recognized as one of the most intriguing figures in Egyptian history.


And while his reign was short-lived, it had a lasting impact on art and religion in Egypt. His legacy continues to fascinate people all over the world.

Further reading