Unearthing Egypt's Heretic Pharaoh

Akhenaten and his City of the Sun

The pyramids were a thousand years old by the time Akhenaten became Pharaoh, and Egypt had functioned as a centralised state under a single ruler for about the same length of time. Egyptian dating cannot be given with any certainty until the 7th Century BC but it is thought that Akhenaten reigned between 1352 and 1336 BC.

The Pharaoh Akhenaten intrigues us today because he was such an unusual figure. He departed in a number of radical ways from the traditional figure of Pharaonic majesty. This is apparent in the artistic representations of himself and his consort Queen Nefertiti, which are very different from the standard ways of depicting royalty. It is also apparent from some of his deeds as revealed by the archaeology.

Akhenaten was the son of Amenhotep III, whose massive limestone statue was so grand that, as Lucia claimed, the Cairo Museum was built around it. Traditionally, pharaohs have been,depicted as masculine and often engaged.in the act of smiting their foes, and portrayed on a larger scale than other characters in the scene.

Originally known as Amenhotep IV, within a few years he adopted the name Akhenaten, which is translated as "devoted to the Aten". The Aten was the rums given ts the disc of the sun and this act seems to have been a rejection of Egypt's longstanding religion based on the worship of many gods, chief of whom was Amun. In their place was installed the worship of the sun disc, the source of all life, and this has been seen by many as the * world's first monotheistic religion.

Akhenaten founded a new city mid-way between Luxor and Memphis, the established cult and administrative centres of Egypt. He named it Ahetaten, meaning "horizon of the Aten". Lucia suggested that this name may refer to a feature of the local landscape where distant hills contain a strikingly regular cup-shaped valley in which the rising sun can appear to be cradled at certain times of the year.

Amarna is the modern name given to this city, although it is in north a European concoction Its archaeology was first uncovered by the noted Egyptologist Flinders Petrie and in the process he revealed the almost forgotten episode of Akhenaten's reign.

The work is still ongoing under the direction of Barry Kemp and has uncovered a great deal about the lives of everyday Egyptians as well as shedding more light on the cult of the Aten.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Akhenaten's reign was the way in which art depicting the royal family changed. Gone was the Pharaoh's manly figure and the smiting. In its place was introduced a less muscular figure with a skinny upper body and fleshy buttocks, hips and thighs. The head too was curiously elongated. Images of the royal family were more informal and often showed,them engaged in playful activity beneath the,beneficent rays of the sun disk Aten.

Although it has been suggested that the distorted portraits indicate some sort of genetic disorder this is probably not the case., There is a coffin in Cairo Museum which has the royal cartouche removed and the face disfigured. Genetic testing of the remains inside has revealed a close affinity with the body of his son Tutankhamun and there is no suggestion of serious deformity in either case.

It is extraordinary that one ruler could have enforced so much change in such a short time. He was obviously able to command sufficient resources to found a new city, overrule the established priesthood and induce the artists and craftsmen who served him to adopt some radical new approaches.

Yet it was not to last. After his death the renaming of his son Tutankhaten as Tutankhamun indicates that the old gods were soon restored to their traditional roles. The centre of administration moved away from Amarna which eventually became deserted, and Akhenaten's name and face were obliterated on all his monuments.

Lucia's recommended source for the latest thinking on this period is a book by Professor Barry Kemp.

"The city of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its people", Barry Kemp, Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Lucia Gahlin has herself written a number of books and she suggest her "Ancient Egypt" as an introduction. If it is as lucid and informed as her talk it would surely be a good buy.

Peter Johnson