Akhenaten was the heretic pharaoh, who tried to change everything.
In a way I rather sympathise with him. He was the son and designated successor of Amenhotep III – le roi soleille under whom Egypt flourished as never before: the economy flourished, the arts flourished, new buildings were erected by teams of skilled craftsmen, the gods were worshiped with classical precision, and processions took place in magnificent splendour. But – was it not all just a little bit boring?
The new ruler changed everything. He changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten: he moved the great ritual centre of Thebes 250 miles to the north to the new site of Amarna. He changed religion from the worship of many gods to the worship of one overall god identified with the sun. The god Amun, who under previous dynasties had been elevated into becoming the most important god, was replaced by a new god called the Aten who was the supreme god, represented by the sun’s disc with rays radiating out to illuminate the pharaoh, the chosen representative of the god.
He changed art too, introducing elongated faces with bulbous lips and with an extended scull, and he introduced a new naturalism. He also changed the position of women, elevating his wife Nefertiti to being almost of equal importance, and he showed family life too in a new more intimate way with the children playing round beside their father. And he broke the power of the priesthood who instead of having a power almost equal to that of the pharaoh suddenly found that their gods were dismissed and their temples abandoned.
It did not last. His rule only lasted for sixteen years and after his death all was abandoned by his successor Tutankhamen who came to the throne while still a child, and the capital was transferred back to Thebes.
Nevertheless it was a most amazing achievement. He must have been a man of eminent vision and determination, with incredible driving force.
But it gives some idea of the enormous power of the pharaoh that he was able to move the whole capital city and its inhabitants to a new site where they had to rebuild their houses, temples, and bureaucracy all from scratch. And on top of this, he invented a new religion: several copies of his new creed, his Hymn to the Aten, have survived.
Akhenaten succeeded his father in 1352 or 1353 (there is a great controversy as to whether he began by sharing a co-regency with his father: probably not). He began with a major building programme at Karnak of which little remains, as after his death efforts were made to expunge all his work. But then in his fourth year the decision was taken to move everything to a new city 250 miles to the north and to move everyone to the new city. Amana has become for archaeologists a treasure house of information. It is like Pompeii, a city built and then abandoned and forgotten. Indeed following his death the efforts to obliterate his memory were so successful that until the discovery of Amarna in the late 19th century, Akhenaten was virtually forgotten and it is only with the rediscovery of Amarna that his whole fantastic story has been reconstructed.
The new city
The new city was laid out along a road which inevitably had been named the Royal Road with a major ceremonial complex with suburbs to the north and south where people actually lived, but with an additional palace to the north where the pharaoh and his family lived.
The pharaoh then made regular processions along the Royal Road to the main palaces at the centre. He was always accompanied by his wife Nefertiti – which feminists should approve of! – and accompanied by his chief ministers running along beside him.
The central area had three parts: there was the main palace which lay on the western (river) side of the Royal Road, which is little known as much of it has been washed away by the river or by modern cultivation.
There was a bridge over the road so that the pharaoh could go direct into the heart of the administration. It led to a fairly grand house, which is surely the house of the Chief Minister, beyond which there was there was a jumble of rooms which were presumably the offices of the administration. The most interesting was the Foreign Office where a large part of the correspondence has survived. These are the famous Amarna Letters, discovered in 1887, consisting of over 300 clay tablets forming the correspondence of the pharaoh with various kings and the rulers in Mesopotamia and the Near East. They were written not in Egyptian hieroglyphs but in cuneiform writing in different languages — clearly the pharaohs had a staff of people who could understand these various languages. The letters form the crucial backbone of the history of the 14th century BC, not only of Egypt but also of much of the Near East, particularly the Mitanni and the Hittites: Biblical scholars are particularly interested in the Canaanites, and the Habiru – who may or may not be the Hebrews. Many of the letters were addressed to Akhenaten’s predecessor Amenhotep III and it is clear that when the capital was moved to Amarna, the documents came too. But whereas Egyptian documents were written mainly on papyrus and have thus perished, the Mesopotamian documents being written on clay tablets have survived.
