The Pharaoh Who Went Rogue

A series on Ancient Egyptian Religion (Part 7)

Image courtesy of Britannica

So. Everyone, meet Akhenaten.

You may remember him mentioned in a previous blog or two. On first glance, you may notice that he looks a little strange.

This is possibly on purpose – or possibly not. We don’t quite know (as is, of course, usual regarding Ancient Egypt).

Here’s the thing. If you haven’t heard of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, I can bet you’ve heard of his wife.

Meet Nefertiti.

I can also most definitely bet you’ve heard of his son.

Meet Tutankhamun. Also known as King Tut.

What may come as a surprise to you is that Tutankhamun was not born Tutankhamun. He was born Tutankhaten.

Akhenaten. Tutankhaten. If you’re seeing a pattern here, you’re on the right track.

What may further interest you to know is that Akhenaten was not born Akhenaten. He was born Amenhotep IV.

So, let’s get this straight. Amenhotep IV changes his name to Akhenaten and has a kid, Tutankhaten. Later in his life (hint: after dad is dead) Tutankhaten kicks that aten to the curb and changes his name to Tutankhamun.

Akhenaten also got the famous Egyptian damnatio memoriae treatment we’ve talked about, after his death. They removed his name from the king lists and his monuments and statues were destroyed.

What is going on here?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Amarna Period.


Akhenaten started his reign (as Amenhotep IV) in Thebes, the which was Egyptian capital during the New Kingdom, when Akhenaten was Pharaoh.

He started off, as far as we can tell, as a fairly normal pharaoh. The only blip that warned of what was to come were several building projects dedicated to the sun and the sun god, Ra. Which, on the surface, was nothing unusual to the ancient Egyptians.

Then, by Ancient Egyptian standards, things got weird.

In the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the whole dang Egyptian capital to a blank space of sand 200 miles north, to a place now known as Amarna. And because he was the Pharaoh, everyone followed (likely with one eyebrow raised). And he built a city, fast.

But Akhenaten wasn’t done. Because, at Amarna, he was determined to introduce something to Ancient Egypt that, while not revolutionary, was culturally very foreign.

Monotheism.

Yes, you read that right. Akhenaten spent almost the entirety of his reign making Ancient Egypt worship the Aten, the sun disc.

Why is unknown, but if you want to read my suspicions, head to my post on Dating the Joseph Story historically.

Naturally, this didn’t jive well with the Ancient Egyptians, but the worship of the Aten was officially mandated. Throughout this time, known as the Amarna period, tradition was upended as the Pharaoh was no longer associated with Horus and temple styles were completely reworked to feature large open-air areas that celebrated the sunlight. Even the names of many officials during his reign were changed to reflect no mention of the other Egyptian gods (the names of gods were commonly part of Ancient Egyptian names).

Akhenaten also, most believe, completely changed the art style of the time, for some unknown reason. There’s a thought that the stylistic choices were meant to somehow reflect the nature of the Aten. Compare the death mask of King Tut (made in a non-Aten-worshipping society – we’ll get to that) seen above to the statue of Akhenaten. There’s an obvious stylistic difference in the facial features.

At the same time, because we know so little about Ancient Egypt sometimes, everyone is forced to admit that there’s a chance Akhenaten looked like that, but … I sure don’t buy it! After all, there’s art of others during the time period displaying the same oddly exaggerated features. They can’t have all looked like that.

Right?

There’s also a bit of mystery surrounding the last years of his reign. Akhenaten co-ruled with another pharaoh (a common practice in Ancient Egypt to ensure the chosen line of succession) in the last years of his reign. This pharaoh is alternately called Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten (yes, there’s that aten again) in historical texts. We don’t have much info on this person, but there’s a theory that Neferneferuaten and Queen Nefertiti are one and the same, and that this is an unusual instance of corulership between a king and queen in the ancient world.

Akhenaten’s mandated religious changes were not popular, as evidenced by the fact that soon after his son Tutankhamun finally became king, Amarna was abandoned as the capital. It was, in fact, dismantled over the ensuing years and used as building material for other projects. In subsequent years, Akhenaten and several successors with direct connections to his reign were erased from the king lists. So much so that historians did not learn of his existence until the 1800s.

So, folks, now you know the story of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who went rogue and left weird blip on the radar of Ancient Egyptian religion.

It also brings to a close (for now) our series on Ancient Egyptian religion. I hope you feel you’ve learned something, and I hope you have enjoyed it!

I will see you next week for the start of a new series – to be revealed!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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