Religion and Art

Akhenaten’s religion


But what was this new religion?  The main feature is that it was a monotheism, based around just one god who was the sun god, who he called the Aten.  There had already been a sun god who was called Ra or Re who came originally from Heliopolis which lay to the north of Memphis and is today is in the northern suburbs of Cairo.  He was often combined with Horus, the falcon headed god and was called Re-Horakhty.  But in the New Kingdom he had begun to be combined with the Amun, the King of the gods in the form of Re-Amun, so in a way it was a small step to rename Re-Amun as the Aten and to declare that all other gods were nonexistent.

The god who caused particular trouble was Osiris, the god of the night.   In Egyptian religion, Re-Amun was king of the day, but when night fell, control was handed over to Osiris. That could not be allowed in the new religion, as the Aten was the only god, day and night, so Osiris had to be written out.

A similar consideration underlay the position of the tombs. Traditionally all tombs were on the west bank where the sun sets, and was therefore the place where life passed into death, but at Amarna burials were made on the eastern bank.  This decision was helped by practical consideration that the city was bounded to the east by a row of cliffs that were very suitable for burrowing into, and where there was a long ravine which could form a Valley of the Kings, where Akhenaten had a large tomb prepared.  But it seems that few of these tombs were actually occupied and were left only half decorated, though the carvings form a very valuable source of information about Amarna.

The new god was always portrayed as the solar disc with rays spreading out to touch Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti.  Sometimes the rays even had hands on the ends to do the touching. The Egyptians liked to have their gods in triads, that is father, mother, son; and the Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti formed a sort of triad.

The theology of the new religion is laid out in a text known as the’ Great Hymn to the Aten’ which is presumably composed by Akhenaten himself: several copies are preserved on the walls of tombs.   This begins with an emphasis on life rather than death:

The beatutiful Aten rises from the eastern horizon, and when it sets in the western horizon, darkness gathers and the land is silent. ‘ But the land grows bright when you rise from the horizon, trees and grasses flourish and you give life to the sun in his mother’s womb’. 

‘You are the sole god, you have created the earth, both the foreign countries and Egypt, and you create the inundation which nurses every field.  You are in my heart and no one knows you except your son, Akhenaten, and the great royal wife Nefertiti may she live and be young forever’.

The hymn had many similarities to hymns in the traditional religion, one might indeed say to all religions – particular similarities have been noted with Psalm 104.  (Man goeth forth unto his work and unto his labour until the evening.  Oh Lord how manifold are thy works!  The earth is full of thy riches).

Economically of course the new religion had great advantages. Since the pharaoh was the only link to the great Aten, there is no need for priests or temples, and therefore the priests were redundant and all the revenues that came to the temples could now go to the pharaoh. There is in fact little evidence as to how far this worked out, but it must have meant that when Akhenaten died there would have been an army of priests eager to reverse his innovations.

Some commentators have pointed out that in some respects it was rather a cold religion — in practice it was a pragmatic instrument of political control: there was  no text to tell us that he hears the cry of the poor, or that he succours the sick.

There was also an iconoclastic element; Nicholas Reeves even calls it a reign of terror with the destruction of previous monuments.  Queen Hatshepsut in particular suffers as her name was chipped out from her great mortuary temple.   And even the name of Amenhotep III, his father, was often defaced.  What is even more interesting is that this removal of the name of Amun even takes place among small objects: in boxes for eye make-up and commemorative scarabs the owners have ground out the offending signs of the old god’s name


Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Akhenaten’s revolution is that he not only changed the religion and the seat of government, but he also revolutionised art and architecture.  The portrayal of Akhenaten himself is very distinctive (the only other great figure of antiquity who is so instantly recognisable is the ugly Roman emperor Vespasian) with a long narrow elongated face petering out into a narrow chin.  He had large hollow eyes and sensuous lips, and his skull was distorted, bulging out to the back.  And where there is a full length sculpture of him he has a swollen stomach so that the kilt beneath it always seems to be in danger of falling down.  It has often been wondered whether these distortions in fact represent a true portrait of the pharaoh and that he had some disease that caused the grotesque distortions of the scull and the bulbous lips, but so far no disease has been found that correspond to these features.  The Froehlich Syndrome has been suggested, but this causes mental retardment and impotence, but since Akhenaten was clearly very bright and fathered at least six daughters with Nefertiti and at least one son, Tutankhamen with his second wife Kiya,  he clearly had no deficiency in either department.

But the art introduced a new naturalism with an emphasis on family life, with a famous portrait of the pharaoh kissing one of his daughters.  The language too changed and the great Hymn to the Aten was written not in the formal language of the hieroglyphs but in the demotic language of everyday speech.







The technicalities of the art and architecture also changed: a new form of carving was introduced in sunken relief, where the background is carved out of the stone leaving the figures to emerge from the background.  Also the building blocks became much smaller known as ‘talatat’, which may have been partly  the practical desire to produce a block that was more manoeuvrable, and partly because good building blocks were not available in this part of the Nile valley.









The famous bust of Nefertiti, often claimed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and a triumph of Akhenaten art. Her left eye is missing either by accident or because it was only meant to be seen from one side.

Akhenaten only reigned for fourteen years: the first four still at Thebes, and then the massive changes when he moved to the new capital all took place within ten years, which makes his achievement all the more impressive.  That meant however was that there was little time to turn his new ideas into normality and at his death, presumably at a fairly young age – still in his forties(?)he was succeeded by his only son, Tutankhamen, who was his son by Kiya, his second wife. He was a child at his succession, and lived only ten years until he died barely in his maturity.  However since he was so young he was under the control of his regents,  and during this time Amarna was abandoned and the capital moved back to Thebes, no doubt to the great relief of the establishment.







On to: Tutankhamun


18th May 2019