Amarna and Akhenaten

Amarna and Akhenaten

Amarna is situated halfway between the two great nodes of ancient Egypt – Memphis or modern Cairo to the north and Thebes or modern Luxor to the south.  In between them is Amarna.  Amarna is the town of the ‘Heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten who moved the court from Thebes to a new site at Amarna where a town rapidly sprang up in little more than seventeen years, and then after his death it was largely abandoned as the court moved back to Thebes.  Thus it has been left to archaeologists to discover and explore as an abandoned town.

When Egypt was originally unified around 3,100 BC, when the first dynasty began, the capital of the unified state was at Memphis in the north of the country, at the point where the Nile divides into its huge delta, near where Cairo lies today.  Memphis lies some ten miles south of Cairo, but it is little known because it has been mostly swallowed up by the alluvium of the Nile.  The main monuments are the great pyramids built on an escarpment out in the desert where they have miraculously survived – too large and too majestic to be destroyed.

But after surviving for nearly 1000 years, the pyramid age of the Old Kingdom was finally dissolved into what is known as the ‘intermediate period’, when Egypt was divided into several warring states.  Then around 2000 BC Egypt was once again united and in the ‘Middle Kingdom’, arts and literature flourished. But by 1600 this too gave way to what is known as the ‘second intermediate period’ when Egypt suffered its great disgrace of coming under the control of rulers from the North, the Hyksos, who established the great town of Avaris in the delta to the north.  The Hyksos kingdom probably had an important  effect in bringing new ideas and new blood to Egypt, but when Egypt once again became unified to form what is known as ‘the New Kingdom’ it became a more warlike state, extending its power both south beyond the first cataract into Nubia, and carrying out major campaigns to the north, in what is now Palestine and Syria, fighting the Canaanites, the Hittites and the Mitanni and creating a vassal power in the area known today as Palestine.

However the centre of the New Kingdom was not at Memphis but 450 miles further south at Thebes, or modern Luxor. Nearby Abydos had been the centre of pre-dynastic Egypt as we have already seen,  but in the New Kingdom the south once again began to dominate over its old rival at Memphis.  The early emperors of the New Kingdom, notably Tuthmoses II (1479-1425), were warrior kings, pushing their power to the north and defeating the Hittites.  A new burial place was established in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile to match the growing town on the east bank.

Amenhotep III, in the British Museum.

What is often considered to be the Golden Age was achieved under the pharaoh Amenhotep III (1391 – 1353) who, following on the military successes of his predecessors, was able to concentrate on beautifying towns everywhere and building new temples and palaces,  notably in Thebes itself, where he rebuilt the great Temple of Luxor – still often considered to be the finest and most majestic of all temples, while across the river he built a new Palace and harbour at Malkata, and set about building the biggest temple of all – though he built it too far down in the floodplain,  so little of it has survived apart from the  two huge colossal figures known as the Colossi of Memnon.

But it was his son and successor – who should have been Amenhotep IV, but who renamed himself Akhenaten, who decided to abandon the sparkling rebuilt town of  Thebes and move his capital a hundred miles further north to Amarna.  The reasons for the move are complex and controversial. Most attention is paid to the idea of a new religion. Akhenaten introduced a religious upheaval in which he abandoned the old Gods and instead proposed the worship of a new God, the sun god Aten, and in his many sculptures he is seen basking in the rays of the sun god. It is easy to exaggerate the new religion and to see him as a forerunner of monotheism and thus of Christianity, but the worship of Amun had been increasing for some time, as Amun was to some extent the local God who was champion against Ra, the God of Memphis. But the move was very unpopular with the priests who lost their power and influence – and also their temples, which  had become very rich with the produce of their landholding and at least part of his intention may have been to weaken if not destroy the rival power of the priesthood.

Statue of Akhenaten

He also introduced a new art style with long elongated faces. The famous example is a statue of Akhenaten himself, though it should be noted that it was found not at Amarna but at Thebes, and it probably dates to the early part of his reign, before he had moved the capital to Amarna. Later statues appear to have calmed down a little bit and became more normal. People sometimes wonder whether he had some strange facial deformity, but perhaps it was merely to demonstrate that he had strange, perhaps messianic personality

One recent theory points to problems that appear to have arisen at the end of the ‘golden age’ of his predecessor and father Amenhopis, and wonder whether there might not have been an outbreak of disease, plague perhaps which had ravaged the old town of Thebes and encouraged the idea of a move to a new plague-free locality.

But whatever the reason, his move to Amarna was not a success. He died after a reign of 17 years and was succeeded by the insignificant pharaoh Smenkhkare when the capital was moved back to Thebes: He was succeeded by the even more insignificant Tutankhamun, who ruled from Thebes, and who was eventually buried in a very insignificant tomb in the Valley of the Kings where even the entrance was soon lost and covered up – only to be rediscovered in 1923, making him ironically the best-known pharaoh of all.

What was it like this new town that he erected in an un-somewhat unpropitious strip of the River Nile?


On to the Temples