Monday, August 27, 2012

Early Egypt: Akhenaten

In 1351 BC, Amenhotep 4th (“Amun is Satisfied”) was crowned ruler of Egypt in Thebes. He was a very different ruler and the source of many great changes.

All of these changes grew out of his very different understanding of religion. He focused his attention on one god only: Aten. He believed that Aten was the sun and that, through his rays, Aten created and sustained all life. For the remaining 12 years of his life, Akhenaten made many changes in honor of Aten.

In 1346, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten (“Living Spirit of Aten”). He no longer represented Amun on earth. He represented Aten.

In 1346, Akhenaten also ordered the construction of a new capital city. The old capital, Thebes, had a large temple complex dedicated to Amun and other gods. Thebes also had a large, wealthy, and powerful priesthood dedicated both to Amun and to their own importance. Akhenaten wanted a new city dedicated to the right god and far from those opposing him.

Akhenaten called his new capital Akhetaten (“Horizon of the Aten”). He had it built on the east bank of the Nile about 250 miles (400 km) north of Thebes. The city was hastily built in just five years. A large temple dedicated to Aten was built in the center of it. All of this new construction for Aten meant that less wealth was being dedicated to Amun and used by his now poorer priests.

With deep changes in god, name, capital city, and temple also came surprising changes in art. The bust of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife, is remarkably realistic. Two reliefs are special in showing Akhenaten with his family. In one, his children are shown worshiping Aten with him. The second is even more unusual. It shows Akhenaten and Nefertiti playing with their three daughters.

Following Akhenaten’s death in 1334, all his changes were reversed. The powerful priests of Amun easily restored the old ways of doing things. They got the new ruler, only eight years old, to change his name from Tutankhaten (“Living Image of Aten”) to Tutankhamun (“Living Image of Amun”). They persuaded him to move the capital of Egypt back to Thebes. The priests got rid of Aten and restored both the worship of Amun and their wealth.

Tutankhamun ruled for perhaps 10 years and died around the age of 18 in 323. Over the next 30 years, restoration went beyond a return to old ways. It saw the destruction of as much of the new ways as possible. The city of Akhetaten was completely abandoned. Temples dedicated to Aten were torn down and their stones were used in new temples for Amun. Statues were defaced. All records of the names of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun were destroyed. Later lists of pharaohs made no mention of them. It was as if they had never existed.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
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