Behind the offices were what appears to be the barracks for the police and stables for the horses, while to th south were the houses of the clerks. But the interesting area was to the north which was given over to cooking, where there are rows of ovens producing bread on an industrial scale, while to the rear was a cattle holding pen. Here we see a crucial insight into the working of Egyptian society: the production of bread and meat for feasts and offerings lay at the heart of how Egyptian society worked.
But the third and most important part of the complex was the great temple to the north, set within a huge ritual enclosure. The main temple is called the Long Temple because it is long and narrow consisting of six courtyards in all: three large open courtyards to the front and three smaller courtyards to the rear where the rituals actually took place. However the most interesting aspect are the numerous ritual tables, both set within the courtyards in the temple, and with rows and rows of them outside.
These survived merely as rectangular impressions in the ground, measuring 90 by 110 cms, but tomb paintings enable us to interpret these as being offering tables. These existed in crazy confusion, at least 791 inside the temple while outside to the south there were the bases for at least 920 more – those to the north have not survived. The tomb paintings suggest that these were piled high with offerings, mostly offerings of joints of meat, fowls and loaves of bread, while on top of them there were bowls of incense, smoking. There is no parallel for this mass of offering tables in other Egyptian temples. This is something unique to Amarna. Most temples instead had huge granaries and storehouses which tend to be ignored by visitors and archaeologists alike, but were an essential part of the temple, which we will see in the Ramaeseum. But at Amarna there are no granaries, just the offering tables. Barry Kemp has a chapter flippantly headed “Communal feasting or take away?” to discuss the dilemma as to whether the food was cooked and actually eaten in the enclosures. And by whom?
On either side of this central area were the suburbs where the people actually lived. Unlike the suburbs of the Middle Kingdom where the suburbs as at Kahun were laid out with great regularity, these suburbs appear to have been laid out higgledy pigglety with no central control. Was this because they were constructed in a great hurry? Or was it because the centre, (that is the pharaoh) was no longer exercising quite such a tight control and that to this extent the lives of the ordinary people were to some extent perhaps freer?
The main feature was the existence of a number of fairly grand houses each set within a walled enclosure. Often there was a grand entrance leading to a small temple, after which the path turned at right angles to go into the house itself with a number of grand rooms, with columns down the centre. However each of these grand houses was surrounded by a dense village of retainers – servants perhaps, even slaves but definitely dependent on the grand house.
The best known of these belonged to the sculptor Thutmose in whose house was discovered the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, taken by the German excavators to Berlin where it has become perhaps the best known of all Egyptian statues and the epitome of Egyptian beauty. But attached to his house was a “village” of sculptors with whom he was mass producing sculptures – a dozen of more busts were found in his workshop. In the same block in the main city (north) was the house of the general Ramose, again with its enclosure, its chapel and well adjacent, and a garden with trees inside it.
A mile to the east of the city were the tombs, set in the rock escarpment that forms the eastern boundary of the Nile plain. At the centre was a ravine in which the royal tomb were situated. Many of the tombs were partially decorated, but the decorations are often unfinished and it is possible that tombs were never used.
The completeness of the remains at Amana enable us to ask questions about where the industry was actually situated. Barry Kemp in his magisterial account of Amarna compares it with the medieval towns described in the classical account of the pre-industrial city written by the sociologist Gideon Sjoberg. In the Medieval city, guilds are strong and the different industries tend to be concentrated into the different quarters of that city. In Amarna however Barry Kemp has plotted the distribution of spindle whorls and other evidence for weaving and finds that it was distributed throughout the city, as indeed was the making of faience ( near glass) beads. Amarna was a city of industry, but it had not yet reached the stage where this industry was concentrated in a single quarter.
But Akhenaten did more than just found a new city. He introduced above all a new religion and a new art style. Let us consider this new religion, and this new art style, before looking at what happened next, when his reforms were all rejected, and Egypt began to recover from this traumatic, though to us fascinating interval.
12th May 2019