Sunday, 6 January 2013

Aten’s Egypt – The Amarna Period

The Aten Sequence books are pure fantasy, a product of my imagination, yet they are set in a period of our history that was very real.  I have shamelessly ‘borrowed’ some of the most important public figures of that time for my books and created personalities for them and given them a story that in reality they never lived.  So what were their real lives about and what was the true story of this unique slice of ancient Egyptian history known as the Amarna Period?

Worshipping the Aten - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Akhenaten and his family worshipping the Aten

Aten chooses to touch down in the reign of the Pharaoh Amenophis III for a very good reason.  He needs gold, lots of gold, vast quantities of gold.  And at this time, towards the end of the 18th dynasty in the New Kingdom, Ancient Egypt was enjoying perhaps the most prosperous, peaceful decades of her long history.  Amenophis III preferred to employ diplomacy rather than war craft, and during his reign he benefitted greatly from the previous military brilliance of his mighty Thutmosid forefathers who had pushed the boundaries of the Egyptian Empire ever wider. His was, quite literally, a golden reign of building, carving statues and creating exquisite jewelry, ornaments and funerary equipment.

He was on the throne from approximately 1386 BC and 1349 BC and was the son of Pharaoh Thutmosis IV and one of his minor wives, Mutemwaya.  His name, Amenophis, means ‘Amen is satisfied’ and during his long reign the great god Amen was the principle deity out of all the huge pantheon of traditional gods that were worshipped in Egypt at this time. The huge temple at Karnak on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes was dedicated to Amen, his consort Mut and their son Khonsu and the priests who ran the temple were immensely wealthy and powerful.

But Amen had not always been the most prominent and powerful of the Egyptian gods.  In the Old Kingdom solar deities, such as Re, had been greatly venerated and pyramids and sun temples had been built to honour them.  The sun was worshipped as a universal source of light, life and power and the early pharaohs had linked the power of the solar rays with their own potency and vigour as the king. The reign of Amenophis would see the return to prominence of these solar gods, paving the way for the startling, heretical beliefs of his son and successor, the Pharaoh who became known to the world as Akhenaten.

During this part of the late 18th dynasty, the royal women were especially honoured and shown in images, reliefs and statues in ways that they had never been done before.  Amenophis III took the unusual step of marrying out of the immediate royal family and taking as his Great Royal Wife an unknown girl called Tiye. Although not of royal birth, Queen Tiye was depicted as her husband’s equal in statues and wall paintings. In earlier times the queen, if she was mentioned at all, was shown as a much smaller figure and given considerably less prominence on her royal husband’s monuments. Royal children were also rarely shown, but Amenophis III recorded his daughter’s names and titles on many of his monuments.  His sons were not mentioned, but it is known from other archaeological evidence that his eldest son was called Thutmose or Dhutmose and that he was acknowledged as the crown prince.  It was only his early death that allowed his younger brother Akhenaten to gain the crown.

Pharaoh Akhenaten - Wikimedia Commons
Pharaoh Akhenaten

Akhenaten had originally been called Amenophis IV after his illustrious father and he was to take the worship of the sun to even greater lengths than his father did.  He succeeded to the throne of Egypt in around 1350 BC and reigned for a couple of years as Pharaoh Amenophis IV.  He initially followed the traditional path of starting building projects to enlarge the temple at Karnak, but he very quickly took up the worship of the god Aten, who was the divine sun disk. It was around this time that he changed his name to Akhenaten and started to build, create images and carve statues in a bold, new style.  Egyptian art had altered very little over the last couple of thousand years and was very elegant and stylised.  

This new art was more realistic and more focused on the natural world.  For the first time the Pharaoh was not recorded in the conventional way, but was shown with a saggy belly, skinny arms and legs, and long face.  The royal family were shown with strangely elongated skulls, and were displayed in intimate scenes of family life, even kissing and showing affection.  Once again, it was the royal women were afforded the greatest prominence. Akhenaten followed his father’s example and married a beautiful girl called Nefertiti whose origins are obscure and they had six daughters who were frequently shown with the royal couple. Above all these scenes of royal life, the Aten disk is shown with rays of sun ending in little hands, sometimes holding the ankh of life, reaching down to bless the family’s activities.

Amarna Princess - Wikimedia Commons
Amarna Princess - Wikimedia Commons

 Eventually Akhenaten felt compelled to move his capital city and the centre of Aten worship away from the contaminating presence of the cult and priests of Amen in Thebes.  He searched the country until he came upon a virgin site in Middle Egypt that had never been inhabited or built on before.  It was an arid, desert plain on the east bank of the Nile encircled by cliffs. He named his new city Akhetaten or ‘Horizon of the Aten’ and carved a number of huge boundary stela in the cliffs proclaiming his new city and that these were its boundaries. 

The new city, called el Amarna in modern times, was meticulously planned and laid out with huge temples open to the sun, royal palaces, streets, houses, shops and workplaces.  He started digging tombs for himself and other members of his family in the eastern cliffs, which was another departure from tradition as the dead had always previously been laid to rest on the west bank of the river Nile.  The court, army, craftsmen and many others followed their king to this new life, and workmen were sent out across the country to erase the names of the traditional gods from temples, tombs and monuments.

But Akhenaten’s glorious new dream was not destined to last for very long.  The building took time and many of the temples and public buildings were not completed until around year 8 of his reign.  The pinnacle of the city of Akhetaten’s glory and power was probably the grand jubilee celebrations of year 12, where foreign rulers and dignitaries came to the city to pay homage to the Pharaoh and bring him rich and costly gifts. After this time the effects of Akhenaten’s disinterest in international relations, maintaining order in the Empire and dealing with domestic affairs became more and more apparent.  Rulers of vassal states wrote desperately for help as they were put under pressure from Egypt’s enemies, but their pleas for aid went unanswered.

There were also numerous deaths in the royal family in the years following the jubilee with the royal couple’s second daughter Princess Meketaten dying by year 14, with scenes of her death being carved in the royal tomb. Images of a royal infant in the scene have led to speculation that the young princess could have died in childbirth, but there is also the possibility that she died in a plague that was sweeping through the Middle East at this time. Her two youngest sisters Nefernefrure and Setepenre were absent from these reliefs suggesting that they were already dead and this was the last time that we know of that Queen Nefertiti is shown on a monument.  

Akhenaten’s secondary wife Kiya also seems to have disappeared around this time. The last years of the city are ones of decline and confusion.  Archaeological evidence is scarce, so the exact details and dates of Akhenaten’s death, the reign of the shadowy Pharaoh Smenkhare who followed him and the accession of the boy king Tutankhamen can only be guessed at.  The city was stripped and allowed to fall into ruin, and the Pharaoh’s that followed turned Egypt back to its traditional gods and tried to erase every trace of what they regarded as a shameful, heretical blot on their glorious history.

Akhenaten has attracted many supporters and an equal amount of detractors in modern times.  Some regard him as the first person to worship a single god and adopt a monotheistic religion and he has even been identified with the biblical Moses. Others view him as a heretical dreamer who allowed his country and Empire to go to rack and ruin as he pursued his new ideas and religious mania.  Although the sun disk Aten was promoted as the most important deity by Akhenaten, other solar deities were tolerated.

 It was the other gods and goddesses who were persecuted with their temples being defaced and priests being turned out. It is also important to recognise that the Aten was not a god for the ordinary people.  The beneficial, power giving rays of the sun were only ever extended towards Akhenaten and his family and it was the king who formed the link between the god and the people.  Therefore, the people worshipped the Pharaoh as a means of communicating with the divine, so Akhenaten wanted to be honoured as a god himself rather than be the founding father of monotheistic religion in the world.

So this fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history gives my rather fertile imagination plenty of scope for the adventures of my fictional character Aten and I hope that you enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed creating them.

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Akhenaten image Szczebrzeszynski Wikimedia Commons Attribution Share Alike 1.0 Generic

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